Featured Image: Lorraine Simpson and her daughter, Annette, 1954
A grandmother’s promise / To always be there, / To watch and care and love, / Is carried out long, / Even after she’s gone, / As she watches from above…
~ Amarine Rose Ravenwood, A Grandmother’s Promise
A Legacy of Light
Lorraine Ora Mitchell was born September 29, 1923, in Douglas, Converse County, Wyoming, to Ora William Mitchell and Merle Marion Mitchell (born Bigelow). Ora was twenty-two at the time of his daughter’s birth, and Merle was twenty. Lorraine was an only child until the age of eight, when a little brother joined her, Norman Mitchell, in May of 1932. Lorraine married her husband, Byron Allison Simpson III, on January 31, 1945, becoming Lorraine O. Simpson in Oakland, California. She and Byron lived in Hayward, in those early years, and had four children – a son and three daughters. I know very little of Lorraine’s years before I knew her – this is about the extent of it. I was born in October of 1975 and I am the eldest child of their middle daughter, who was born in May of 1953. Lorraine was my grandmother.
Most of what I remember from early childhood about Lorraine is that she seemed to have deeply red hair in many of her photos, although in most of my memories of her, her hair was already gray, or later, white. Perhaps it was just my childhood perception of sepia photographs, and her hair was not really red at all – somehow, I have failed to ask the family about this. I vaguely recall a few visits from her to our apartment in Campbell, California, when I was under the age of ten. More vivid in my memory are visits up to her and Papa (as we all called my grandfather) at their home – which, by then, was in Brookings, Oregon – and my little sister and I playing on the beach that was only a stone’s throw away. Papa was a heavy smoker, and I remember Grandma chiding him about smoking in the house. Ultimately, he would get his way, smoking at the kitchen table with the window open and his paper spread out before him. Their many cats roamed both indoors and outdoors, and several cockatiels and canaries in an indoor aviary filled up their home with lovely chirping and birdsong.
One particular cockatiel was the family’s prized pet. Papa would let Brandy out of his cage, and the bird would dance up Papa’s arm to the top of his head. There, Brandy would fluff up Papa’s scant white hair with its feet as though fluffing up a nice cozy nest for itself. When Brandy would do this, we all would laugh. Brandy was quite the character, singing to himself in his cage mirror, dancing on his perch, and saying “Pretty Birdie” over and over. He was a charming bird, but he also had sass, and as children, we knew not to stick our fingers into his cage lest we get bit. My love of cockatiels comes directly from my fond memories and love for Brandy.
Papa had tattoos – old military tattoos from his youthful years in the Coast Guard; I remember their dark blue-green tone and a great big eagle on his forearm. From stories I was told in my youth, I know that Papa supported his wife and four children by being a typewriter repairman, and at another time by being a school bus driver. We all loved Papa – he was gruff on the exterior, but had a heart of pure soft goo. We knew he loved us, no matter how gruff he got with us. Grandma Lorraine was a wonderful homemaker. She made sure dinner was cooked on time, kept her home clean, and was full of soft-spoken, nurturing care. I lived with my grandparents for almost two years in my early teens. I was on a path of self-destruction when I went to live with them, and they tried hard to save me.
When I was a little girl, I was abused by my father. When my dad went to prison, my mother was left all alone with my little sister and I, and my mother’s parents came to the rescue. They sold their house in Oregon and rented a townhouse in Fortuna, California. Then they came down to Campbell, gathered us up, and moved us to a townhouse in Eureka, the next town of similar size northward from where they lived in Fortuna. Unfortunately, my mother and I had major difficulties. I was beginning to act out, in an after-effect of the abuse I had suffered. I was twelve and just entering that rebellious stage – probably a bit early, and heightened, due to PTSD. My mother could not handle me, so my grandparents opened their home to me. It was around four months after I went to stay with them in the townhouse in Fortuna that they bought a brand new house in Eureka, and we moved there. This meant that we were now in the same town as my mother and sister, but I still lived with my grandparents and not my mother.
My grandparents were firm, but also patient and kind with me. I knew better than to cross them – more than that, I had no desire to. Their house was a place full of loving care – something that I took for granted at the time – I was a self-centered twelve-to-fourteen-year-old, and did not know how good I had it. Only retrospect showed me that. Later, in my late teens, as I looked back from my situations in group homes and foster homes, I wished ardently that I had never left my grandparents – that I had just stayed in their home. I don’t have a lot of distinct memories of my grandparents from the time when I lived with them; just snippets here and there: hearing Papa up at five in the morning watching Jeopardy in the front room – he rose before the sun every day – a carry-over from his Coast Guard days; watching Papa prepare the cat-food in the mornings and evenings; watching Bonnie and Clyde on my grandparents’ bedroom television set one evening; eating breakfast some mornings; hitting yard sales together to try to find vintage treasures on Saturday mornings; stopping to pick berries with Grandma in a field by the side of the freeway; going to one of the Fortuna rodeos with my grandparents and my cousin; attending churches with Grandma; and going shopping for school clothes with her. Still, I know, even if I cannot fully recall them, that Grandma and I had many long talks; that she was interested in what was going on in my life and at school. She was always encouraging me to do right and to pursue my creative gifts.
My cousin was raised by my grandparents, too, and in sharing such a close space with her in those two years, I gained an unexpected older sister. Mostly, I just have this sense of feeling loved, when I look back – of stable contentment. I remember nights falling asleep to lullaby tapes, as they comforted me. It was Grandma’s idea, because I had trouble getting to sleep, and upsetting dreams when I did sleep. I slept peacefully to lullabies until I was around seventeen years old, replaced by sleep-aid prescriptions later on. I think perhaps the lullabies worked better, but I never thought of going back to them. Looking back, I recall bright moments, such as standing at the huge bay window in my grandparents’ bedroom looking at the forest behind the house, while the sunshine flooded in and bathed the cat who was snoozing on their tv, and feeling a deep sense of innate peace unlike any I had ever experienced before. I remember having a great big poster of the mountains in Norway on the wall over my bed, and I gazed at it often and dreamed of traveling there when I grew up. I remember cuddling with their cats. I played in the forest behind the house with my younger cousins, with my little sister when she would come to see me (she still lived with our mother), or by myself . The local raccoons ate with the cats on the back deck and were very friendly. Papa even let one come in the house, once, to take food from his fingers. I loved it there. I associated the smell of cigarettes with comfort well into adulthood because Papa always smelled like them. The sound of birdsong is still a sound of happiness for me.
When I was fourteen, I went back to my mom’s house to try again, but things didn’t work out well. When my grandparents asked the state to return me to their care, my social worker told them that I wasn’t “getting enough stimulation to bring out my problems so they could be dealt with” while living with them, and that I could not go back to them. It was this worker who insisted I go into a group home. Later, my grandmother passionately told me it had made her so angry that the worker thought that I needed a bad situation – a hard situation – to help me, and that a loving, quiet home wouldn’t be good for me. She told me, bitterly, that it made absolutely no sense to her, and that she thought I had already been through enough! She said that she firmly believed that if I were to heal, I needed a loving environment. They fought for me, but in the end, the judge agreed with the social worker and not my grandparents. I never forgot that – they were the only people who ever fought for me. My mother stood by me, yes, but it was my grandparents who fought. Before judging my mother too harshly, please consider that she had just lost her marriage of fourteen years, had been abused, herself, within that marriage, and she and I butted heads after my dad left, on a daily basis, and in a way that was very unhealthy for both of us. My grandparents’ home was the ideal alternative.
After I entered “the system,” I did not see my grandparents much. We went for years without contact – we had only one visit in my late teens, a visit within a week of my eldest son’s birth when I was nineteen (September 1994), and we saw each other, weekly, for a couple of months when I was around twenty-four in 1999. Papa had passed away when I was twenty, in February of 1996. When I was twenty-five (on September 7, 2001), I left California and moved to Colorado. After that, I only saw my grandmother a couple of times during visits back home, before she passed away. My younger life was full of upheaval and I was very much wrapped up in my own chaos. I wish I had stayed in closer touch with them, but that separation when I was fourteen was essentially the final separation for us – we were never in as close contact again, although I held her dear in my heart, and surely, she did me, in hers.
In August of 2010, I was informed that she was passing. I couldn’t make it back home before she passed on, but I scrambled to come back home to Eureka in time for her funeral. I don’t know what I expected from my family when I arrived – I had not seen my family for many years, at that point, other than the rare visit to see my mother or my sister. I had not seen my aunts or uncle since 1999, when I was twenty-four. On the trip out for the funeral, I stopped by my sister’s house in Anderson, California, and we all traveled the rest of the way to Eureka, together.
The funeral was held in the main church my grandmother and I had attended together, and as I entered Bethel Church, I had a sudden flashback of one of the times when I was there for a service with Grandma, when I was thirteen or fourteen: I remembered how I had held her hand, and only half-listened to the sermon as I looked at the delicate, bluish, translucent skin of the back of her hand, noticing the age spots and the deep blue veins, and marveling that one day, my hands would look like that, too. I remembered that while I was examining the skin with curiosity, my thoughts had moved on to wonder whether, when my hands looked like that, I would be as wise as Grandma was. The memory flooded my heart with an overwhelming sense of enduring love. I felt a wave of intense loss that made my heart ache. It struck me that she would never see the woman I was becoming. The day was bittersweet. I looked around the church and instead of seeing sorrowful faces, I saw faces filled with joy and laughter as old friends were reunited after years apart, coming together to remember my grandmother.
During the service for Grandma, many people spoke. I did, too, although I cannot recall what I said, now. I think I just told everyone how I lived with her and how loved she made me feel. I recall bursting into tears afterward. What I remember more clearly, though, was my wonder over the stories that so many others had to tell of Lorraine – always touching and kind, and sometimes hilariously funny. The church was rocked with both laughter and tears and I have never experienced anything like it before or since. It moved me, heart and soul. She was well-loved, my grandmother. Lorraine had made a mark on everyone who knew her.
At her funeral, I discovered that she had visited the poor and the needy in her church congregations (she attended several churches in the area, which is why I said Bethel was her main church) and brought food and clothing, comfort, and her Bible. She had hosted Bible studies in people’s homes, and was a missionary. She was unfailingly kind and thoughtful and caring, and she was a person who truly listened. She never judged. I never heard her say an unkind word to anyone, and no one had an unkind word to say about her. She left a legacy of kindness and light in her wake when she went, and it was clear that she had touched the lives of many people. So many people came to her funeral that the church could not hold them all and they spilled out into the parking lot. People came from all over just to be there. It was a lasting testament to the impact one person’s life can have on the lives of so many others.
My grandparents gave me almost two years of peaceful, loving life in their home, in which they nurtured and cared for me, and encouraged me to thrive. When I was a child, during those visits to her in their house in Oregon, Grandma would let me draw in color, using her nice pastel chalks and her supply of construction paper. While in the townhouse in Fortuna with them, my grandmother bought me a drawing pad and pencils, and once I’d done my homework after school, let me go to the ranch next door. I would sit in the corral and draw the horses all afternoon. While living together in Eureka, Grandma submitted some of my poetry to an anthology and presented me with the published book with my poems printed in it on my fourteenth birthday. She always encouraged me in my art, in my writing, and in my development into a young woman. She wanted me to be upright and wholesome, honest and strong; and, while she was denied the full amount of time to instill all of that into me, she had it well-begun by the time I had to leave her: I never forgot Grandma’s lessons. When I was in my early twenties and financially struggling in poverty, during the two months in 1999 that I mentioned earlier, she came to the trailer my aunt and uncle had let us use, and picked up my laundry every week and did all the laundry for myself and my children – it was what she could contribute to make my life just a little bit less stressful. Little did I suspect at the time that I was like other families she helped in her church, and that she was helping others. I only knew of her, at that time, in relation to myself. She listened, she cared, and she comforted. She gave and gave, and I never heard her ask for a thing from anyone, except to ask Papa not to smoke in the house. But even for him, she let it go – she might have complained about his smoking, but she never actually forced him outside.
Lorraine was kind, loving, full of care, and incredibly selfless; and yet, she was never weak. She was delicate on the outside, but held up by an internal frame of steel. Her mettle was strong. She was respected; never bullied, never cowed – she always held her head up and had a cheerful disposition. She had a glowing countenance – a face that was always full of light, hope, and compassion. She was proof that soft kindness is not weakness. When asked, once, she told me that it was her religion that gave her strength. She was so devout in her love and worship of Christ and her God that she made pilgrimages to the Holy Land seven times in her lifetime.
Lorraine had confidence and certainty in what she was doing with her life and with her time, and in giving her energy to others. She made me believe in Heaven, without any doubts, on the day of her funeral, because if anyone was going there, Grandma was. It just had to exist because she had such faith in it. If it hadn’t existed before, her belief must have manifested it. Her whole life seemed to be aimed in striving to be worthy of Heaven. She lived in a way that looked beyond this lifetime to the time after it. She did her best to live her life as virtuously as she could, so that she could move on knowing she had given this life her best efforts. She kept her heart and mind focused on God and what she believed was God’s work for her to do, here. These were her beliefs, and while it does not necessarily take religion to make a person good, kind, wholesome, or selfless, her religion was the place from which she drew the strength and examples of ideals of those attributes – it was the source of her notions regarding what is right, and what is valuable, in life.
Lorraine taught me about the will to do good and what can be done with that – how far it can take you; what a difference kindness makes in the lives of others; and how kindness is not weakness. Lorraine left a legacy to be remembered. She made a mark in the lives of everyone she met, and left an impression of what kindness and selfless goodwill look like. She left a positive influence in her wake that made me want to be a better person – not because she told me I should be, but by the example she made of herself, in the way she lived her life and the way she treated others. She was a role model for me, even while I was young, but my view of her was even more elevated after her funeral. I want to be the kind of person she was – someone who spreads light where she goes, who offers comfort in just the right way, and who has such a deep understanding of human nature that she knows just the right advice to give to help improve another person’s life. She had a gift with this. For me, my grandmother, Lorraine, was the person who shone brightest out of everyone I’ve known. While she glows in my memory, today, by her example, she also lights the way ahead.
My memory of Grandma Lorraine inspired me to write the following poem, which was published in Voice of Eve’s second issue, in September of 2018:
A Grandmother’s Promise
by Amarine Rose Ravenwood
Published by Voice of Eve, Issue 2
A grandmother’s promise
To always be there,
To watch and care and love,
Is carried out long,
Even after she’s gone,
As she watches from above.
She knows each mistake;
The chances you take,
But she never stops her cheering;
For each time you fall,
Not one time, but all,
Is a lesson not for fearing.
She spreads out her wings,
At times even sings,
In the hopes that your heart will hear,
And take strength from it,
For to her, you are that dear.
You should never forget
How you two used to sit,
And she’d tell you all her stories,
For she’s never left;
You’re not so bereft,
And she revels in your glories.
If you haven’t read my biographical first article for Graceful Grit, “The Name on My Soul,” explaining this, Amarine Rose Ravenwood is one of the pen names I write under.
© Lorraine Hall 2018