Richland County has a large percentage of residents over the age of 65 years, and many are grandparents. As life expectancy increases, naturally does the number of grandparents. Nationwide, approximately one third of the population is made up of grandparents.
Because of its relatively mild year-round climate and because of its close proximity to both the beach and the mountains, Columbia is a city conducive to activity. Grandparents — and even great-grandparents — all over the city are actively enjoying their “grands” in numerous ways.
Thelma and Jasper Salmond, married 60 years, consider themselves some of the luckiest grandparents ever. They have 15 local grands: eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 35. The Salmonds have a full schedule as volunteers, often pausing to take grandchildren to after-school activities and watching a variety of their sporting events, ballet recitals, karate competitions and concerts. Their grandchildren have also always been very involved in church activities. Thelma says, “Hardly a day goes by that we do not see or hear from our grands.”
Family vacations over the past 20 years were spent at Fripp Island; they rent a large house, and the Salmonds’ two children, spouses and all of the grandchildren vacation together. Thelma, who the grandchildren call “Momma T,” believes that it is critical for older people to have an influence on the lives of younger people. “They may call us old-timey,” she laughs, “but I tell them things might just be done a little differently now … not a lot has changed, really. I used to wear a mini skirt; the ones girls wear now are just shorter!’
Gretchen Dawson, 86 and a native of Columbia, says she does not like to tell people her age because she says she finds it restraining. “People tell me I don’t need to be doing certain things,” she explains. Gretchen, who became a widow four years ago, has four children, seven grown grandchildren and six young great-grandchildren. She spends time regularly with her great-grandchildren who live nearby in Charleston. In the summer, she secures at least four condos so that others in far-off Poland and New York can gather together.
“When we are all together at the beach, it’s delightful,” Gretchen says. “Each takes an evening meal — and we have some gourmet cooks in the family! I might have been more physically fit when the grandchildren were young, even though I go to exercise classes, but I can still get out on the beach with the great-grandchildren.”
Sally and Jim Kitchens, who have lived on the same street in Columbia since the late 1960s, also enjoy time together with their 11 grandchildren at the beach — as well as in town. The couple has three children, and their grandchildren range in age from 6 to 25. Interestingly, two of their children and eight of their grandchildren live on their street. “So we see them a fair amount,” says Jim with a smile. “We have a very good time together, whether it’s at the beach, for holidays or some Sundays in Columbia.”
Through the years, Jim has taught his grandchildren to fish, hunt and play a lot of tennis. The grandchildren call him “Paw” and Sally “Dowg” — and, he points out, “We have no idea how her grandparent name came about. It’s just one of those things where a grandchild couldn’t pronounce something.”
Jim says that spending time together has resulted in strong relationships. He has tried to impart a feeling of no guilt in trying to get together. Otherwise, he says: “We know they are busy, but we do communicate on a regular basis, and they talk to us about what they’re doing.”
Jasper, who is a retired teacher, principal and school board commissioner, worked for an international consulting company as the contact person for the United Nations, still works some for his son. He says that modeling the behavior of hard work, honesty, integrity and kindness is important. “I help them to know that the world doesn’t owe them anything. We have to give back,” says Jasper, whom his grands call “Pop.” Thelma, a retired schoolteacher and realtor, agrees. Jasper also tells them: “Attitude raises altitude.” He explains that as they live, work and attend school, their attitudes — if pleasant — will attract people who will want to help them achieve the next level.
“But we don’t preach to them,” adds Thelma. “We give them examples and show them examples. We share things with them like: Put God first, family second. Read every day. Listen 85 percent of the time and talk 15 percent of the time. And, write down goals.”
Gretchen, whom her grandchildren have always called “Grandmother,” with emphasis on the “grand” and whom her great-grandchildren call “Granny,” went to the Apple school in Charleston to learn how to communicate the high-tech, modern way. “I have a computer, an iPad, and I was the first one in the family to get an iPhone,” she says. “I wanted to be contemporary, and these help keep me in touch with them and keep up with their birthdays and such.” She has also Skyped with her grandchild and great-grandchildren in Poland.
“People have tried to give me their old computers, but I like the new technology,” Gretchen quips. “I don’t let people give me anything old.” Her favorite form of communicating with her “grands” is through texting. “It’s a great way to communicate because it gets your message across, but you don’t have to interrupt.” Her youngest grandson, Katon, in his mid-20s, received a text from Gretchen at 1 a.m. one morning. When his friends asked who had texted him, he replied: “My grandmother. She wants to know if I can have lunch tomorrow.”
Gretchen laughs while remembering this and says, “I know which ones are up late.”
Thelma and Jasper, 84, say they have also learned to text, but they do not Tweet yet. “We’ve read about it,” says Jasper, “and we might do it someday.”
Gretchen, like so many others, is exceptionally proud of her grands and enjoys every minute with them. “They’re wonderfully smart. I’m so proud of them I could explode.”
She avoids lecturing and makes certain they know how much she loves them. “I think the wisest advice you can give them is to have faith in God, manners and a good education. This is a wonderful prescription, and I want them to know this and to know how completely I love them. I don’t see them enough, but I understand they are busy and they need to be busy in their lives.”
Nola and Jim Covington have three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild ranging in age from 1 to 33. Nola says that friends have commented that they cannot believe how much the couple does with their grands. “We have just always wanted to be a part of their lives. Anytime our children want us to keep the grands, we make it a priority because we simply want to be with them and are excited about all that they do,” says Nola, 83.
Even though the Covington’s grands are all over the world — London, Italy, New York, Washington, D.C. and North Carolina to name a few — they stay as involved as possible. Recently, they even made a two-hour trip to see their 12-year-old grand’s one-hour soccer game in N.C. and came right back in the same day. For one of the granddaughter’s student projects at Heathwood, Jim professionally videotaped her fashion design project using drapes, lights and sound. He has also filmed other special events, such as the grandchildren’s graduations and cheerleading.
“We enjoy every minute of being involved with them, but we don’t pressure them,” says Jim, also 83. “Whenever they need to talk, they know they can call us … we’re here. Our grandson for instance, who is a Marine Helicopter Pilot, called the other night and talked with us for over an hour.” The Covingtons also try to stay current with technology and text and email often.
Tripp Rush, a Columbia attorney, says that while his life is extremely busy, his grandmother is busier! Julia Rush, nearly 80 years old and a former Air Force Colonial flight nurse, was difficult to keep up with this past June in Las Vegas. A few months after they returned from the Las Vegas trip, she was off to Hawaii — where she had also been stationed. She plans to take Tripp and other family members to Hawaii in the summer and be their tour guide. She also regularly makes time for Tripp and Sara Beth, his wife, often to meet for lunch.
“We like to say that she’s 25 years old at heart — and physically, I don’t think that’s far off,” says Tripp. He says that while they were in Las Vegas together, they attended a Cirque du Soleil show that ended at 9:30 p.m. “Sara Beth and I thought she would be ready for bed. Instead, she wanted to go out for a full meal afterward and then shoot some craps. We didn’t get into bed until at least midnight; Sara Beth and I were the ones exhausted.”
While Julia drove them through Las Vegas, they passed a helicopter tour. Tripp says he jokingly told his feisty grandmother that he thought she would like doing that. She pulled the car over and before he knew it they were flying over the Hoover Dam. When they got off the helicopter, she teased him saying, “You didn’t think I would call your bluff, did you?”
“As a flight nurse all those years, that was right up her alley,” says Tripp, who had never flown in a helicopter before. “I have no doubt she could have taken over the controls had something happened to the pilot.”
Gretchen, too, stays busy. Besides regular exercise classes, she enjoys painting, which she became interested in later in life. “I have my memory and I can be active for them and that’s important.”
Tripp says he has learned so much from his grandmother. “Her perspective on life and her wisdom is just awesome. It’s such a blessing to have her in our lives.”