Elaine means "shining light." In two words, that was my grandmother. Even in her earliest photographs, she is recognizable because of her radiant smile. She took her last breath in front of me at the age of 81, on December 13, 2010.
Elaine was indeed a shining light. She was born on Christmas Day, December 25, 1928 in Dunning, Nebraska. She began her life-long love for language at Brewster Public School where she was the editor of her school yearbook.
She graduated from Brewster Public School with my grandfather, Eldon, her high school sweetheart. Believing they were too young to marry, Elaine's parents sent her to college in Denver, Colorado, while Eldon was sent to barbers' school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Although the 500 miles between them would be enough to separate most couples, Eldon and Elaine were married in Brewster on November 16, 1947.
Two years later, my mother, Claire, was born. Since Claire contracted scarlet fever, she had to remain in the hospital. Elaine's small stature allowed her to crawl into the crib with Claire and hold her until she could come home to Brewster.
Over the next 13 years, Elaine and Eldon added four boys to the family: Jay, Donald, Mark, and Glen. Life on the ranch in Brewster was quite different for Elaine and Eldon than their upbringings. Although they both grew up on ranches outside of Brewster, they were both only children and had a houseful of mischievous children.
My Grandparents Wedding
Elaine returned to her higher education the same year that Claire enrolled in college. Driving two hours one way to college most days, she eventually earned her teaching degree at Kearney State College, now the University of Nebraska Kearney. She taught for three years in Mullen, Nebraska, bringing her two youngest boys with her. A former student said of her over thirty years later, "Every student should have one teacher who cares for them and changes their whole life. For me, that was Mrs. Martindale."
In 1969, Elaine and Eldon moved their family out of the Sandhills to Elm Creek, Nebraska. Elaine continued her education, receiving a masters degree in library science.
The mid-1970s were difficult for everyone in the Martindale family. Their third child, Donald was killed in a car accident. Jay, Eldon and Elaine's second-eldest nearly died and was in a coma after he was thrown from a horse. Although Jay recovered, the trauma of losing a child and nearly losing another could have destroyed any mother, however, Elaine and her family persevered. Elaine never lost that smile.
Elaine and Eldon
The mid-1970s and 1980s were also filled with joy for Elaine. She became a grandmother, eventually with five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The day she died, I told her she would be a great-grandmother again, that I was pregnant.
Elaine loved to learn and loved to teach. She taught the adult Bible study group at the Elm Creek Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she was a member. In her spare time, Elaine also volunteered teaching adults to read.
In 1988, Elaine's life changed. After 60 years of independence, a catastrophic stroke following a quadruple heart bypass left her paralyzed on her right side and with limited verbal communication skills. Even figuring out how to say simple words became a challenge. After physical therapy at Madonna Rehabilitation Clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, she moved home to begin her last teaching assignment: teaching herself to communicate with few words and lots of gestures and teaching others how to live with dignity and grace when so dependent on others.
For the next 19 years, my grandfather was her sole caregiver. Instead of becoming bitter and angry about her paralysis, she stayed radiant. I cannot imagine the frustration she must have experienced from losing her job at Educational Service Unit 10, where she had worked for 15 years as the director of media, her license, and her ability to communicate with most others. Eldon quit his job and learned to cook, clean, and care for his wife. They flirted with each other all of the time. Elaine gardened as much as possible from a wheelchair and began painting again, this time with her left hand, though she was right-handed.
In the spring of 2006, Eldon was diagnosed with terminal colon and liver cancer. Elaine stayed in a nursing home during the six weeks he was at home on hospice. As she watched her husband die she was unable to care for him like he had so gently for her. Elaine again put her shoulders back and was with him every day and did not let him see her cry. Elaine gave Eldon one last gift: although she had not walked up stairs in years, she mustered up all her strength to walk up the back steps, showing him through his bedroom door that she would be okay if he died.
Elaine and Alvin
After Eldon died, she lost her house, most of her things, and her life in Elm Creek. Because she could do so few things independently and her extensive health conditions, Elaine's children had to move her into a nursing home. Unlike many widows who lose a spouse late in life, Elaine continued to live. She befriended another resident in the facility and they became very close. In the fall of 2009, Elaine and Alvin informed Claire that they wanted to marry. Because of Medicaid laws, Claire learned that Elaine and Alvin could not be legally wed. Instead Elaine and Alvin had a commitment service at the end of 2009 and exchanged rings.
Elaine died peacefully in the early hours of December 13, 2010 at Phelps Memorial Hosptial, after being admitted only 18 hours earlier. After reviewing her blood tests, her doctor said it was a miracle that she lived at all with the severity of her heart failure. I believe that even when her body was failing, she did not know how to give up.
My grandmother was my hero. It has been just over a month since she passed. She somehow was the grandma who I could cook with and who would read to me, but who also was a stylish career woman. When I was a little girl I would pack my bag and run away to her house. Throughout my adolescence and teen years, my grandparents were a sanctuary; they took me to church camp, drove me to Bible studies where I was later baptized, and were always willing to take me in when my life was getting too difficult.
As grandma aged, I stepped into the role of fill-in caregiver. I was the one who helped her undress at night when my grandfather was dying. My mother and I drove her to the nursing home every night while my uncles stayed with my grandpa. I helped explain to both of them what would happen to his body as he died.
Now I am a mother, like she was; I have one child, with another growing inside of me. I am an only child. I share her faith and chose a career teaching English to high school students like she did. Grandma Elaine showed me how to live, how to raise a family and still have a career of my own someday. Though my name is from hers, I don't think I can live up to the example she set for me. My hope is that I can be a shining light through whatever comes my way, the way that she was.