Early Tuesday morning, GD, 79 and a resident of Johns Creek, Georgia for 20 years, sat me on her cozy reading chair in a room that faces the road and excused herself to go check on the Chicken Tikka masala that was on the stove. While waiting, I looked at her yard and the yard sign for the Republican Congresswoman candidate she and her husband are supporting. Later, we talked about her childhood, her love for gardening, and all the places she has already visited except for two places on her bucket list. Here’s the transcript of my face to face interview with her.
GD: I am going to get you to taste the chicken tikka masala once it gets warmed up. There’s an Indian lady, who’s one of the cashiers in Publix, Uma, and she kind of talked me through it. But, then I went online because she couldn’t give me any proportions and I need some sort of guideline. I went through all kinds of recipes until I found one that was interesting to make. This lady says she’s married to a Brit and of course if you lived in England or you’re British, there’s an Indian restaurant in every corner, which is one of the things I liked about living in England. I could’ve have a curry any time I wanted and it was always good. So, I ran her recipe for my sauce, with all the ginger, garlic. I do everything myself, and I’ve all the spices anyway, cardamom, cumin and garam masala, fenugreek and all that good stuff.
Heart: Wow, you’re all set. Well, I am a vegetarian, but I can lick a little gravy to taste it.
GD: (Laughs) You know you should always warm up your spices, sauté them a little bit. I’ve Indian neighbors, everywhere around here you know. And my step daughter, has Indian friends in Colorado Springs and I’ve been to their house and we all did a cooking project together.
Heart: No way.
GD: It was a lot of fun. We were like, one does the potatoes, one does this and one does that, and we all cooked. It was a lot of fun. Anyway, enough of that.
Heart: No, this’s perfect. My first question usually is “Tell me anything.” So, are you originally from Georgia?
GD: I am from western North Carolina. I grew up in the mountains. Wonderful childhood, in one respect. Some of my happiest memories are from all the time I had spent on my grandparents’ farm.
Heart: Were they your paternal or maternal grandparents?
GD: Maternal. My paternal grandparents were not that much fun, but my maternal grandparents were wonderful, you know. Lots of good memories. My parents divorced when I was 10. My father was a paranoid schizophrenic and he was mentally very disturbed. And its not pretty. And my mother had no idea when she married him, that this was a problem. So, she finally decided when I was 10 and my brother was 8, that she simply couldn’t raise us under these circumstances. And practically nobody in our family ever gets a divorce, so that was unusual. My mother was very strong and she said, I can’t raise my kids like this and she divorced him. Life was really tough for her because my mother had no formal education. We had no support from my dad because he was in every mental hospital, one after another. But, the one thing my mother knew how to do was, she knew how to cook. And the local hospital needed a cook and a dietitian and so they hired her. It was 7 days a week and after a couple of years, when I was 12 and was getting out of hand doing naughty things, she decided along with the family minister and the lawyer that the best place for my brother and I would be a boarding school.
So, after we went to a boarding school in South Carolina, where I stayed for 3 years before they kicked me out. (Laughs)
Heart: This stuff’s awesome. What are those naughty things that made your mom decide, enough’s enough.
GD: I get a kick out of kids nowadays, they’ve no idea what life’s really like. At 10 years old, I had huge responsibilities. Looking after my brother, making sure meals were prepared, because my mother had to work, making sure our homework was done. And kids nowadays, I’ve got a lazy kid next door who hasn’t finished high school yet, and his parents bought him a BMW convertible hoping that’ll motivate him. I cannot relate to this. When I think about my childhood, and the kind of responsibilities that I had, at 10 years old, I can’t relate. I’ve no patience with today’s youth, because they don’t have a clue. They’ve had no hardships, they don’t have to deal with anything.
Heart: When you’re going through hardships, its easy to melt and become more bitter. So, how did you stay positive?
GD: I used to try to stay focused on the good things. My childhood wasn’t great, because I was afraid of my father, he was dangerous. But, I loved school and my North Carolina teachers were wonderful. They knew what my home situation was like, and they encouraged me to read, which of course is why I became a great reader. And then, when my parents divorced, things were really tough. At the boarding school, I was terribly homesick. I don’t know if you’ve ever been homesick.
Heart: 8000 miles away and 15 years later, I’m still homesick (about India). Go on.
GD: Well, in this boarding school, we all had a job. And my job was to sweep the dorm hall and you could track me up and down the hall, because I was crying every day. I would miss my mother, and it would rain and it would bring back memories of home. But, they say, once you’re homesick, you’ll never be homesick again. And I never have. Because, eventually I adjusted to boarding school.
Well, back to part on why my mother thought a boarding school would be a good fit. I was fighting with my neighbors, shooting out windows with a BB gun and also, I was stealing from the store. Well, that really did it for her.
Heart: How could your mother afford a boarding school?
GD: She couldn’t afford it. I had to work my way through it. This boarding school was run by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR. Everybody had a job. I had to work for my tuition, my uniforms, and they worked us like dogs. In the summer, the school was used a convention center and they used all the students as slave labor, because we grew our own food, everything was hand picked, and hand made. All the food was cooked from scratch, there were no boxed or canned foods. Actually, one summer I wound up in the hospital, because I was so run down and had a kidney infection. Today, they wouldn’t get away with that.
Heart: Sorry, before I forget, did you switch off your stove?
GD: Yeah, I did. You’re vegetarian. Well, that’s interesting.
Heart: 30% of Indians are vegetarian.
GD: Are you a Hindu? Yeah, because animals are sacred. I should know that, since I’ve been to India.
Heart: Majority of my friends who are Hindus eat meat. Cows are sacred, so there’s a stigma attached to beef.
GD: Oh, I could happily live off vegetables. And I love dal, (Indian lentils) and they’re supposed to be good for you.
Heart: Yeah, they’re a great source of protein. About your brother, did he thrive in a way you did?
GD: No, my brother sadly inherited my father’s schizophrenic gene. And was ultimately diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and wound up a very sad life, hospitalized. He was in the Air Force, when he had his first total breakdown and I knew it was happening because I could tell by the letters he was writing me. And then they flew him from Spokane, Washington to Walter Reed in D.C., and my mother and I visited him.
Heart: Is he still..
GD: No, he’s dead. He died probably 5 or 6 years ago.
Heart: Did he have a family?
GD: He actually got married to a woman who was considerably older, whom I never approved of, by the way. They had a son, who of all things, turned out to be gay and died of AIDS.
Heart: In spite of the tragedies in our lives, we are all still here and thriving. See, you’re still trying to make it.
GD: Yeah, I am still healthy. 79 years old.
Heart: So, why am I surrounded by so many books here? Why does one have to read?
GD: I think books took me away from my real life into another world. You can escape with a book. I love books set in England, and foreign places, you know, places that I’ve always wanted to see. I’ve seen the Taj Mahal, and I made a point to see the Himalayas because I went to Nepal – to see the mountains. I wanted to go to Egypt, which of course, I did.
Heart: Wow, out of 200 some odd countries, how many have you visited?
GD: Oh my gosh, I don’t even remember. When my husband and I got married, we went to Singapore to live for 3 years. And from there, of course, I was able to go to Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, I always wanted to go to Burma, but never made it. And that was when I also visited India.
And when I went to live in England with my husband, of course, I had the whole continent at my feet. I lived in England for 6 consecutive years and my mother’s health started to go downhill, and so I came back here to look after her and then went back to spend two more summers there. We went to a lot of beautiful countries while we lived there especially, I love Italy, the south of France and we visited all the Scandinavian countries.
We went to Zimbabwe, my husband and I, on a safari. Because of my interest in gardening, the first thing I did when I went to England was to join the Royal Horticultural Society, and they did a trip to South Africa, which was out of this world. So, I went to South Africa with the RHS, and I’ve always said, if there’s really a Garden of Eden, it had to have been in South Africa. Its one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, with Cape town – its just a beautiful country. So, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel the world. There are a couple of places on my bucket list still.
Heart: Do it, what’s stopping you?
GD: (Laughs) I don’t really travel long distances anymore, my ankles swell up and just a trip from here to the coast of California is a killer. 5 hours in a plane. I’ve to keep my feet elevated, that’s why I keep an ottoman everywhere.
Heart: What’s the general theme of your life?
GD: Lucky. I feel very lucky. First thing, I feel I’m very lucky that I’ve met such a nice husband. Because, I was 45 years old, had no intention of ever getting married. And when I met him, he kind of changed my mind, because he’s a good guy. So, I consider myself very lucky. Some of my girl friends said, you simply don’t deserve him, you’ve always been so mean to all these guys. I never wanted to marry, because I didn’t want to have any children. I feel I carry a bad gene, schizophrenia, and I never wanted to be looking for that in my children.
Heart: Sorry, its tough not to get emotional. So, what do you want in life, peace?
GD: What do I want? I just want good health for a little while longer. Of course, peace is not something I’m sure any of us ever can achieve. Certainly, we don’t have much peace in this world right now, with what we’re trying to fight.
Heart: We’ve talked a little about teenage stupidity, but generally, what kind of lessons from your own life can you give? My friends all seem to be busy like me, always, not able to keep up or fall off this life’s hamster wheels. What matters in the end and how can we prioritize?
GD: The way I kind of look at life is that, when things look tough, I try to think ahead. I try to think, um, this time next week, it’ll be better. Try looking ahead.
You’re probably not interested in my general health, but for 15 years I suffered from what’s called Trigeminal Neuralgia. And I never thought I will rid this thing. I went through various procedures, and I had pain on the right side of my face (points to areas on her cheek and under the eye). The trigeminal nerve has three branches and what was happening with me, was that a rouge vein or artery was pressing on the nerve causing me severe pain.
Heart: Did it make you sleepless?
GD: I was taking anti seizure drugs, anti depression drugs and I was totally drugged up. The only way to get sleep was to take a sleeping pill, but you’re not sleeping with them, you’re knocked out. All this time, I was driving back and forth to Western North Carolina to check on my mother who was in a nursing home. And, so there were a couple of times when I actually drove off the road because I was a zombie, a walking zombie.
3 years ago, I met this woman in St. Martin in the Carribean, my husband loves to go to St. Martin every November, and she was from Ohio, and she was introduced to me by our mutual friends who knew about our similar problems. And she had had a surgery, and they said, “You must talk to her, because she’s completely cured.” and so, I talked to her and she told me about the surgeon and where he was. So, I made an appointment to see him in Cincinnati at the University of Cincinnati hospital; and if he thinks you’re not a good candidate or if you’ve to lose 40 pounds, he’ll simply ask you to go home and lose weight, he won’t touch you. I was afraid that my age might be against me. I was looking at what they called a Cranio surgery, which is a microvascular decompression surgery. I would like to show pictures of it if you want to see them. Anyway, he said that he would take me, and so I set about to do lots of tests to make sure I was physically fit, MRIs in the head to see if I could go through it. I passed with flying colors, went to the hospital for the surgery, got it done, and I’ve been pain free for 3 and a half years.
Heart: I love happy endings.
GD: I mean, I still have nightmares that it will all come back, but the only thing is that this whole right side of my face is numb. I had also done something here in Atlanta called percutaneous rhizotomy, where they go in with a needle and that had kept me pain free for a year, but that’s what left me numb in the face. My husband keeps an eye on me, if I get a food particle up on my right lip, I can’t feel it and it stays there if he doesn’t tell me.
Heart: So adorable. Before I forget, I wanted to ask you if you had any of your brother’s handwritten letters with you?
GD: No, um, no.
Heart: Were they too sad to keep or did you move too much?
GD: Yeah, just moved too much. I was still living at home with my parents, when my brother got sick. And the letters that he was writing were from the Air Force. You know, I was probably in my late 20’s. And, I guess I didn’t save them because I just moved too much. My parents were living in Michigan at that time, my step father had retired and he wanted to come back to North Carolina and build a retirement home here, which they did.
Heart: So, your mother eventually remarried?
GD: She married twice. Yeah.
Heart: When you tell your mother that you’re not interested in marriage, um..
GD: You want to know what my mother said to me? Because I never married to have any children, she would say, “You’ve never paid for your raising.”
Heart: For your raising?
GD: Yes, raising. Did you get what she meant? Because I’ve never had children, I’ve never realized what she had gone through raising my brother and me. She said, “You’ve never paid.” (Laughs) I think that’s pretty funny.
Heart: Was she generally OK with that idea or you were not going to have children irrespective of her opinion?
GD: I think, my mother was a very methodical, straight forward person. I don’t want to say she was cold, but she was very well organized, she looked at things very methodically and did things accordingly. She was very strong, by the time she died, she had lost both her legs, she was suffering macular degeneration and she couldn’t hear, but you know something? She never lost her mind. She was always very strong minded. Her body let her down, but if I’m half as strong as her, if I have to face more failings in the few years that I think I’ve left, I’ll be doing pretty good. She didn’t get emotional about things.
Heart: Your mother, almost 70 years ago divorced your dad, and that I guess says something. Were there a lot of “broken families” back then?
GD: No, my mother’s divorce was probably the first one in our family ever. You just didn’t do it. And my father’s family was very unhappy with my mother, because they felt she married him for better or worse. And she should’ve stuck with him. But she had two kids to raise and she decided she couldn’t do it. And I thought, she made a fantastic decision. And for her, at that time, in those days, and without any formal education, that’s pretty gutsy. I had a lot of admiration for my mother.
Heart: If you’re thinking from her perspective, there was literally no road ahead of her, but she did it.
GD: She got a job, found us a place to live, and while she was looking for a place for us to live, and get back on her feet, we stayed with my grandparents. I had a lovely aunt, aunt Eva, who would help me with homework. I loved her to death. My maternal grandparents were God sent and they were fun people. Always joking and there was always lots of food. (Laughs)
Heart: Were families matriarchal back then?
GD: No, I wouldn’t say they were matriarchal. No. Women followed rules, sure, but they also worked hard. My aunts worked on the farm, milked cows and cooked and baked on a wood stove in the kitchen with a big hot water reservoir on the side. We had no inside bathrooms. We took baths in a tin tub in the kitchen. I bet you never did that. (Laughs)
Heart: Oh my goodness, no. (Laughs)
GD: We didn’t have a radio or TV. I was raised without a radio or TV or computer games. The only radio that I even experienced was at my grandparents house.
Heart: What’s your lineage?
GD: My husband is Irish Catholic, one of 10 children. I never paid attention to what my background is, but most people who grew up in the south of the United States at that time were English, Irish or Scot. And I know that my paternal grandmother was a Mc Queen, I know its Scottish. And my maiden name was Wiggins, which is very English. My grandparents were Gladwell, Williamson, its all English and Scottish, as far as I can see. Very Anglo as far as I am concerned, because of which I’m probably interested in English literature.
Heart: Was there a lot of poverty and people were not forgiving of each other or was it more like, “Live and let live.”?
GD: I don’t think in the rural area I grew up in North Carolina, we thought of ourselves as poor. It was just a way of our lives. We had enough to eat because we grew our own food, we were surrounded by family and friends, we went to Church every Sunday, went to grandparents for lunch afterwards and you know, I didn’t think of myself as poor. I knew I didn’t have a lot of nice clothes because when I went to school, my mother and my aunts made all our clothes.
They would sit me down with the Sears and Roebuck catalog and say “Pick out what you like.” and they would make what I liked. When I went to school in town, I realized that people had prettier clothes than I did. I was actually so proud the first time I had something that was store bought rather than these homemade things I had to wear. But, now that I think back, the home made things that I had to wear were actually pretty nice, I just didn’t appreciate it because I wanted something store bought. Now, how many people actually sew?
Heart: Yeah, I can barely stitch a button.
GD: I used to stitch my own clothes because I barely could afford to buy what I really wanted to wear. My vision isn’t that good anymore; I can repair a hem or sew a button but if I’ve to repair a zipper, forget it. I’ll go up to the alteration place and she’ll do it, you know, all the complicated sewing. I’ve a sewing machine upstairs, which I use in case I’ve to mend something simple, if its just a straight seam. And then I’ve to get the book out to remind me how to fill the bob and the thread, because I keep forgetting. (Laughs)
Heart: If you don’t do something often enough, you forget. So, what was your first job, did you work?
GD: My first job was really good. When I left the boarding school, I went to Michigan to live with my mother. I was 16. There was a little neighborhood grocery store and the owner asked me one day if I would like to come work with him and I said, “Oh, I would love to.” And that was my first job. And I ate up all my salary. (Laughs)
Heart: (Laughs) What do you mean?
GD: I ate it all up. We had a bakery that would bake all these good things and I would buy these individual cherry pies and I would get myself a quart of milk and go stand in the locker (Laughs) and drink milk and eat cherry pie and by the end of the week, eat up all my salary all because of that cherry pie.
That was my job all through high school and I loved working there. I sort of pretended it was my store and after I graduated from high school, I went to go to college. My step father said, “If you want to go to college, you’ll have to pay for it yourself.” So, then I had to find a job. I went to work for the Ford Motor company, their Ford Tractor division, in the accounting department in Birmingham, Michigan. And that’s where I met my husband. I worked there for 27 years and went to college while I was there, which my company paid for actually.
Heart: Nice. Was it night school?
GD: Yes, it was.
Heart: Usually, when we are not paying attention and actively looking out for the things we actually want, we don’t notice them even as they pass us by. And if you were not looking to settle down, how did you end up meeting your husband?
GD: He was a college graduate trainee and he actually worked in the department that I did. But, I don’t remember him. All I remember was his parents died within 2 weeks of each other. And I had wondered, “What a tragedy that must be.” And he was the president of our ski club, but I didn’t even remember him because he was married at the time. And, I was single and paid no attention to married people, because I ran with the single crowd. But, then many years later, I was working in the international division of the company, and he had come to work there. He had just come back from living in France and I met him again.
And that was when I started paying attention to what a very nice person he was. I was trying to make my way ahead in the company at that time and if he could see me possibly making a mistake with something I was going to present to the boss, he would say, “Could I kind of suggest you do this a different way?” None of the other guys would’ve ever done that. They would’ve just let me flounder around. Not him, he’s not like that. So, I started looking at him, and think, “You know, I think this guy is worth getting to know.” By that time I was in my 40’s, I’ve had a lot of boy friends and I had become a pretty good judge of men. I had no intentions of getting married, and I was past the child bearing age anyway. And I remember I was in the lounge one day at work and one of the girls said, “Did you know that Mike is available?” And I thought to myself, “Well.” (Laughs) And she proceeded to say, “I think I’m going to fix him up with one of my friends.” And I thought I might have something to say about this.
I was an avid tennis player, that’s why I was watching the French Open before you came, and I belonged to a tennis club and so I approached him and said, “How would you like to come to my tennis club as a guest?”
Note: Before you rate this episode, please consider if you would’ve been so open and authentic about your own life. Earlier episodes available at The Anonymous Manifesto™.