Amy Choate-Nielsen: Legacy of education came from Grandma's unusual feat

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 9:08 p.m. MDT

A few years ago, my father decided to plant a garden in his backyard.

The plot of land was small and half of it was taken up by a steep slope blanketed in meandering vines — but he was not deterred. This would be a low-maintenance garden, he said. So he didn’t weed, he didn't hoe and he didn't till the ground first. He just dropped his seeds in his hastily made holes and stuck a plastic drinking straw in the dirt so he could remember where to water.

Then he sat back and watched nature take its course.

My dad spent a lot of time teaching me metaphors with seeds when I was little.

"If you plant a tomato seed, what do you get?" he always asked me.

"A tomato plant," I would say.

"That's right. What about a watermelon seed?"

And then he'd go through every living thing he could think of, quizzing me on their origins and offspring.

Other times, if I did something embarrassing or awkward, he would say, "The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree," to make me feel better. He always reminded me I wasn't alone.

As I've grown older, despite sometimes wishing the apple was in another atmosphere, I've realized how true that saying is.

I am a lot like my parents.

Over the years, I've had a few of my own "garden" projects, like my father's. Sometimes they work out, like the first time I made chocolate-frosted eclairs on a whim, without a hitch. And sometimes they don't, like the time I dismantled my bicycle pump and couldn’t figure out how to get it back together even though I had two flat tires.

But more recently, I've learned another meaning of that apple tree analogy.

The roots of my understanding of how my parents have shaped me into the "apple" I am today go back to the spring of 1966. It was a sunny day, slightly breezy, made memorable by the image of my father, then 19 years old, and my grandmother, then 55 years old, dressed in their graduation dressing gowns.

My dad was getting his bachelor's degree. My grandmother, Fleeta, was getting her master's degree.

I never knew my grandmother before she died, but my father has told me how important education was to her. She taught her two sons how to play the piano, to swim, to sing, to study hard, and to go to college and get a degree.

"Punch the ticket," she'd tell them as she urged them on toward graduation.

But through her own actions, she taught my father much more than that. Fleeta was born in 1911, and it was highly unusual for women in her generation — the "greatest generation" — to get a college education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau report from 1940, only 3.8 percent of women over the age of 25 had college degrees. In 1970, roughly 2 percent of women had higher degrees of education, according to the census. In Fleeta's age group at that time, the percentages were even smaller.

I was puzzled why my grandmother would go back to school to earn a master's degree in counseling when she had worked her whole life as a nurse. At that point in her life, in 1966, Fleeta had already wrestled with cancer for years, and less than 10 years after earning her degree, she died from the disease.

My father and uncle don't seem to have an answer, other than to say that Fleeta had a passion for learning and she wanted her children to get an education, so she thought she ought to, too.

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