She was born in 1927. She’s a farmer’s daughter who grew up raising chickens and cows. She received her youth education at a small, country school house. She grew up, married, had five children, and was an advocate for the care and socialization of her community’s senior citizens until she became one herself. She has six grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and dozens of people in the community who call her “Mom.” Throughout her life, she has loved, lost dearly, and still endures even when everyone is sure she won’t. She is my namesake. She is my Grandma.
Dorothy Jean Colaw Stephenson Shepherd, grew up on the Colaw family farm in Blue Grass, Virginia, with her brothers and sisters, her loving “Pa” and “Mother,” and all kinds of farm animals that gave them most everything they needed to survive: milk, cheese, eggs, and meat.
When Highland County, where Blue Grass is located, turned 100 years old, she was one of her community’s Centennial princesses. In high school, she was a member of the girl’s basketball team, a squad that played in skirts outside on a dirt court. After those games, when she was lucky enough to possess a quarter, she would consider it a special treat to purchase a soda at the store on the walk home, and she would enjoy and appreciate every sugary drop.
My Grandma is MAGICAL in every sense of the word.
She grew up, married my grandfather, raised five kids including my father, and is now the matriarch of her family, which is the thing she treasures most in her life. She projects the fiercest love for family I have ever experienced in my life, and that love molded the deep and strong appreciation my cousins and I have for our bond.
Not only is Grandma our family matriarch, she’s considered a mother-figure by many in the community. She visits the local restaurants multiple times daily to have coffee, grab a bite to eat, and just get out of the house. When I’m lucky enough to join her, I see a mishmash of people stop at her celebrity-status table to say “Hi,” see how she’s doing, and give her a hug. As I mentioned, some people even call her “Mom,” which makes her beam with joy and pride. She is the most loving woman I have ever known next to my own mother, and Grandma considers most everyone her “very good friend” even when she can’t quite recall their name. (At 90-couple, my memory would be struggling, too.)
And when I say “a fierce love for family,” I mean it. If someone messes with her kids, this wholesome, virtuous, little lady will turn into the most vicious, stern, firecracker you’ve ever had the misfortune of facing. (I’m not even joking a little bit.) She has no problem putting anyone acting like an “ole buzzard” in their place and will not bat an eyelash when she does it. (In other words, don’t mess with us, or we’ll sick our Grandma on you!)
Grandma is strong… much stronger than she sometimes gets credit for. There have been tragedies she and our family have experienced – the loss of her siblings, her son, and her great-granddaughter – and each time tragedy struck, someone always reacted the same way: “This is going to kill her. She’s not going to survive this.” And guess what? She does. She may be small and very mature in age, but weak, she is not.
My grandmother has suffered from severe anxiety and depression multiple times throughout her life probably before the world even knew the condition could be treated and definitely before anyone considered it an illness. This alone is a monumental testament to her courage and strength. She, alone, developed the coping mechanisms needed to build herself up (or at minimal, sustain herself) when she’s at her lowest.
At around 90-years-old, she suffered a stroke. (That time, I was the guilty one saying she wouldn’t make it. I, like others before me, was wrong.) The stroke caused her to have scary hallucinations – netting surrounded her, snakes, bugs, and other scary things, but she held strong. Lucky for her, she knew those hallucinations weren’t actually real. Then, one day while we were in the hospital, I saw her grabbing for imaginary objects in mid-air. “Uh oh,” I thought. “What does she see, and does she believe they’re real?”
“What are you doing, Grandma?” I asked.
She was smiling and laughing and saying “I see little, colorful puff balls in the air!” She continued to grab at them with a calming smile spread across her face deepening her many wrinkles. (Grandma values her wrinkles because she believes they are the evidence of how much a person has smiled in their life.)
Bracing myself for the worst answer, I cautiously asked, “Do you believe they’re there?”
She giggled. “Oh, no, honey. I know they’re not there. But I figured I might as well have fun with them while I see them.”
I laughed and just shook my head while she continued to pluck the imaginary fuzz balls from the air. She just laughed and said “They’re so pretty! I wish you could see them.” I just looked at her lovingly and watched her carve a little fun out of a stretch of stressful days. And yes, I wished I could’ve seen them, too.
She is one of my best friends, and I don’t know what I’m going to do when she’s not here anymore. She has been there when I have struggled in life, especially recently, and has given me some great advice – advice so simple, but so spot-on. Advice that reminds me what the most important things are, and advice reminding me to be who I am no matter if the rest of the world understands or not.
I, like her, have always been very sentimental. She is not afraid to say (and mean) the “mushy things,” and I get that from her. For a period in my life, some friends would tell me I was “corny” because I would speak openly about what was in my heart. I heard it so much I started to withdraw and hold in my emotional thoughts. Grandma never does. She always speaks what’s in her heart and is “corny” (or wise) enough to tell her kids how much “Grandma loves you.” (She tells me that every time I get off the phone with her. And every time, I hear the sincere, tangible affection that adorn her words, which never sound routine.) In tribute to her, I now NEVER hold back what’s in my heart.
My Grandma Dot is who I want to be – loving, caring, and giving. Someone who loves most everyone until they give her a reason not to. Someone who is happy and makes good, magical memories from the simplest things – picking flowers, sitting on a porch swing, pancakes for dinner… She’s gentle even though some of us grandkids recall her holding us down to brush the tangles from our hair with the same force a person would use to comb an old horse’s mane.
In my experience, Grandma has and always will be her own little person with her own little thoughts, beliefs, securities, and insecurities. She has made the most of some unfortunate situations in her life and does what she needs to grasp contentment and feel happiness. And maybe most importantly, she recognizes value in the simple things – something I always strive to do but still fall short in sometimes. She is a good soul with a peaceful, inner light that shines out and warms those around her. Except, that is, when you mess with her family.
All in all, my Grandma’s personality is one that provides comfort to many. It is a personality I use as a foundation for my own. Besides my name, I owe my Grandma many things, but what I’m most thankful for is the love and sense of home she instilled in me with every trip I took to Grandma’s house when I was a girl. The nights I spent playing with toys in her living room floor and watching movies in her bedroom. The tenderness that radiated throughout her house – it almost seemed to rest on your shoulders like a warm, comforting blanket. Even today. For me, those times planted love, compassion, and a sense of family and home deep in my soul. The times spent with her, then and now, have forged a warmth inside me that is timeless, treasured, and dear. Those memories are a gift that, whether I’m with her physically or spiritually, will always connect me to her. Because even though that was decades ago in, what seemed like, a completely different world, I can venture there, to all the sights, smells, and feels, simply by closing my eyes and whispering three simple words: “Grandma loves you.” And, boy, that she does.