by Adrienne Corn
Hanging on the outside wall next to the two car garage which was attached to a pale blue, rambling house that sat along a quiet street with a large yard and ample room on the back lawn for a badminton court and a garden that grew summer lettuce and basil, was a plain, white metal rectangular mailbox with a hinged lid decorated with a single, white sticker on the front of it that in clean, black letters simply read:
“No farms, No food.”
Long before blogs or Facebook, it was my Grandma’s very personal post to the world, reminding us that farmers and agriculture are the bedrock of survival in a land of plenty. And for a girl who grew up on the fertile Illinois soil racing her black tailed, buckskin horse named Cricket across fields toward a one room schoolhouse in the mornings, because her farmer of a father encouraged his two independent daughters toward learning and careers, the land was what her family knew.
Heirloom seeds are aptly named because they are grown for their specific traits and passed down from one generation to another. Long before hybrid seeds and the brouhaha over old Monsanto’s choice for genetic modification of seeds, and even before my Grandma married a man and took his last name which would become our family name and would reflect our relationship with the land, Great Grandpa Barger worked his farm and on the side sold produce out of the back of his work truck, one crate at a time. He was so good at moving produce that one day a fellow approached him about starting a new venture they were calling a grocers association–what many now know as IGA’s. Although Great Grandpa didn’t quite catch that vision and passed up that opportunity, the kernels of independent thinking, of living a life one chooses for oneself were seeded into his daughter, my Grandma. Today, our family bears not only that trait but the name of one of the bedrock crops of the American farm–and the American economy: Corn.
My Grandma was born in 1918, the year the first Great War ended. A daughter of the Progressive Era of America’s history, she worked through and watched just shy of 100 years of progress. Her lifetime saw the diverse development of everyday things that we take for granted: traffic signals, ball point pens, helicopters and penicillin. During her life, Grandma seemed to embrace this new, modern era. In 2001, I met my husband on a website called Kiss.com (before all the kids were doing it). When my Grandma found out that I met him on the computer using the internet, she thought it was very modern. Novel. But she was VERY impressed with the process once she saw that it had snagged me my own farmer’s son, albeit from the Canadian, rather than American, prairies. Grandma always liked a strong, attractive farm boy, and she loved flirting with him. At some point I would usually say, half jokingly, “Grandma, stop flirting with my husband!” And she would just laugh and squeeze his arm.
Still, this woman who was surrounded by men–married twice and had four boys—was
never defined by them. Born one year before Congress passed the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, Grandma Twila was her own force of nature and embodied the era of women’s independence with her own grace. Grandma drove all over the country in whatever new car she had purchased that year. When I graduated from high school, she drove hours to our house for my graduation and then took me out to dinner after the ceremony. The next day, we got in her car and drove across the midwest to Washington, DC, to visit one of her sons and explore the city that houses our country’s seat of power. Grandma took every advantage of being free—her automobiles giving her the freedom she had once found in racing her horse across fields and farms.
For my Grandma, second only to working the land was the importance of education. Unlike other young women who stayed at home until they found a husband, Grandma earned her teaching certificate, found a job and THEN a husband. She birthed two sons to that husband whom she sent off to the second World War (and later divorced before Women’s Lib of the 1960’s made it socially acceptable). She met her second husband, my Grandpa Corn, and gave birth to two more sons. Eventually, she sent all four of her sons on to college. But she didn’t stop there: she finished her own college degree, earned her Masters degree in education and ended up teaching (full and part time) for 60 years.
When I was in my late twenties (and Grandma in her late 70’s) she told me I should get my PhD, even after I protested: “but Grandma, I’m making more money than all of my PhD relatives!” It didn’t matter, she said. Education was the only thing that would hold up. And so, a few years later, I started my own PhD program. A few years after that, I became one of several Dr. Corn’s. In our family today, we have 8 Ph.D.’s, 2 JD’s and I’m not even counting the ABD’s (all but dissertations) and many masters degrees.
Buying her blue house after her second divorce, Grandma lived alone—although she never seemed lonely. Perhaps of utmost value to Grandma was her family. She made those she loved her priority, often driving long distances to visit her sons and her grandchildren for birthdays or holidays if they weren’t already at her house. While Grandma outlived both her parents and her sister, her life was tightly intertwined with theirs, the close bond they had reflected in the subsequent generations which were more like siblings than cousins. She was surrounded by former students and friends who would often stop by for a chat, maybe a quick card game or to pick some overly abundant vegetables from the garden. Sometimes she rented her basement apartment to college students like the must-have-been twentysomething guy with dark hair, a deeply golden tan (and an aversion to shirts) who, when me and my sister visited her at the tender ages of 7 and 11, made us giddy to spy leaving or returning, always hoping for a reason he might want to join us for a game of backyard badminton. She never married a third time, but Grandma would sometimes mention—somewhat dismissively—that an older gentleman at church wanted to take her to dinner.
And she had hobbies, like bowling. When Grandma finally left her blue house to move into a senior living home, the family gathered and sorted through those things that we wanted to keep; pieces that would remind us of her. I rummaged through the bottom of the front hall closet, remembering that that had been the location of childhood games when I was young. But what I found there surprised me: a bowling bag, with Grandma’s bowling ball in it.
Engraved with her name, the swirly, two toned, cream-and-purple ball reminded me that my Grandma loved to have fun. It was only later that I noticed the tag attached to the bag–a tag for the 1975 Women’s National Championships held in Indianapolis, Indiana. My Grandma didn’t just like to have fun, she liked to win—(ask anyone who played dominoes with her)! As she got older, Grandma didn’t slow down, but took her love of fun and freedom to a whole new level and began traveling the world: from London to Costa Rica, Grandma even made it to the Alps to climb the Matterhorn in her early seventies.
Grandma Twila wasn’t a storybook grandma: sitting at home in a rocking chair or baking cookies and wearing an apron (although she could knit a mean pair of slippers). She was BETTER. My Grandma was a pioneer: a woman who, through her own life well lived, forged an early vision in my head and heart of what I could and would aspire to be: educated, successful, an influencer and a lover of family and friends alike; all the while being a gracious and graceful woman, embracing the now, living free, yet still rooted in the values that came from being a part of a solid, midwestern American farm family.