Thoughts of Grandma are sure to bring to mind a warm flood of memories and sweet experiences. These memories form the basis for many of my own deepest aspirations and values, making it difficult to articulate what my grandmother meant to me. But I believe she is here in spirit today and because of that I hope to pay tribute to the depth of difference this remarkable woman made not only in my life but in the lives of all who had the privilege of knowing her.
To begin with, a brief outline of her life is in order. Clarissa Anna Milligan was born on June 2, 1918, in St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Illinois to Clarence Wilbur Milligan and Katherine Becker. When she was a little girl just learning to speak, Grandma had difficulty saying her own name and found it easier to call herself “Tiss.” Thereafter her family and friends knew her as Tiss or Tissie.
Grandma attended Blessed Sacrament Elementary school as a girl. She recalled those primary years as ones filled with joyful physical activity. She took tap dance, toe dance and, her favorite, gymnastics. One of her keenest childhood memories consisted of swinging upside down on the hanging bars outside of Blessed Sacrament and being embarrassed when someone told her her underpants were showing.
As a child, Grandma also enjoyed beautiful clothes and good fabrics. Some of her strongest memories are of the clothes she wore on different occasions. For example, when she was six, a dressmaker made her a smocked dress out of pink crepe material that Grandma never forgot. She remembered the long blue gown her mother bought her for her first dance, and she also remembered the tapestry material used on another long dress gown. Grandma’s mother also loved beautiful clothes perhaps passed on that interest to Grandma.
In her senior year of high school, Grandma transferred to Springfield High School and enjoyed having classes with boys in them. Thus began her dating period. Grandma enjoyed dating lots of different boys. A classmate of hers once commented that Clarissa was the only girl she knew who had pictures of two men on her wall and who married them both.
After Grandma graduated from National College with a Bachelors in Education specializing in kindergarten education and art, she married Ralph Colby on July 20. By that point, Ralph Colby was a West Point graduate and a lieutenant in the army. Together the couple moved around from Springfield to Nebraska to Alabama and to Georgia and then to Florida. During this period, they had two daughters, Katherine Ann Colby and Dell Siscine Colby.
In August of 1943 Grandma received the devastating news that Ralph had been killed in action as a Darby’s Ranger over Palermo, Italy. Later in a small ceremony, Grandma was presented with a silver star honoring Ralph’s heroism.
Soon thereafter, George William Cullen sent Grandma a letter of condolence. They began to correspond, and George proposed over letter. Grandma wrote back her acceptance, and they were married on July 20, 1944. In the next five years Grandma gave birth to three more children: Georgia Anne Cullen, Mary Cullen (who died the same day she was born), and Stephen Cullen. After Steve was born in December, he was placed under the Christmas tree along with all of the other gifts that year.
Grandma’s child raising years were busy ones. Aside from school, swimming lessons, and dance lessons, there were cub scouts and girl scouts. Grandma gained some notoriety when she kicked her own daughter, Dee, out of girl scouts. Grandma also made all of her children’s clothes and cooked delicious, often gourmet meals. She also was a member of the Junior League of America, Supper Club, the Stitch and Bitch Club, the president of the Ceramics and Craft Club and assisted in the publication of the Junior League Cook Bookthe one we all like with Abraham Lincoln on the cover. She was also active in Community Chest, Red Cross and was the Vice President of the Sangamon County Lawyers Wives. In the midst of all of this, she managed to also win prizes at the Illinois Sate Fair for her silver jewelry and a leather dress that she made.
When her children were grown up, Grandma still stayed busy, swimming regularly, baking bread, hosting grandchildren, meeting with friends, and volunteering regularly at St. John’s Breadline and Minnie O’Brien’s nursery.
Somehow Grandma managed to do all of this despite significant setbacks to her health. Between 1951 and her death in 2016, Grandma survived twenty surgical procedures. In the face of those trials, Grandma always stayed positive and upbeat. After the death of her second husband, Grandma lived as a widow for almost thirty years and constantly maintained her positivity and optimism.
My own personal memories of Grandma are so numerous and personal that it would be impossible for me to convey them all here. But even so I will try to share a couple recollections that are especially sweet to me. For a long time, experiencing Grandma also meant experiencing her house and the warm, regular routines that governed her existence there. The smell of yeasted bread always seemed to linger in the air of her home, and I always knew that a stay at Grandma’s house included toasted homemade bread and newspaper cartoons for breakfast. I remember staring at the glinting sunlight that filtered into the sleeping porch through the brawny branches of the trees outside, and I remember how cold the floor of the porch was when I finally ventured out of her clean, crispy sheets.
It was only at Grandma’s house that I could do puzzles, read, craft and watch cable television to my heart’s content. When I grew older, I would spend a week or two at her house each summer, and in memory, each of those stays felt like a long stretch of sunlight and leisure. It was Grandma who taught me how to embroider flowers with stem stitches and French knots. It was Grandma who taught me how to bake bread, pie crusts, and profiteroles. It was Grandma who introduced me to quilting stores as we searched for the perfect fabric for a quilt I wanted to make. Almost ten years after my interest in that quilt waned, Grandma presented me with the glorious, finished quilt as a present when I graduated from school. I think of her every time I look at it.
I remember that on one stay I determined to finally get Grandma’s story out of her, and she would indulge my questions as we took long walks around the neighborhood. I remember her answering my questions, but it always seemed like no matter how determined I felt to hear her story, the walks would always end with her listening to mine. She was a perfect listener.
I could go on and on, but I will conclude with how I felt connected to Grandma in the final years of her life. After Grandma got sick two and half years ago, I took up blogging again, this time knowing that Grandma would read and care about stories that probably wouldn’t interest anyone else. Every time I posted pictures of my children, I knew Grandma would look at them and actually love them. One of my life’s dreams was to have the lives of my children and grandmother intersect, and I count myself blessed beyond measure to have had that dream come true.
In closing, I feel certain that Grandma would not have wanted any remembrance of her to take place without also honoring those who cared for her in the last years of her life. As her own ability to care for herself declined, the goodness and love she emanated for so many years returned to her in the form of attentive, dedicated service from all of her own children. In particular, I would like to mention the way, my mother, Georgia, has lived with and lovingly looked after my grandmother for the past two and a half years. Along with my mother’s near constant attention, Grandma also enjoyed especially close relationships with my cousin Suzi, who would stay nights with her in the hospital and looked after her every Sunday while my mom was at church. Barbara was also an invaluable, constant source of help and love.
I also know that every time Dee and Bill or Steve and Pam visited, my mom called me with noticeably uplifted spirits. Their love, support, wisdom, and help have sustained not only Grandma in the last chapter of her life, but have provided needed support to my mother as she fulfilled her role as a caretaker. Finally, the lifelong friendship Grandma enjoyed with Lois and Eleanor continued to enliven and delight my Grandmother to the very end.
We need look no further than the abundance of goodness evident in Kay, Dee, Georgia and Steve to glimpse the meaning of Grandma’s beautiful life. She has passed on to her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and future posterity a legacy of love, service, health, kindness, friendship, and beauty. The incalculable effects of her well lived life will certainly be felt for generations to come.
I will hold her memory forever in love, as I know she will be held in love by everyone who had the great privilege of knowing this extraordinary woman. That we may collectively remember in joy often with each other and to our children is my great hope.
I love you, Grandma.