You don’t know this about me, but when I was a kid, I was painfully shy. Like, so shy I physically tried to hide behind my mother, even after I had grown a few inches taller than her. So, the fact that I spoke up against a teacher at school one day was kind of shocking for everybody. But I wasn’t going to let that teacher tell people the wrong story. Nope. She had her facts wrong, and that particular story meant the world to me.
You see, my teacher tried to tell the kids in my class that Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly around the world. And I happened to know for a fact, that she was wrong. How did some kid in Grand Rapids, Michigan, know that?
Because the first woman to fly around the world lived across the hall from me, and I called her Grandma.
I brought newspaper articles and a copy of her book, Three-Eight-Charlie, to school the next day and showed my teacher the truth. She graciously stood corrected, and my fifth-grade class got to hear the true story of the first woman to fly around the world, the story of Jerrie Mock.
I know, I know. You’ve never heard of her, either. That’s one of those annoying parts about her story. She took at least twelve world records, six or more of which are hers forever, being the first to do them and all, and yet maybe a tenth of the population has ever heard of her. And probably half of that group knows who she was because they know one of my relatives, or are pilots.
Even if you don’t know who she is, and do feel free to look her up on your phones, I have fielded questions about her my whole life. Emails come in randomly all the time, asking me to tell her life story. A children’s book author recently asked me to tell her stories for a book she’s writing. Magazines and newspapers contact me on the anniversary of the landing just about every year, to ask me for more information.
And they always seem to ask the dumbest question ever: “What was it like growing up with Jerrie Mock for a grandmother?” Dumb, I say, because, well, how could I possibly answer that? It’s not like I know anything different.
Yes, I’m proud of her accomplishments and the amazing woman that she was, but she’s always just been Grandma to me. Not aviation pioneer. We had an actual relationship, y’know?
I remember going to her apartment somewhere in Columbus, Ohio, and playing games and being bored by the grown-ups talking. I remember when she moved in with us in Michigan for a while and sneaking into her bedroom and pretending to surf on her waterbed whenever she was out of town. After all of us moved to Quincy, Florida, Grandma and I used to walk to the library together every week.
We’d walk through the old cemetery across the ravine from her house and talk about history and how we could tell when epidemics had swept through Quincy in the 1800s by the large number of deaths in a given year. And every year on Christmas Eve, she’d serve Christmas Eve Soup, and Mom and I would sing Christmas carols to her for at least an hour. She hated the Minor key songs — she just wanted the happier Major keys and the softer more traditional pieces like “Silent Night.” Although, she loved that I could hit the high notes in “O Holy Night” and always requested that in her subtle way.
There are a lot of things I could tell you about her flight. Like when she accidentally landed on a secret Air Force base in Egypt or the sabotage intrigue she believed with certainty before she even took off. I could tell you about the many other flights and adventures she had before and after, or where to find the Spirit of Columbus on display in the Smithsonian. But you could read that online.
What you probably won’t ever read is that when all those interviewers always ask me if I’m a pilot, and I say no, they just go back to asking questions about Grandma’s flight. If they asked better questions, they’d know things that have never been published before. They just assume, apparently, that since I don’t have a pilot’s license, that I wasn’t inspired by her. How they could think that I have no idea. They don’t seem to see any kind of legacy without a set of wings pinned to my chest.
And sure, it would be cool to follow in her footsteps, but she never dreamed that for me. I’m sure she would have been honored and excited if I’d taken up flying, too, but she never asked if I wanted to. Instead, she asked what my dreams were.
Even though she didn’t understand my love of Australia, and she didn’t get why I never pursued theatre and music on Broadway, she wanted whatever I dreamed to come true for me. She dreamed of a life less than ordinary for me, just as she had had.
Wait, I take that back. She did have a couple specific dreams for me.
When I was only eight, she came into my bedroom one day without warning, said, “You will be an opera singer” and left. She knew I loved music and was a singer — she’d heard me singing along with the sopranos for years — and she wanted that for me. Admittedly, I’ve never sung opera professionally, but I am classically trained and I have sung in various operettas and shows throughout my life.
The other dream, a mutual one, we had for me is that I would beat her in the number of countries I’d travel to. She had 51, and I’m at 35 now, so I’m catching up. I’ve even been to several countries she never set foot in. And how I loved to bring her knick-knacks for her collection from those places!
In a lot of ways, Grandma and I are alike. We’re both stubborn, and strong, and adventurous. We both love music with a passion and could just listen to an incredible orchestra for days without food or water or anything else keeping us alive. We used to sit around her record player (she never could figure out how to work the CD player we bought for her) and listen to opera and classical music for hours on end. And we can both sit and tell a story until the person we’re talking to has no idea what day it is.
But we’re different in a lot of ways, too. Besides the obvious, like height and the whole flying thing, she was always trying to stay out of the limelight, while I was trying to push her into it. I was always ticked that nobody knew who she was and that everyone tried to credit some other woman with her accomplishments. But she never seemed to let it bother her. She also was a more private person, whereas I love just being out and about as much of the time as possible — interacting, engaging, meeting new people. Don’t get me wrong, she was friendly, but she was an introvert. It still amazes me that she handled all the publicity for the flight as well as she did, hating her photo being taken and all. She’s known for having said, “The kind of person who can sit in an airplane alone is not the type of person who likes to be continually with other people.”
Another similar difference is that we both loved tea. She, however, needed her tea and I just like the taste of it. Whenever people would ask me about info on her, I’d give them her number instead but warn, “Never call before her second cup of tea at around 11:00am.”
She also hated all things girly. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m far from being a priss. But when I was a kid, I loved arts and crafts, especially needlepoint and embroidery, even if I did suck at it. And I can remember coming into the Florida room, as she called her den, and sitting with needle in hand while Grandma shook her head and asked me again, “Why would you do that?” She always preferred so-called “boy-activities” from early childhood up. Where I might have wanted a doll, she wanted a train.
I could go on. Similarities, differences. Stories, adventures, songs. I could take up your whole day and not run out of material on Grandma and our relationship.
But Grandma died five years ago, on September 30, 2014. It wasn’t a surprise to any of us, I don’t think. April 17, 2014, was the 50th anniversary of her flight. And I, if not the rest of the family, knew she’d only been living for that date. I’m a little surprised that she lasted as long into that year as she did. I’m glad she did, of course, especially because I got to say goodbye in June. It was a short visit, and I didn’t have answers to all her questions about my life. She wanted to know what I was doing, what I was dreaming, where I’d travel to next. I told her I was working with kids and still dreaming of Australia and getting back into directing, but that I didn’t know when or how any of that would happen. And I didn’t know where I’d go next. If she were here now, I could have told her I’d finally made it to South America in 2015 and again in 2017. That I’d helped another female pilot in Peru refurbish the house she was moving into with her family.
I’ve been asking myself for a little over a year now, how I could most honor her memory and be the woman of less ordinary existence that would honor not only her but my Savior, Jesus and the heritage He’s given me. I’m a big dreamer, so I’ve had lots of ideas. But none of them ever do justice to the amazing life my grandma led, and the beautiful history of pioneers, inventors, conquerors, adventurers, hard-working farmers, old-world Quakers, silver-miners, Old West cowboys, princes and kings I’m descended from.
But then I look back on what I’ve done in the 37 years I’ve been on earth and I wonder if it’s a good start. Biking and walking 1200 miles from Key West to Canada giving theatrical and musical solo performances. Backpacking across Europe and Russia with a friend from college, and then alone across Australia. Visiting 35 countries around the world. Writing entire plays and directing them in two countries. Premiering her story on stage in 2016 in Chicago. Touring Sydney, Australia as a music theatre missionary. Writing novels in my spare time. Being published at 19, on my very first attempt. Interviewing Olympic Gold Medalists from around the world. Trying my hand at a host of different careers and occupations and learning from them all, whether I was good at them or not. Weathering the agony of losing 20+ loved ones in my twenties and early 30s and coming through with my faith in God intact. Meeting and marrying the kindest, funniest man I’ve ever known.
So, I guess maybe I could answer that dumb question from reporters after all. “What was it like? It was like living a story-book, both as sidekick and heroine.”
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Adapted and updated from my original reading performed at Semeiotic Gallery, Chicago, 2015