Learning from our Grandmothers: Memories of my Granny Ellis (1918-2012)

Papa and Granny Ellis with me after high school graduation in 1995.

Early Monday morning, I received an unexpected phone call from my Dad. Obviously upset, he told me that my Granny Ellis had passed away during the night. It was hard to wrap my head around this fact. She was 94 years old, and she marshaled on despite numerous health problems–especially later in life. She was from “old stock,” a heartier stock that could weather setbacks and troubles without much complaint or fuss.

She was my last grandparent to pass away. I am very fortunate to have had so much time to spend and learn from my grandparents. Wilma, Papa Gerald, Papa Ellis, and Granny Ellis contributed in so many ways to my emergence as the person that I am today. I feel somewhat disconnected now from the past anchored by my grandparents–grandparents who I spent time with every day, every week, every summer when I was younger and who I called once a week no matter where I might be in: in Atlanta, Liverpool, or Ohio.

There are  a couple of things that immediately come to mind in remembering Granny Ellis. The first has to do with food and the second has to do with the surprising power of memory.

When I was younger, I would usually spend Wednesday afternoons and some weekends with my Granny and Papa Ellis. More often than not, I wanted to “play” with my Legos or other toys, but what no one knew–even myself–was that I was learning. I was modeling. I was thinking through narrative. I was thinking about the possibilities in social interaction, engineering, and creativity.

Granny Ellis let me explore through my play without interruption–except when it was necessary, as she would remind me, to eat. She believed in making sure that I was well fed. With energy stores fulfilled, she would release me from an empty bowl of chili or a now barren plate where once sat made-from-scratch biscuits to return to my building, my thinking, my “play.” In her own way, I believe that she recognized that I needed to do those things to make sense of a world far different from the one she was born into so many years before. She recognized that even play is an important part of learning.

Then, many years after those afternoons on the carpeted floor hunting for the right brick, Granny Ellis developed neurological problems. Papa Ellis would need to guide Granny around. It was like she was there, trapped behind her eyes, unable to express herself as she had when I was younger. However, her doctors began experimenting with different medicines to combat what were ultimately long undiagnosed micro-seizures and dementia, she regained to some extent her old self. You could speak with her once again and she could recall the past remarkably well. Unfortunately, her short term memory was impaired–she could not remember from day-to-day or even minute-by-minute on most occasions.

Due to Granny Ellis’ trouble with short term memory, I expected her to not remember my wife Yufang after I introduced her. To my overwhelming joy, Granny Ellis not only remembered that I was married to a beautiful girl named Yufang, but she also remembered to ask how Y and I were doing. Granny’s face would light up when she saw Y on the too few occasions that we could both travel to Brunswick to visit. Despite these few encounters, Granny Ellis overcame her brain’s degenerative hurdles to hold on to that memory. Did her love for Y and me play some role in her brain’s ability to build a lasting long term memory from her short term memory? This question deserves further investigation. In the meantime, I believe that she expressed her love through her memory of Y, and I am glad that I now have that memory to hold onto in my life.

Our friends and family (and especially our grandmothers) have a lot to teach us. We can learn from them and our experiences. We can reflect on what they did–how they demonstrated solid pedagogical practices for learning and enabling learning–in our own thinking about the theory and practice of teaching.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Pedagogy, Personal
3 comments on “Learning from our Grandmothers: Memories of my Granny Ellis (1918-2012)
  1. Dear all, thank you for the likes, thoughts, and condolences. It means a lot to me and my family.

  2. Y and I drove to Brunswick this past weekend to attend my granny’s funeral. My Uncle Earl Parrish officiated the graveside service, Donald Pittman shared some memories that he had of my granny and grandpa, and I shared this blog post–read from my iPhone 4S. I believe that the service was as my granny would have wanted it to be.

  3. […] September 10: My Dad called me early in the morning to tell me that my Granny Ellis had passed away during the night. I wrote about it here. […]

Comments are closed.

Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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