Irene instilled teaching in every aspect of her life, encouraging others to never stop exploring. Delano's Natalie Gerhardstein explains why her quirky grandmother is her best role model.
In my earliest memories of Irene, I am sitting next to her on a piano bench, feet not quite reaching the pedals, nodding my head to her playing Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and Helen O’Connell’s “Time Was”.
She never questioned the way my two-year-old hands plunked on the keys, nor asked me to stop. Years later, she helped arrange for me to get a keyboard and easy-to-read playbooks, and I spent hours learning new songs so I could impress her on my next visit.
Teaching was Irene’s true calling, I believe. But it was also her profession: she earned her bachelor’s degree and taught at grade-school level in her Ohio hometown, Bellevue.
And then, after having three boys and six girls (yes, nine children!), she managed to squeeze in getting her master’s degree and specialist degree in education. Her local gazette even captured a photo of her in her graduation gown, surrounded by her children, the epitome of a working mother.
She served as the supervisor of teachers in her county as well, not retiring until 1988 at the age of 63.
I considered myself lucky: noticing my love for writing and learning, she regularly sent me used handwriting, literature and social studies textbooks (along with their teacher editions), which I pored over, getting an early start on the year ahead.
Her teaching extended to all who knew her, even to those who weren’t her students.
She grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. Her first love, my grandfather, who was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, died over 30 years before she passed away. Tragically, she also outlived her eldest son. She regularly burst into tears about one or the other, but she always allowed herself a good cry before getting back to whatever she was doing.
She adored her grandkids, teaching many of us to drive (and, unlike our parents, she managed to keep calm). I recall once someone cutting our car off in a parking lot; she just smiled and waved at him. “That isn’t worth getting upset over,” she replied, when I asked her why.
She did what she wanted, how she wanted, even if it wasn’t the “norm” in her small town. And she never apologised for her decisions. Once she painted her sidewalk in rainbow hues, simply because she wanted to. When the first Indian family moved into her predominantly white small town, she was the first to go over to them and welcome them to the neighbourhood. A Christian by birth, she converted to Judaism later in life because she admired the religion and felt she connected best with it, later taking a trip to Israel which reaffirmed her decision.
And she encouraged us to do the same: to explore, to never stop exploring and learning, to always do so in a way that was tolerant and respectful of others, no matter their background. She taught me a woman can be strong and vulnerable at the same time. She can pave a new and unexpected path, as long as it is the route she chooses to take. She can pursue a career she loves while giving her all to her children simultaneously.
Do you have a woman in your life who has inspired you? In celebration of International Women’s Day this month, we want to hear from you. Send us a mail to [email protected] with your story and photo, or share your story on social media with the tag #myfemalerolemodel