When I was a kid, my parents always took care of an elderly, retired farmer named John. He was a bachelor that lived in the same farmhouse he grew up in. My dad rented John's farm so we always kept an eye on him, invited him to our holiday functions, and took him to doctor appointments, etc.
About the same time, my aunt and uncle lived next door to an older lady who never married and never learned how to drive. Her name was Phyllis and after her mom died, my aunt and uncle (as well as my folks) began to take her to various places beginning with church, since we all went to the same church.
Now cynics may say the only reason we took care of John was because he was a farm landlord to us, but really it was much more than that. Both of my grandfathers passed away by the time I was six years old so old John was almost an adopted grandpa to me.
Whenever we went to his house, he always treated us with slightly stale Vanilla Wafer cookies. At Halloween, my folks would take me and my two sisters to John's house, and he would always give us small bags of candy corn -- very fitting for a lifelong farmer.
John was a John Deere farmer like us, and he had a late 1930s unstyled B and a 1950 A. He had to stop farming in the mid-1970s, because the tractors had no power steering and he didn't have the strength to steer them anymore.
By the mid-1980s, John's health had gotten to the point he couldn't live in the only house he had ever lived in, so they had to move him to the local nursing home. It really struck me when he was in the home how much he depended on us just to function.
John's health got worse. He passed away in May 1989 when he was well into 80s. He passed away about the same time as another elderly, bachelor farmer who was his good friend/neighbor, and I thought that was very fitting.
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My last grandma passed away between Christmas and New Year's at the end of 1989. Much like John had been an adopted grandpa to us, Phyllis had become an adopted grandma to me, my two sisters and my twin cousins whose parents were taking care of her.
My aunt and uncle got divorced in the early 1990s, but my aunt continued to live next to her and take to her to work, church, the grocery store and to various family functions. Phyllis ended up working at the nursing home in housekeeping well into her 70s -- she was probably older than some of the residents there.
During the last 15 to 20 years, she enjoyed retirement and did some traveling with my aunt. One of my cousins lives in Arizona and Phyllis and my aunt liked to go visit him and his wife there.
She also liked to spend time with her adopted "great-grandchildren" once some of us starting having babies. Like I said, she was never married and never had children herself, but boy, did she like playing with our kids.
Old ladies and babies must be a natural attraction.
Phyllis's health declined over the last couple of years as she neared 90 years, so they sold her house and moved her to a local assisted living facility. Although she was not very excited about this arrangement at first, she ended up loving living there, and enjoyed interacting with the various residents, some she knew before moving in and others who became new friends.
We celebrated her 90th birthday with a party at the facility on a cold Sunday in Feb. 2015. Only one of my actual grandparents even made it to age 80, so having a "grandparent" live to 90 was something we all enjoyed very much.
Phyllis passed away in early November 2016 after a very short illness.
Before her funeral, I visited with our parish priest, who was recently assigned to our church. He probably never met her, but I wanted him to know how much we thought of Phyllis, even though she was not related to us by blood.
To my surprise, he used some of our conversation in his discussion about her during the Mass. He talked about serving and how nice it was we took care of her, and in a way, she also took care of us, serving as our adopted mom/grandma/great-grandma.
Family can be more than just blood relatives just as both John and Phyllis were a big part of our family. As you sit down with your family and maybe even a few adopted grandparents this holiday season, really enjoy your time together.
Maybe you will even have some Vanilla Wafers or a handful of candy corn.
I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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