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Lessons in Living from Great-Grandma Ladd

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From the first glance, she evoked the quiet self-reliance and rectitude that imbued the spirit of the American pioneer. She favored long homemade dresses of faded, flowered print. Tall for her generation, and thin and angular to the point of gauntness, she often looked sober but not severe, although at times a slight smile creased her face. She outlived two husbands and two of her three children. In her eighties she continued to ride the little train we called the Red Electric down into the Willamette Valley, where she camped out and picked hops and beans to supplement the sparse income she made from her little chicken farm. “Farm” considerably overstates the fact; my Great-Grandma Ladd lived in a tiny house resting on no more than two acres of scrub and trees. My primary remembrance of her home survives the years — the memory of her kitchen floor slanting at least a foot from one side to the other.

Born in rural Iowa just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Great-Grandma Ladd was barely out of her teens when she married George Robinson, a restless Virginian ten years her senior. The newlyweds loaded up a wagon and trundled across the plains and mountains to a new life in Oregon.

They resided in Scholls, where Olive Adele was born, then variously in Albina and Hillsboro and other sectors of what now make up metropolitan Portland, where Claude and Eunice came into the world.

For all his restlessness, George Robinson was a hard worker who plied the tanner’s trade, and he provided so well for his family that they were able to send Eunice away to board at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland.

Tragedy fractured the idyll. At age 14 Eunice died suddenly at St, Mary’s from diphtheria, a disease that has all but disappeared, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and relatively unfettered pharmaceutical research in the early twentieth century. Her demise so afflicted George — in the fashion of the day, she was “the apple of his eye” — that he expired a year later, “of a broken heart” the neighbors said. Claude became a printer, endured an unhappy marriage and unpleasant separation, and also died young, from exposure to the toxins associated with his occupation.

Great-Grandma Ladd just kept going in the face of tribulation, sadness, and adversity. Although George left her “tolerably well fixed,” she soon moved to Portland and opened a boarding house.

When one of her boarders, London-born Alfred Ladd, asked her to marry him, she accepted. Mr. Ladd was well read and erudite, but he never seemed able to find and maintain gainful employment; he clearly preferred his books to hard labor.

Soon he went through the provisions George had left for his family. Consequently, Great-Grandma Ladd had to provide for the couple, a task she accomplished without complaint through prudence and frugality.

When Mr. Ladd died in the middle of the Great Depression, Great-Grandma was alone and on her own once again, raising chickens and selling them and their eggs, and picking crops in season. Her bachelor brother, Sam Baker, walked the six or eight miles from his little farm to her home every Sunday noon for dinner. Her surviving daughter and son-in-law, Albert, also visited occasionally on Sundays, but they resembled George in their restlessness, moving from place to place and residing variously throughout the Pacific Northwest.

One could depict this life as difficult and sorrowful. Great-Grandma Ladd did no such thing. Her neighbors remembered her as a quiet, pleasant woman, a friend to all who came her way and trustful in her God. She baked the best strawberry pies in the county, and colorful flowers adorned the shack she called her home. I am certain she wept appropriately, mourned her losses, and disliked her misfortunes but, as a modern teen might say, she “just kept on trucking.”

She asked no one for a hand or a handout. She expressed no sense of entitlement. She most certainly did not consider herself a victim to be pitied and plied with favors extorted from others. She did not expect — and would never accept — that someone else should improve her little house, purchase groceries for her, or repair her tattered dreams.

She met life head-on and wrestled whatever devils confronted her. She consulted her first doctor three days before she died, when she entered a hospital for the first time in her long life. At death she owed no debts and bequeathed few worldly goods. She left one daughter, two grandchildren, and two great-grandsons, one of whom she never was permitted to visit.

She lies next to George and Eunice on a hillside in an untended pioneer cemetery overrun by weeds and brush, a resting place now surrounded by a burgeoning city peopled by folks who make and use marvelous devices of which she could not conceive. A single living soul remembers her now, and soon she may reside with the nameless good people across the centuries celebrated in Ecclesiasticus.
The lessons I learned

A life well lived may manifest a variety of lessons. In the ordinary course, each one of us will perceive discretely and individually, and glean meaning from, that life fashioned by his personal experience, comprehension, insight, and judgment.

From my Great-Grandma Ladd I learn that the world does not owe me — or anyone else — a living, and that I am not entitled to implore or coerce anyone else to carry my burden, no matter how weighty and oppressive it may appear to me.

As a human being, I am entitled to the dignity that accompanies choice, but I am compelled to live with the consequences of my choices and not to shunt unwanted results onto the shoulders or into the pockets of someone else.

In other words, I am entitled to live a free life and nothing more, and I am bound to bear the responsibilities that accompany that freedom.

Almost all persons encounter tragedy and sorrow. Things happen. On occasion very bad and unpleasant things happen, and life may seem needlessly unjust and unfair. Hurricanes and tornadoes, fire and drought wipe out lives, decimate properties, and demolish dreams. Evil people maim and murder innocent souls. Disease strikes down good people before their time. Most of us sympathize with the distressed. Many of us help them voluntarily, in true American fashion. Life goes forward, albeit in a changed form.

I contrast Great-Grandma Ladd with many persons who have suffered from recent calamities. Today I perceive in myriad persons a retreat into a victim mentality, a participation in shifting blame to those who did not cause or contribute to their harm and, above all, a sense of absolute entitlement to override the rights of the more fortunate and steal their property to assuage the putative victim’s real or perceived loss.

My great-grandmother would have none of that nonsense. While some of her losses dwarfed those encountered today, she played not the victim’s role, demanded nothing from society or its members, and lived her quiet life with principle, honor, and integrity.

This article originally appeared in the May 2006 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Ridgway K. (Dick) Foley Jr., an appellate litigator, practices law in Oregon and resides in Southern Arizona.