From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul


Love is all we have, the only way we can help the other.


The whole town called her Oohoo. Until the day she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of ninety-nine, many never knew her real name. I was the grandchild who coined the name when I was four or five. My mother would walk me the two blocks to my grandma’s house and help me climb the steep steps to her massive front door, which she always left unlocked. As Mom turned the knob and opened the door she would sing out, “Ooooooo hooooooooo.” Almost immediately, the beautiful, stately, white-haired lady with the big smile would come running down her staircase and scoop me into her arms.

I was a chubby, awkward, middle child, growing up in a small town in the 1950s where everybody knew everybody and all of their business. For some unknown reason, I experienced in my youth what too many kids are still experiencing today. If it hadn’t been for Oohoo and the safe haven of her loving home, I might have fallen through the cracks. By age ten I had learned to “stuff down my feelings and insecurities,” and by sixteen I was one hundred pounds overweight. But at Oohoo’s house I never felt judged. At school I was a well-known troublemaker who had been in and out of the principal’s office and suspended many times. But Oohoo loved me unconditionally and expected only the best from me.

My sister, Donna, was my hero and role model. She was four years older and had always been everything I wanted to be: head cheerleader, prom queen, valedictorian, yearbook queen, size eight. My younger brother, Duke, was just as admirable: star athlete, A+ student, Mr. Popularity. Then there was “Poor Debbie.” I heard that name applied to me so often that I lost count. Eventually I began drinking and smoking and trying anything I could sniff or swallow. The label “at-risk youth” had not yet been coined, but I could have been the poster child.

Oohoo kept her door unlocked for a crying ten-year-old when she was called “Fatso,” for a fifteen-year-old who wasn’t chosen for the cheerleading squad, for a seventeen-year-old who wrecked the car and was afraid to tell her parents, and for a twenty-one-year-old who didn’t want to live anymore.

My poor parents took me to counselors and doctors and were always trying to pull me out of my abyss. Upon the advice of a child psychologist, they agreed to let me stay with Oohoo temporarily. She never mentioned my weight, never condemned me and always treated me with respect and dignity. She was tough on curfew and following house rules, but she immersed me in love and became my role model.

Every Sunday from as early as I can remember, Oohoo picked me up for Sunday school. She taught there for seventy-eight years and practiced every word of what she preached. I never heard her say one unkind word about anyone; she was a friend to people of all backgrounds, cultures and races. Oohoo taught me the meaning of selfless giving, generosity and unconditional love. It is life’s tests that make us either bitter or better. Oohoo taught me to be better.

I didn’t know at that time about Oohoo’s own broken heart or her problems with my grandfather. Against all odds, my precious grandmother had graduated from the University of Missouri in 1919, and she inspired me to stay in school and go on to college as well. Her house was filled with poetry and literature from her own classes. Her old trunk was filled with costumes from her days in Hollywood when she boldly accepted a journalism assignment where young women then were not encouraged to go.

Oohoo had been a teacher and a journalist, and I became a teacher and a journalist too. Who would ever have thought I would be an English and drama teacher using some of the old books and costumes I carried from Oohoo’s house?

I am so grateful that Oohoo lived long enough to see me marry my college sweetheart, lose one hundred pounds, return to my family as a prodigal daughter and become Teacher of the Year. I got to tell her that she was my hero on the celebration of my grandparents’ sixty-fifth wedding anniversary.

She stayed with my grandfather when she had reason to leave, but he, too, turned around later in his life, realizing what a gem he had in Oohoo.

I began my career with an advantage because Oohoo taught me unconditional love and empathetic listening skills I would never have learned elsewhere. Having served now in the field of education for over thirty years, I can honestly say I believe most “problem children” could be turned around if they had a caring grandparent, an “Oohoo,” in their life. As high school and university instructors, we are told to call home at the first sign of any problem behavior, academic or otherwise. When my students’ parents aren’t home, or are too busy or just don’t know how to help, I have the alternative solution. Invariably there is a caring, knowing, loving person already waiting to help. All I need to do is ask, “May I speak to your grandmother?”

Debra D. Peppers

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