Do you ever feel like you have a guardian angel hovering over you? Do you ever feel like you have a presence other than yourself with you at all times, even when you are alone? I do.
Ever since I’ve been a little girl, I’ve felt a spirit hanging over my head when I lie in bed at night. This spirit is not a scary or disheartening one, but an uplifting one, watching over me, protecting me, lulling me to sleep. I truly believe then and still believe now that this spirit is my great-grandmother, Anna Spiroff. I think she has been and always will be my soul sister, watching over me from heaven.
Anna died when I was about two years old, so I had the privilege of knowing her. Despite not remembering too much, what I do remember is vivid. It’s strange what little tidbits of memory you hold onto from the first two years of your life, but I have a few, fleeting memories from the time that I spent with her. What my memory lacks, pictures make up for, and I can fill in the blanks of the time I had with my great-grandmother using pictures of her and I. Maybe I feel so connected to her because she is my only great-grandmother I got a chance to know, but nevertheless, the connection was strong between us.
She lived in Racine, so my parents would drive down forty-five minutes from Milwaukee to see her once every few months. I especially remember visiting her in the warm months, when her garden would be blossoming. She had one of the largest gardens I’ve ever seen to this day, and I remember her walking me up and down the rows of mums and whatever other flowers she had blooming at the time. I remember her picking me up and giving me one of the biggest smiles. I’d smile right back.
Anna was a short little Croatian woman, with an enormous garden and a great smile. I’ll only have my two-year-old memories with her, but I had the privilege of getting to know her through my father and his sister, my aunt, and finding out just how wise and amazing she really was.
Anna grew up in Minnesota, one of quite a few kids, and was primarily raised by her mother. With the presence of a strong woman figure running the household, Anna grew up to be a strong woman herself.
She moved to Racine, Wisconsin and met her husband, George Spiroff, there. He was an immigrant from Macedonia, and he worked in a quarry in town. He worked very hard to maintain his solid, blue-collar job.
As for Anna, she worked for J.J. Case, a tractor company in Racine, comparable to the likes of John Deere. She worked during World War II, so at the time J.J. Case had become a large manufacturer of airplane parts for the war. She had a strong work ethic and a lot of pride in her job as well as in her perfect attendance record at work. She wouldn’t even dream of cutting out early or missing a day.
“She was like Rosie the Riveter,” my aunt Julie told me.
She was one of the first women to have a career at a time when women didn’t have careers. Even when the war was over and the men came back to claim their jobs in the factory, many of the women who stepped up to work during the war quit, but not her.
“I’m not quitting!” Anna told her boss. "I'm working." She was tough as nails, and no one was going to stop her or take her job from her.
Anna was very hospitable and loved welcoming people into her home.
“We always went to her house on Sundays for a big dinner,” my aunt said.
Anna also loved to welcome people into her garden. She had an appreciation for life and for growth that just couldn’t be matched.
“I remember, even close to 80 years old, she would say to me, ‘Julie, come over here and let’s look at this baby eggplant,” my aunt said. “She just had an excitement to see this baby eggplant growing. She was always that way, because when I was little she used to pick me up and lift me really close to the vegetables and the flowers.” As I mentioned before, she did the same to me, too, when I was little.
George and Anna Spiroff had two sons. Both my grandfather and his brother served in the Korean War, which required Anna to have a lot of strength to hold down a household while wondering if her two boys were still alive overseas. The whole time they were gone, she always spoke positively about the service despite her worries that her boys might not be safe.
Both boys did return home safely, but my grandfather’s brother died in a car crash shortly after. To live through that loss was hard for my grandfather and my great-grandfather but especially hard for Anna. She prayed a lot and found inner strength to carry on, even though it wasn’t easy.
Anna’s husband George died at a relatively early age, from lung cancer. He smoked, but being covered in white dust and gravel from the quarry day in and day out didn’t help either. Still mourning the death of one son, she thought she'd be completely lost without George.
Anna proved to be maybe her strongest yet after George’s death. She kept her house, continued to garden and ultimately became Racine’s corner flower woman. She lived on Douglas Avenue, which is an extremely busy street in Racine, so out on the corner she started a stand. She'd sell bouquets of flowers and vegetables from her garden. She didn’t ask for much, about $2 for a bouquet.
What she really enjoyed was the social aspect of selling flowers and fresh produce from her garden, and it helped her a lot after losing my great-grandfather. She really got to know the people who came to her stand. They’d bring her coffee and sweet rolls and stay for a while to chat. Even in her later years, she’d be out there on the corner selling her produce. She had a way of making people happy through flowers, which helped her grieve but also brought joy to other peoples’ lives.
“When I was little, I thought to myself, I’m going to have a corner like her,” my aunt said. “I’m going to be the flower lady. I’m not the flower lady, or at least not yet, but to this day, I still love flowers. My mom loved flowers too. We get this love of flowers from Anna.”
Anna never got her license. George used to drive, but once he died, she’d walk or take the city bus to go grocery shopping and to buy her children and grandchildren presents. A resourceful woman, she fixed a lot around the house on her own. As a woman who cared about the appearance of her yard, she always kept her grass spotless. I think that meticulousness rubbed off on my dad.
“There were never any dandelions on her lawn, and there was never any snow on her walkways,” my father told me.
As particular as she was about her lawn, she was also particular about her politics.
“She didn’t mince her words about whom she liked in politics,” my aunt said. “She never liked any of the Republicans.”
When it was election time, she would call the Republican Party and ask for a list of all of the Republican candidates running for office, so she’d be sure not to vote for any of them. Then, since she didn’t drive, she’d ask the Republican Party for a ride to her polling place and then go on to vote completely Democrat. She figured she was taking the spot of a Republican, so it was one less Republican who could vote.
Whoever her favorite politician at the time was, she’d cut out a picture of them and tape it up on her calendar.
“When Clinton was president, he was up there,” my father said. “When Kennedy was president, his family and he were up there.”
Anna was passionate about gardening, her work and politics. Most of all, though, she was passionate about giving gifts to her family. She loved buying cards for her family members, and she’d always write a little extra note in the cards in addition to the words that were already on it. She loved words, and I think my love of words and writing comes from her. My aunt also said that she got her love of words from Anna.
She loved bringing presents to her great-grandchildren. I was a little too young to remember specifically what presents she gave me, but my aunt remembers presents that she gave to her children, my cousins.
“She always brought noisy toys wherever she went,” my aunt told me. “She'd bring my kids loud trains. She'd also bring anything from socks to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. She was never empty-handed.”
Anna loved singing and music. She knew that she couldn’t sing very well, but she appreciated people that could.
Anna’s wisdom is manifested in the way she lived her life. She had a true appreciation and zest for life. She was a role model for my grandfather and later my dad and aunt. She worked hard, had outstanding trustworthiness and integrity and believed in her values. The way she lived her life was contagious to her family, to the people who bought her flowers on Douglas Avenue and to anyone else that came in contact with her.
“As a female, just being around her really inspired me,“ my aunt said. “She didn’t hold back her words on what she felt strongly about, and she spoke with a certain confidence.” She had a dominant voice at a time when women weren’t supposed to have dominant voices. She got upset when people were victimized or wronged, and she wouldn’t hesitate to speak out about it.
She always made her presence known and always said what was on her mind. My father told me that when my mom and he told her that they were getting married, she even commented that the diamond ring was too small. With this story, it really shows that not only did she have a strong voice but also quite the sense of humor.
“We’d sit in the living room, and once we’d get going on laughing we couldn’t stop,” my aunt said. “We both have big laughs.”
Anna was an encourager. She was proud of her sons, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. My father always told me how happy she became when she saw me and how happy she was that she got to meet me before she died. Honestly, although I didn’t know it at the time, the pleasure and honor was really all mine.
Anna was found dead on a beautiful, sunny Wisconsin summer afternoon in her garden, hoe in hand. It could’ve been a quick stroke or a heart attack, but she could’ve just died from old age. Either way, it was quick and painless, and the beautiful light in the darkness of her death is that she died doing what she loved most: gardening.
It seems weird to put it this way, but I’m just as inspired by Anna’s death as I am by her life. I want to die doing what I love most. I hope to set a record for the oldest woman to run a marathon, and then die one day at an insanely old age, right after I cross the finish line. There's no better way to embody life in death than to die with passion.
Anna leaves her mark as a woman with a strong voice and lots of passion. I like to think of myself in this manner, and I think I really have a presence, which I believe stems from her. I talked about Anna being trustworthy, speaking up for those who are wronged and working hard; but I think her prime achievement and legacy that she leaves behind is that she was “doing” at a time when women weren’t supposed to be “doing” at all.
When I go to bed at night or when I’m at a point in my day where I’m alone and it’s quiet, I feel Anna’s presence over me.
I have similarities to my guardian angel, but there’s still so much more I have to become to live up to the legacy of this legend.