Grandma Whitney

I spoke in church on Sunday, along with the other members of the Relief Society presidency. In my talk, I suggested three things we can do to strengthen our families: #1 Create a gospel-learning home, #2 Create a house of order, and #3 Create a house of love.

When I talked about creating a house of order, I mentioned that my husband was one of the most organized people I knew and that he had learned from his mother, who is another one of the most organized people I knew. Both of their lives exemplify what can be accomplished with proper planning and organization.

When I sat down, Lola Hutchinson, the Relief Society President, asked me if it was okay if she talked about Steve's grandma, LaRee Whitney. Of course, I said yes. I can't get enough Grandma Whitney stories, even though I can get a little emotional when listening to them. Lola shared many wonderful stories, and ultimately concluded that despite her adversities, Grandma Whitney had focused on and succeeded in strengthening her family. Steve's mother, in turn, had strengthened her family, and now Steve is doing the same thing with his. Grandma Whitney's perseverance and commitment to teach gospel principles will continue to influence countless generations.

After church, Rachel asked how Lola knew so much about Grandma Whitney. About six months ago, we figured out that Lola and LaRee had been long time friends. Rachel then, very tenderly, asked me if I would please make a book for her with all the stories I know about Grandma Whitney. I love that Rachel recognizes a special connection with the grandma she was given her middle name after.

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On Mother's Day, Steve and his mother had a rare opportunity to speak in church together. Steve spoke about his mother, and Gloria spoke about hers. These two women have served as amazing examples to Steve in his life. Gloria's talk was about our mission in life and how we need to go about accomplishing it. I would like to share some of Gloria's words about her mother:

In September of 1954, my Mother, LaRee Holt Whitney, at 27 years old, contracted polio. One day she was a wife and a mother, doing normal things, canning peaches, taking her kids to Lagoon, and ironing. She also played the organ and was on the Stake Primary Board. Then one day, she was gravely ill.

She was rushed to the hospital, where her clothes were taken away with a stick. She looked on, devastated, thinking she had infected her friends and family. Her fever was 104 degrees and she had muscle spasms that were so painful they had to wrap her in steaming hot towels for 20 minutes of relief. She couldn’t take any pain medication because it could affect her breathing.

She had two types of polio: spinal and spinal bulbar. She was left with total paralysis from the neck down. Polio is like having a burnt out motor in a car, it burns out the muscles in your body. The brain tells you body to move but the muscle can’t move it.

She was placed in an iron lung. An iron lung looks like a water heater laid on a bed. Her body was in that and her head left out. It was pressurized and did the breathing for her. At home there were four girls: 7 years old, 5 years old, myself at 3 years old, and a baby sister just 5 1/2 months old. After many months, through pure Danish stubbornness, she graduated from the iron lung to a rocking bed, and finally to a wheelchair.

That is the background—now I want to tell you some of the miracles, and answers to prayers that took place throughout her life.

One day while in the rocking bed, which raised her diaphragm up and down, my Dad felt he should check on Mom, instead of going duck hunting, as planned. At first glance, he knew something was wrong. It was during a shift change and he could not find help. The iron lung was left just outside the door, in case it was needed. He got her into the iron lung. Being very mechanical, he knew how it worked, however, something was wrong and he could not get it working. A nurse came in and together, with Dad doing some quick repair work, they got it working. Meanwhile, Mom’s spirit had left her body, she was watching the frantic actions of her husband and the nurse, thinking how good it felt to be out of pain. Then she thought of her children and wondered what would happen to them, she wanted to be there to raise them. At that instant she was back in her body. Dad not going hunting, that was a miracle. He loved his hunting.

After that she had some depression, which she calls the dark abyss, when she realized she was not going to get up and walk out of the hospital. She knew she had the faith to be healed and couldn’t accept that she wasn’t. Through her prayers she came to realize that some things just happen, but it was up to her to determine her attitude. She believed the scriptures and knew she would not be tested beyond her means to endure.

With help from professionals at the Mayo Clinic, she began to focus on what she could do instead of what she couldn’t. They said she would be bedridden most of the time and her life expectancy was 5 years with severe bladder and kidney problems. Her image of herself had to be redefined and her self-esteem built back up.

She realized there were others with less abilities than her and her heart and prayers went out to them. She wanted to raise her children and manage a home. Her prayers took on new meaning and her faith increased. She prayed to endure the pain, to have willing hands around her, and to cope with her limitations. Those constant prayers were answered. She also refused the prognosis and between my stubborn mother and my strong stubborn dad, they were determined to have a semi-normal life. She decided this was her time and she would accomplish her mission and reach her potential with the help of her Savior.

She knew she couldn’t go home in an iron lung or a rocking bed. She needed to go home. After 14 months in the hospital she came home in a wheelchair using an orthopedic corset to support the diaphragm so she could breathe sitting up. She came home! A tender mercy! We had our Mom back!

Her patience seemed endless. I did not know she was in constant pain until I was an adult. She did not let it show. My Dad got her up at 5:30 am before he left for work most days. Every morning he called down the stairs, "Up and at 'em." Those words still ring in my ears especially when I am struggling with something. Their philosophy was just get to work and get it done.

We got up and got ourselves ready for school, fixed our breakfast and fed her breakfast, then cleaned up the kitchen. We got her ready for the day, laid out books she could read, cut up some snacks for lunch, put in a batch of laundry, and went off to school. The first one home from school hung out the clothes, before the days of dryers.

She had the use of one muscle in her neck that was not paralyzed. She used a mouth stick to turn pages, and later, with the help of arm slings my Dad created, she could type with one finger which had been fused for support and she could twitch it a little to pinch small things between her two fingers. She used her neck muscle to move her arms, in a swinging motion. This was a great accomplishment, and gave her years of feeling productive doing genealogy, typing letters, and later on, typing all her own papers, as she finished college.

There was a lot of humor involved too. Sometimes I would come home and the apples would be on the ground and her book stuck and she hadn’t been able to type and she was so frustrated, and we would laugh. Often a neighbor or her sister would come over, just in time to set things right again.

At first, she was a little hesitant about being in public, but Dad took her out to dinners, they socialized and had friends over for neighborhood parties.

As children, we baked every Saturday. Thus, the neighborhood children came over to help do the work, knowing there was hot bread, cakes, or cookies for rewards. Mom always told the boys she needed some strong muscles for some jobs, they loved to help after that. She was always in the middle supervising the job, encouraging, and praising.

We held scrub-the-sink contests, and played word games on the blackboard while we worked. We hung out laundry in creative ways, making doors & windows in our pretend house. She was very tolerant, and I know she had to lower her standards somewhat. She said if it got done she was grateful. There were dimes for buckets of dandelions, lots of popsicles in the summer, and a fair price for extra jobs. The kids told us their parents wouldn’t let them help, which seemed strange to us. For us it was always work first, play later. We learned to work fast and with recruits, we could get a lot done.

Much of the baking was taken to new neighbors, and to the sick or elderly. That was my favorite part. The joy was overwhelming as they would express their love for my Mom and how they appreciated our work, and her concern for them. We learned the joy of service very young.

Through her illness, she taught Relief Society for 20 years, first Social Relation, then Spiritual Living. Mom was so grateful that they let her serve. She was a visiting teacher forever. Her partner bundled her up in the winter, and they would go to the sisters houses and they would bundle up and come out to visit. She couldn’t get into the homes, but they loved her to come. Later on, when her health was more fragile she had a scheduled day that all her sisters come to her house for visiting teaching. Some of the other neighbors found out and they asked if they could come too. We all got a chuckle out of that.

So you see, her prayer for willing hands was answered day after day, year after year.

Mom developed a habit that has become a family standard. It is when adversity strikes, think about the good things that come from it. Sometimes it has to be after the crisis, but I found it always works, and it helps you gain strength, seeing that you survived and gained more faith or patience or humility. You can see God's hand in your life and feel deep gratitude. It is a wonderful habit.

Another miracle was when Mom was in intensive care for 3 months after an automobile accident in 1980. She had a broken rib that punctured her lung, a crushed pelvis, and a broken ankle. She had emergency surgery to remove her spleen. The biggest problem was with her lungs that were already weakened by the polio. She only had a breathing capacity of 50 percent of normal. The damage now could not be repaired. It was a life and death situation from day to day.

After the first few frantic days, she knew she would survive and she had us start keeping a journal. It was like, here we go again. We wrote down the meds, each new crisis, the doctors names, the nurses, and the people she met, the visitors, and the gifts.

She also wanted to send thank you notes. She was on a respirator now and had to mouth the words to us to write the notes. I told her she didn’t need to send notes, but then I realized, maybe she did. Maybe that is how she copes, by losing herself in the love and service of her fellowmen, and by doing so, is serving her God. One day she asked me, “Why am I still here? I am ready to go!” I couldn’t answer right away, saying I don’t know. Then I read a note from a dear friend of hers and I said, "I think I know." I read her the note that thanked her for being such a great example of courage, for always being so strong and cheerful. I said, "I think the Father has more work for you to do?" We agreed. And as always, she carried on.

Was her prayer answered about coping – enduring? Yes it was!

She had gone back to college at the age of 51, and because of the accident she was worried about her classes. The college president came to visit her in the hospital and assured her that her grades were secure, and he would notify her professors. The intensive care staff threw her a going home party, which they said was a first.

She came home from that hospital trip with a permanent tracheotomy. She needed to be on a respirator part of each day and through the night. But she was grateful she could still talk when she was off. The insurance would not pay for the respirator and suction equipment unless she had registered nurses care for her. Thus, next came the nurses. Dad took care of her at night. My older sister and I took weekends and any additional needed time. My other two sisters lived out of state, but helped when they came to visit. She lost some of her independence, she could not be left alone. A new trial.

When Dad passed away in 1993, we faced another dilemma. We were shocked and truly blessed when the insurance company notified us they would cover the cost of round-the-clock nursing. It had been a fight with the insurance for many other things, but Mom was in no condition to fight. The Lord was watching out for her, and listening to her prayers.

Some of her other accomplishments include, painting pictures with a mouth stick, graduating from college as an English Major and History Minor Cum Laude, being a member of the Phi Kappa Honor Society and Lama Iota Tau Honor Society, and graduating from Institute. She was awarded the Crystal Crest at Weber State College and was the Handicapped Mother of the Year twice. She tutored students in English and completed a lot of genealogy and temple work. She was a missionary in many ways. One of her nurses joined the church and went through the temple because of her example of faith and her testimony. She taught everyone about gardening and always had a beautiful yard full of vegetables and flowers. She sold greeting cards, Avon, Beauty Counselor, and Shaklee, to help financially and volunteered for the PTA, March of Dimes, and Brownie Scouts.

My children will never forget the visits they had with her, the chores, the lists they made for her as soon as they could write the alphabet, the shopping trips, and the summer week long stays to earn money. The I’m thinking of an animal game, the notes of encouragement she sent them, and the backpack she bought them all as they were off to college.

There were many more miracles and trials in her later years. She had wayward children, the death of an adult child, financial trials, illnesses, and frustrations just like we all do. She was just determined to make it through. She always told me that everyone has their own trials, mine just show more, don’t try to compare yours with mine. They are just different. Each person has to find their own way to accomplish their mission.

My Mom passed away in 2002 at the age of 75, a little longer than the doctors predicted. She was on a respirator for 20 years. She did not experience the normal bedsores, lung infections, bladder or kidney trouble associated with this disease. Another miracle!

I am truly blessed to have been able to meet and spend time with Grandma Whitney before she passed away. I am truly blessed by the decisions she made. I am truly blessed to have her daughter as a mother-in-law. And I am truly blessed to have her grandson as a husband.


AngelaW said...

I am supposed to be working. Now I am crying like a baby. Thank you for sharing this. We are so lucky to have had her in our lives. I know that we would not be the same without her and my mom Gloria! Mom always talks about how wonderful Grandma was, but she deserves a lot of credit. She is also so amazing. I just shared a Grandma Whitney story to my primary class. They never get old!

Rachel said...

Wow, Em. What an amazing story, and how blessed your girls are to have such powerful examples in their family history. Thanks for sharing.

Kassi Luck said...

That was an awesome story! I love these type of stories that lift me up. Thank you!!!

Mindy said...

That is a great story! Thank you for sharing. What great memories to share with your kids.

J&Jchambers said...

This post is so touching and inspiring! I love stories like this. Thanks for sharing!

Kayli said...

She reminds me of Corrie Ten Boom. Just amazing people.