There are advantages and disadvantages to coming from a large family. Make that a large family with a single parent, and they double. The disadvantages are never so apparent as when someone wants to go off to college. Parents have cashed in life insurance policies to cover the cost of one year.
My mother knew that she could not send me to college and pay for it. She worked in a retail store and made just enough to pay the bills and take care of the other children at home. If I wanted to go to college, it was up to me to find out how to get there.
I found that I qualified for some grants because of the size of our family, my mom”s income and my SAT scores. There was enough to cover school and books, but not enough for room and board. I accepted a job as part of a work-study program. While not glamorous, it was one I could do. I washed dishes in the school cafeteria.
To help myself study, I made flash cards that fit perfectly on the large metal dishwasher. After I loaded the racks, I stood there and flipped cards, learning the makeup of atoms while water and steam broke them down all around me. I learned how to make y equal to z while placing dishes in stacks. My wrinkled fingers flipped many a card, and many times my tired brain drifted off, and a glass would crash to the floor. My grades went up and down. It was the hardest work I had ever done.
Just when I thought the bottom was going to drop out of my college career, an angel appeared. Well, one of those that are on earth, without wings.
“I heard that you need some help,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to figure out which area of my life he meant.
“Financially, to stay in school.”
“Well, I make it okay. I just have trouble working all these hours and finding time to study.”
“Well, I think I have a way to help you out.”
He went on to explain that his grandparents needed help on the weekends. All that was required of me was cooking meals and helping them get in and out of bed in the morning and evening. The job paid four hundred dollars a month, twice the money I was making washing dishes. Now I would have time to study. I went to meet his grandparents and accepted the job.
My first discovery was his grandmother”s great love of music. She spent hours playing her old, off-key piano. One day, she told me I didn”t have enough fun in my life and 11)took it upon herself to teach me the art.
Grandma was impressed with my ability and encouraged me to continue. Weekends in their house became more than just books and cooking; they were filled with the wonderful sounds of the out-of-tune piano and two very out-of-tune singers.
When Christmas break came, Grandma got a chest cold, and I was afraid to leave her. I hadn”t been home since Labor Day, and my family was anxious to see me. I agreed to come home, but for two weeks instead of four, so I could return to Grandma and Grandpa. I said my good-byes, arranged for their temporary care and return home.
As I was loading my car to go back to school, the phone rang.
“Daneen, don”t rush back,” he said.
“Why? What”s wrong?” I asked, panic rising.
“Grandma died last night, and we have decided to put Grandpa in a retirement home. I’m sorry.”
I hung up the phone feeling like my world had ended. I had lost my friend, and that was far worse than knowing I would have to return to dishwashing.
I went back at the end of four weeks, asking to begin the work-study program again. The financial aid advisor looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I explained my position, then he smiled and slid me an envelope. “This is for you,” he said.
It was from grandma. She had known how sick she was. In the envelope was enough money to pay for the rest of my school year and a request that I take piano lessons in her memory.
I don’t think “The Old Grey Mare” was even played with more feeling than it was my second year in college. Now, years later, when I walk by a piano, I smile and think of Grandma. She is tearing up the ivories in heaven, I am sure.