Grandma Cora Pheifer (1908-2006)

Erin’s paternal grandmother was a formidable lady.

I first met her almost ten years ago, I’m not sure when: possibly when I met my future father-in-law for the first time. She was a quintessential prairie lady, confident, firm in voice. She didn’t have that twang I had expected from women who’d lived all her life on a farm, but she had that attitude. She’d seen a lot in life, and she knew where things stood between us. I was the young whippersnapper. But she accepted me.

Cora Pheifer was the only individual I knew at the time who had lived through the Great Depression, and she lived through the worst part of it, in the prairie dustbowls. Through that time, she raised a family of six, with a husband who was diagnosed with a fatal kidney condition and given six months to live. He lived twenty years.

Erin tells me a story she heard from her: that she’d accepted relief work from F.D.R.’s administration to help feed her family. During a plague of grasshoppers, she had a job canning string-beans, and she confesses taking one of those cans of string-beans home, opening the can to find a grasshopper right on top.

Well, she said, at least that was one less grasshopper eating through the crops.

Cora Pheifer lived independently into her nineties, inside her family home in Platte, South Dakota. She got tires with a 10-year warantee for her 90th birthday. Just two years ago she began to be too forgetful — pots on the stove, and like that — to live alone, and finally moved to an assisted-care facility downtown. But she would still walk the mile to church if no one turned up to pick her up when she thought it was time to go.

She canned her own food, and when the time came for her to move into assisted living, more than 300 cans of food had to be removed from the home. She quilted — made old clothing into workhorse quilts, choosing dresses and suits from the 70s for their colour and wear — and reckoned she had made a couple of hundred over the years. She was a wicked Scrabble player, and would sometimes play against herself in order to see how many points, in total, she could wrack up on the board. Certainly she cleaned my clock.

She was also deeply religious. We said grace at the beginning of a snack she prepared for us during a visit — and we said grace at the end of it. She was an ardent creationist, which put her somewhat at odds with Erin’s physics background, but she told me flat out the first time I met her: she firmly believed that the world was created in seven days, but she was willing to negotiate on the actual length of those days. Erin saw a lot of herself in that woman.

Truth was, we were in awe of her. She was two hundred pounds of resilience packed into 100 pounds of wire and muscle. Her life was hard, but I think she’d call it blessed. She buried her brothers and sisters, two loving husbands, a son, and five grandchildren — but she had 60 odd living descendants, and she was a big part of the reason they were all here.

Tonight, I learned that Cora Pheifer died at the nursing home she resided in, due simply to old age: she was 98. We knew that this was coming for some time; she broke a hip a couple months ago and went downhill. The last few months have been hard and her death was hard, too. It is no tragedy for one to live so long in the company of friends and family, but it is still a sad to see her pass.

Last Christmas, I noted after Grandma Pheifer had a chance to meet Vivian — then, her newest great-granddaughter — that if Vivian got to live as long as her great-grandmother, the year would be 2102.

We all would be lucky to live a life half as long, half as full.

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