Up until recently, there were two things I knew with certainty about my paternal grandmother: She died of breast cancer before I was born, and she was a nurse.
I don't remember seeing many pictures of her, young or old, and I could hardly recognize her face out of a group of people. But there is one quintessential image I have of my grandma that comes to mind whenever I think of her.
It comes from a picture of her that hung on the wall of my parents' den, just outside our brightly colored yellow kitchen. It was sepia-toned, from 1936, and it was hand-colored into an odd mixture of brown and shades of red: subtle rose around her robust cheeks and ruby on her lips. She was about 25 years old.
She's wearing a full nurse's uniform in the picture, a white jacket buttoned up to her neck and a prim nurse's cap with a black stripe pinned to her head.
Only now have I begun to understand what that nurse's uniform meant to my grandmother, and how early in life the idea of caring for other people became important to her.
The story goes that my grandmother, Fleeta, was living with her brother, Walter, when she was about 7 years old. While Fleeta was living with them, Walter and his wife delivered a baby girl whom the doctors declared dead shortly after she was born. A year or two later, they had another baby, a boy.
Again, the doctor came out of the birthing room, put his arm around Walter's shoulders and said, "I'm sorry, but that baby is dead, too."
Fleeta, now 9 years old, rushed into the room, grabbed the baby by the feet and hoisted him into the air. She spanked his bottom and alternated dipping him in cold water and hot water until the baby began to cry.
He was alive.
Years after that, according to my father and my uncle, when Walter Jr. grew into a tenacious boy, he always behaved when Aunt Fleeta asked him to — because she saved his life.
I have always been proud of the fact that my grandmother made a living caring for others in a way I could never imagine for myself. Because of her, nurses have always held a place of high esteem in my mind. I admire them, and I'm fascinated by what they do and what they know.
I have a dear friend who is a nurse, a fact that makes me feel privileged to be her acquaintance. I call her with any medical question I may have, to her amusement, since her training is in caring for immune-compromised children in a hospital setting — not diagnosing over the phone all of the maladies my family might have.
Still, her knowledge is invaluable to me, and I always feel comforted by her answers. Lately, I've wondered what my grandmother would say if I called her with my questions. What do I do when my son has a cough that won't go away? My daughter has a rash on her arm; should I be worried? And how do I keep my kids from getting sick all of the time?
I can't ask her these questions anymore, but I can ask my family what she would have said — what she said to her children when she was alive, the tricks she used to keep them healthy.
Here's what I've learned:
For a cold, she'd boil sassafras roots and drink the water with honey and lemon. For a cough, she'd have my dad and uncle gargle salt water. And for a stuffy nose, she'd have them sniff warm salt water, then spit it out, to clear their noses.
If you smashed your fingers or toes, she'd soak them in ice water the first day, then hot water the second day. She recommended enemas for constipation and "forcing fluids" and drinking water to get rid of germs.
She listened to patients more than she spoke to them. She used tincture of benzoin on cold and canker sores and dosed my dad with vitamin C to keep him well.
But perhaps the most powerful lesson I can learn from her doesn't have to come from the medical remedies she might have given to me, but never will.
From the time she was 9 and she grabbed that baby's feet by the ankles, to the time she started extreme and experimental medication to treat her cancer, she has sent one message loud and clear from across the generations:
Life is worth fighting for.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer at the Deseret News. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. In this column, she writes about family history and her quest to understand the mysteries of life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.