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Della Richardson lived a life of remarkable resiliency

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau

More Dellaisms:

Strike while the iron is hot.

It takes two to tango.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

Take it with a grain of salt.

Haste makes waste.

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

We’ll just have to go back to square one.

“It was martial law back then,” she explained, “You did what you were told.” Della Richardson was just 10 years old when her home was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The structure had been so severely damaged, the family could not even return to get their belongings. It was far too dangerous to even think of entering any of the burnt out ruins that dotted the city.

Della’s family lived in a tent in one of the Refugee Camps, eventually relocating when a new job was secured. Although they were fed in the camps, there was no additional help. With just the clothes on their backs, they started life over. She was the oldest child, and always bore the greatest work load shouldering the responsibility for her little brothers and sisters.

She married at 17, and her daughter Ethel Dolores was born just as World War I began. Her second daughter Gertrude (known as “Babe”) arrived one short year before the war ended and the Spanish Flu Pandemic circled the globe in 1918. Though the family survived that threat, when the more local diphtheria epidemic hit, Della lost her precious oldest child, Ethel.

In later times, we would take the long winding drive out to the cemetery twice a year at least. Although we would bring flowers, arranging them artfully in the sculpted vases, that was not the focal point of our visit. A lunch was packed, and we would sit on the cement benches together. We brought bread to feed the peacocks that wandered the grounds; their mournful cries sounding like someone calling for help. It lent a spine-chilling quality to the day.

The conversations were succinct “Oh, she was so good.” followed by a sigh and “She doesn’t have to suffer on this earth anymore.” What was not said aloud, but lay thick in the air, was that all those we had lost were still very much an active part of our family. The clouds would slide open and we would see everything that they were, everything that their life meant to us creating a radiant light to illuminate our path.

Della held no grudges, nor any bitterness, and we also both mourned and honored people who had hurt her. It was not common then, but she had divorced twice. Her first husband and the father of her children had been in the military, and when I asked her why it ended, she said simply “He was an alcoholic.” She had no more to add, feeling that summed it up. “Nothing is ever perfect” she said.

“What about Uncle Harry?” I queried. Her second husband was one of my favorite people. “I came home one day and he was kissing the downstairs neighbor.” Although she would not live with that, we visited him regularly. He looked at Della with such love and respect. She was not only matriarch of our family, she was kindness personified and an inspiration to all who knew her.

During the Depression, the family traveled the country in Harry’s pickup, setting up camp wherever they could find work. They had a folding table and lots of blankets, and would sing in the evening around a fire. She never complained about this or any other hardships in her life. It was simply how it was. Her comment was always “Look on the bright side.”

She had worked in both the local cheese and box factories, taken care of children, and was an outstanding seamstress. She lived what she knew. “Waste not, want not,” was put into daily practice with a joyful demeanor. She enjoyed the challenge of living simply. As years passed she found her calling at the local hospitals working as a practical nurse.

I saw her get angry perhaps three times in her long life. She yelled at me only once: when I started writing with my left hand. It is easy to recall the moment, as it was so out of character for her. “Watch your Ps and Qs,” she commented. But of course, that covered far more than penmanship and was her general admonition to watch what you did and how you did it.

There were other warnings she would give. Most notably “Quit your belly-aching,” which she would say to one of our relatives who could not seem to stop whining about her situation in life. “Don’t cry over spilt milk,” she would add. Pushed too far she would level her gaze and intone “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Della had put together a way of living that saw her through the difficulties. She did not covet what anyone else had, enjoyed a deep sense of gratefulness, loved others deeply and unconditionally. She was not a gossip, but showed a true kindness to friends and strangers alike. “Actions speak louder than words,” she would say.

With anything that was important, she had a habit of raising her left eyebrow, combined with a stony stare. No lecture was needed for you to modify your course of action if you got “that look.” She would mutter “You’re getting too big for your britches,” if someone made the bad decision not to listen to her directive.

Whatever she did, she did with all her heart. Perhaps this was why she was such an incredible cook: everything she made was naturally infused with goodness. As a nurse, grandmother, or friend, she kept her focus on contributing to the well-being of others. “You’ll catch more flies with honey,” she would say of her approach.

Although she was religious, Della never went to church. Each evening she would breath a deep sigh and begin her prayers out loud, calling out for strength to continue on her journey. Willing to adapt to ever changing situations, she knew “There is no time like the present.”

I do believe the phrases she repeated, if not magical, contained some sort commanding presence or power. They were right and true and there was no arguing with them. The most important one had some variations: “Make do with what you have. Make the best of it. Make the most of what you have. Be happy with what you have”. These had nuance, but the directive led to the same acceptance and peacefulness no matter what the issue.

Della passed from this earth at age 91, leaving a legacy for us all to follow. She is a primary example of the human spirit overcoming adversity. Just as we are called to be today, Della was strong, resilient, and connected to her family and community no matter what happened.

I have carried everything she exemplified in my heart, never able to replicate her sense of peace and acceptance. She is the beacon in the foreground of my thoughts. Especially now, when the trials of the world loom large, I think of her actions and her logic. She handled it all with grace.

Surviving through two World Wars, pandemics, epidemics, the Great Depression, the loss of close family, and the million and one daily struggles of being alive, Della “practiced what she preached” and never had a “chip on her shoulder.” It is wise to remember we are all capable of living with this kind of attitude, knowing that “Life goes on.”