Grandma died 30 years ago

25 Jun

When I left to join the Peace Corps, I had three living grandparents. I had one living grandfather; my two grandmothers were both alive and lived in my home town.  My grandmother Margaret  Van Zandt was the one I was worried about.  She had suffered from various ailments for several years and was now living in my parents’ home.  As I left on my two-year adventure as a Peace Corps volunteer, I wondered whether I would see her again? My other grandparents were in reasonably good health so I worried a bit less about them.

20150607_085724 Margaret Van Zandt

Here Margaret is dressed in a period gown to participate the New Freedom, PA Centennial in 1973

Grandma Van Zandt was remembered as lively and lovely.  I remember going through her Flapper days scrapbook in my parent’s basement.  There were lots of Dance Cards, with the little pencils attached by string, posted in the scrapbook. She enjoyed the Roaring 20s.

20150607_120817 Margaret Chichester age 16 in 1918 v2 -8 Black and White - Cropped

Surprisingly, Margaret wore a similar dress in 1918 when she sat for this portrait at age 16.

Margaret was on the New York state girls high school championship basketball team. I found this remarkable since she was only 5’2″. She attended Temple University and was known for her ability to “skinny down the rain pipe” from her dorm room at night to enjoy adventures in Philadelphia. She graduated, so perhaps it was not all adventures.

During World War II Margaret was the American Red Cross chairman for the hamlet of Pearl River, New York. She logged hundreds of hours volunteering. She led a cadre of volunteers in rolling bandages, knitting sweaters and preparing supplies to support our troops overseas.  Later in life she became a nurse.

One of my most prized possessions is Grandma’s Shadow Box with treasured possessions that were proudly displayed in her bedroom.  Prominent among her mementos are some of her Red Cross insignia and awards along with some of her nursing pins.


I remember visiting Grandma in Pearl River.  There was the toy room, with old toys from my mother’s childhood.  There was tiny side room with the old TV and the lounge sofa chair. There was the mysterious basement with the old bottles.  The silver cigarette box in the living room was used to hold playing cards. Up the wooden staircase were several bedrooms. My favorite was the smallest at the end of the hall.  I slept there with my older brother in a narrow bed with a half-sized pillow and an old purple comforter.

My three brothers and I were not allowed to explore the empty lot next door. It was overgrown with trees and bushes.  My grandmother talked of the danger of falling into one of the old wells.  We still felt compelled to do a bit of exploring down the overgrown path and felt very brave to come back out of the woods alive.  My dad mowed the lawn with an old push mower of unknown age.  There was a swing set. Perhaps my mom and her sister swung on that swing.

There were many great memories.  My three, then later my four,  and finally my nine first cousins would occasionally join us at Grandma’s house to celebrate the holidays. This was great fun for us. Entertaining, housing and feeding thirteen grandchildren was perhaps a bit of logistical challenge from Grandma. There was one sad memory. Our first dog Apples wandered off one day from the backyard at Grandma’s house and never came back.

I preserved a few of my memories of Grandma’s home and her yard by digging them up and planted them in my parents’ yard.  The striped hostas I transplanted flourished for years in their front garden.  The one foot high Norway Maple sapling that I carried home, is now a ninety foot high mature tree shading my parents’ gazebo in their backyard. This despite the fact that it was run over at least once with a lawn mower, but that is a different story.

At age 65 my  grandmother told me she did not have a  lot to live for.  Her friends were starting to die and she missed us when we were gone. I worried about Grandma. I was happy when she later moved to my small hometown. At age 81 Grandma was now living in my parents’ home as I was preparing to depart for my Peace Corps service in Barbados.  I was sad to say goodbye. However, Grandma was resilient. I was very happy to greet her when I returned home three years later.  She had out lived all of my other grandparents.  Though she was frail and living in a nursing home she was able to join us as we celebrated a family reunion the weekend I returned from Barbados. She was the last of her generation.

I had ten more months of bonus time with Grandma. I enjoyed visiting with her and asking about the stories that only she now knew.

Years later I joined the staff of the American Red Cross to work in the National Office of Volunteers.  I also worked with the chief nurse of the American Red Cross. I often thought of Grandma. Late one night I went to search for Grandma in the Red Cross files of Registered Nurses who had served in the American Red Cross, but I did not find her. I often wondered about Grandma’s impact. How many men and women’s lives did she touch directly or indirectly during her many years of nursing and Red Cross service. I am very proud of her legacy.  Do I volunteer because my grandmother and later her daughter, my mom, volunteered?

I treasure the stories that Grandma shared. As a personal historian I treasure being able to help people record and share their life stories with their loved ones.  It has been 30 years Grandma since we said goodbye.  We still miss you.

20150607_120940 Margaret Chichester age 16 in 1918-4 close cropped


You don’t have to be famous to have family stories that need to be recorded and shared.  I was reminded of this by a recent blog by a colleague

See also How many reasons do you need – to write your life story?

Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales.  He is also a board member and the Regions Director for the Association of Personal Historians


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