Living in the state of Grace
By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
In Landenberg, there is very little in the way of manufactured announcement that officially ushers in the first beating heart of winter.
Along its divergent roads and ruddy bends, an occasional pop of holiday lights springs out of the dark brown and soupy green of its rolling topography, but in Landenberg, nature has always been its most prominent citizen and its best teller of moods. On the day after Thanksgiving, the spiraling limbs that stretched spindly above the home of Grace Crossan seemed to be an advertisement for shutting down, holing away, commencing a great sleep – all of the signs that our most silent season is about to begin.
But upon entering the Crossan home – where Grace has lived for 79 of her 102 years – the visitor was introduced to the sweet, summery, tell-tale signs of who Grace Crossan is, and the story of her life that she was about to tell. For the next hour or so, winter waited patiently.
Grace Crossan has lived through 17 American presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama; through two world wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and three military missions in the Middle East. She has lived from the womens' suffrage movement to womens' liberation to the appointment of women to the Supreme Court; from the most devastating economic depression in our nation's history, to a country that has become a global superpower.
It's all been on her watch, but if you ask Grace Crossan to describe how the world has changed over the course of the last century, she'll direct the visitor to the dozens of carefully framed photographs in her home, that document the course her life has taken.
She was born on November 20, 1913 in Bear, DE, on a farm owned by her uncle Richard McMullen, who later served as the governor of Delaware. When she was a small child, her father Clement Sylvester McMullen moved his family to a farm on Appleton Road in Maryland.
Her earliest memories were of accompanying her father on trips in a horse-driven buggy that hauled produce grown on the farm to markets as far away as Wilmington's King Street.
"We didn't have any heat in any of these vehicles, so we had to have a blanket during cold weather," she said. "My father sold his chickens and eggs and in the summer time, he sold vegetables. That was how he made his living."
Grace walked to school, across fields to a one-room schoolhouse, up to the 7th grade. From there, she attended Newark High School. There were no buses to take her there, but she received rides along the road that would take her to school.
In 1932, when she was 18, she attended a dance at the Woods of Little Hall in the Village of Landenberg, at the corner of Mercer Mill and Penn Green roads. There, she met Raymond Crossan, and she was immediately swept off of her feet -- literally. They danced the waltz. They participated in square dancing. He took her back home that night, and a long romance began.
In 1936, they married, and moved into a home on Landenberg Road. Behind the home, Raymond worked with his father and brother Kenneth at the family business on Saw Mill Road -- Kennedy Crossan and Sons -- beside the former Catholic Church, which was later converted to a residence and owned by the artist Bernie Felch.
The Crossans raised two children – daughter Patricia [Martin] and son Raymond -- in a town that still fairly resembles the way it looked decades ago, both in landscape and in personality. It was a town of neighbors and postmen and men who would drop off milk on the front porch.
"Back when we were kids, a man who lived at the top of the hill wold call us and ask us if we needed anything at the store," Patricia recalled. "We would say that we needed a loaf of bread, and there we would be, on the side of the road, waiting for him to come back up Landenberg Road from the store."
As is often the way things are in a traditional family, Raymond Crossan was the head of the Crossan home, and it was Grace's role to move her family constantly forward, in sequence with the bends of her husband's personality. She was the caretaker, not only for her husband and her children, but for Raymond's side of the family. She drove the kids everywhere, to events in Kennett Square, to school activities, to the movies. There were never any time for hobbies. It was always a big deal to go shopping in Wilmington. The family regularly attended the Landenberg United Methodist Church.
"My mother was always devoted to my father, and to my father's family as well," Patricia said. "Because my father was the dominant one in the family, everything revolved around him. She was a good, strong wife, and provided good meals for the family. She was always looking out for us."
From the time her children were old enough to attend school, Grace stressed the importance of education, and it was a natural expectation that both Raymond and Patricia would attend college. Raymond later attended Penn State, and after she graduating from Sanford School in Hockessin, Patricia attended Cedarcrest College in Allentown, and then received her graduate degrees at the University Delaware and West Chester University.
When Grace turned 80, she took on what would become the most challenging and gut-wrenching role of her life. Raymond spent the last 20 years of his life confined to a wheelchair, the result of being paralyzed from the waist down – which many in the family believed was the result of a stroke that occurred in Raymond's spine. Every day, she would have to help maneuver him into the family car, help him get into the bed he slept in, which was located in the living room.
Raymond died in late December of 1993.
"It was a tough time, seeing my husband go through what we went through, but I knew that I had to keep moving," Grace said.
Grace has lived in her Landenberg home alone since the time of her husband's passing. She has three grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. She keeps up with every birthday, and sends cards to all of them. She still gets her hair done every week, and goes out to breakfast and lunch with a group of women at the Methodist Church. Raymond lives right next door, and Patricia visits from her home in St. Michael's, Maryland, every two weeks, and talks to her mother by phone almost every day.
Longevity, it is often said, is a combination of healthy living, genetics and luck, and Grace Crossan offers no secrets to what recently brought her to her 102nd year, other than following her doctor's orders and taking her daily vitamins. Looking at the trinkets of her past firmly positioned on the wall shelves of her Landenberg home, Grace pondered the inevitable question that accompanies stories like hers.
"What do I want to do now?" she asked. "Well, I'd like to stay healthy over the next few years...I think I've had a good life...What's the secret to a long life...? Keep going forward. Don't give up."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .