Across five generations of different faiths and hardships, one family of local women is serving each other in the selfless ways that define motherhood. And daughterhood and sisterhood. Or perhaps, really, just human-hood.
On this Mother's Day, women in the Schultz-Gassman family, ages 4 to 93, stress that their bonds remain strong due to a commitment to serving one another and never judging the others' decisions — or mistakes.
The five generations all have lived in the same house at one time or another and have navigated financial independence and child rearing together in a day when families often are strewn geographically.
It hasn't been easy or seamless.
But through death, divorce and other challenges, they have remained faithful to what could be considered an old-fashioned ideal.
“It is love, and it's family,” says Loressa Gassman of Summerville, who at 25 is the youngest mother among them. “No matter what the circumstances, you're ready for it together.”
At the family's matriarchal helm sits Yetta Gassman, a 93-year-old Jewish woman born on a farm, where a woman's role was to raise children, raise chickens, clean and can food.
Instead, Yetta graduated from college magna cum laude in 1941, back when few women did so. She and her physician husband, Harvey, raised six children.
But when one of her sons married — and left — his Christian wife and three young children, Yetta and Harvey stepped in.
One did not leave family, be it by blood or marital vows.
They supported their daughter-in-law, Mary Ann, financially, emotionally and by sharing their time to help with the children.
Yetta couldn't know that 40 years later, in another season of life, her generosity would be repaid.
Today, she rests comfortably near a hospital bed in the sunny living room of the West Ashley house she shares with Mary Ann and granddaughter Sarah. When a slight cough emerges, Mary Ann slips out to retrieve her mother-in-law a drink of water. Nobody asks her to do so.
Not long ago, it appeared Yetta's twilight days had set in, thanks to depression, diabetes and Parkinson's.
Instead, her health revived since she moved in with Sarah and Mary Ann. She offers testament to what love and care can do for a person.
“She has this new lease on life,” Sarah says.
When Mary Ann's husband left them, she began cleaning houses and trading skills — sewing for piano lessons — working seven days a week at times to support her young kids.
Yetta and her husband helped how they could.
“They were always there, always encouraging me,” Mary Ann recalls.
A decade later, Mary Ann remarried and had two more children. When her husband fell ill, she became a certified nursing assistant to pay the bills and care for him. Her older children, including the second-to-oldest, Sarah, pitched in.
“Her whole life was about working and taking care of everyone else,” Sarah said. “She has an incredible work ethic. She taught us that you don't let circumstances get in the way.”
As the kids grew, they moved out and on. Then Mary Ann's husband died.
One Sunday in 2011, Mary Ann went to church as usual. When she returned, firefighters doused the embers and ash of her Tennessee home, along with all of its contents and memories.
“Losing your house is like a death in the family,” Mary Ann recalls.
Devastated, she couldn't afford to rebuild. Where would she go?
Years earlier, Sarah had moved to Charleston. Until recently, she'd been busy helping raise two young granddaughters at home. But her daughter, Loressa, had just moved out with the girls.
Sarah's house was suddenly quiet and empty. She asked her mother to come live with her.
Mary Ann, a faithful Christian, figured God had timed it perfectly.
Sarah had married and divorced young. She came to Charleston in 1994, a single mom with a first-grade daughter, to start occupational therapy school.
She got her degree and took a job in home health, working hard while raising her daughter, Loressa, on her own.
Then during her junior year in high school, Loressa shared life-changing news.
She was pregnant. And she wanted to have the baby.
Sarah never doubted her daughter.
“I remember feeling so sad for her,” Sarah said. “But she never questioned it. She did it all with grace.”
Like the women before her, Sarah would be there to support her daughter — and her unborn grandchild.
Loressa started her senior year when Jaida was born.
She would leave for school at West Ashley High. Then, her mom would drop off the baby at day care. Loressa would hurry over during lunch to breast-feed.
“It really was like co-parenting,” Sarah said. “It was like starting over for me.”
Loressa earned an associate degree in accounting. She also began dating a man in Florida. During a visit, she became pregnant again.
Today, daughter Jaida is 7, and Juliana is 4. Juliana's father, Ron Rivage, moved to town and lives with them.
Next, Loressa plans to finish her bachelor's degree as her mom did when she was little.
“She always was self-sufficient, and I want to be as well,” Loressa said. “She's been my rock. She never made me feel like a failure no matter what my bad decisions were.”
In 2010, Loressa bought her own house and moved out. Her daughters needed a clearer idea of where mom stopped and grandma began.
“It was time,” Sarah concedes.
Yet it was tough for her.
Sarah kept busy, helping Loressa with the girls and managing PHC Home Health and PHC Rehab. She became president of the state's occupational therapist association and active with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Then Sarah got a call from her mother. Mary Ann's house had burned down.
Ever heard of the sandwich generation? They are folks caring for children and aging parents at the same time.
“When people refer to the sandwich, I'm a double-decker,” Sarah laughs.
At 43, Sarah is at the epicenter of her family's five generations, each living in a different season of life.
That's because in 2012, less than a year after Mary Ann moved in, a widowed Yetta faced going into a nursing facility. The older woman became depressed.
Mary Ann and Sarah intervened. Yetta should come live with them.
Why not? Loressa and her girls had moved out. Sarah is an occupational therapist working in home care, just what Yetta needed. And Mary Ann, a certified nursing assistant, was home during the day and could help care for her mother-in-law.
In a modern version of the biblical Naomi and Ruth story, Mary Ann became Yetta's part-time caregiver. And her full-time friend.
“Family is family, no matter what,” Mary Ann says. “There's always something breaking down, always some challenge. But you have to be an example. Live me a sermon, don't preach me one.”
Today, Mary Ann takes Yetta to the Jewish Community Center for chair exercise classes. Sarah, who attends Seacoast Church and sings in the choir, takes Yetta to her synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
“They are all very spiritual and godly people,” says Marcy Gross, one of Yetta's daughters who visited recently. “They are divided religiously but are very united spiritually.”
Often, they all hang out together at home. Or the five generations go to G-rated movies or plays. The little girls have sleepovers with their grandma, great-grandma and great-great-grandma.
As Jaida put it, “I'm lucky to have that many grandmas.”
Grandma Gassman, Grandma Nana, Mimi, Mommy ...
“There's just a lot of love and acceptance,” Sarah said. “It's important for my generation to model the value of putting family relationships first — our own and others. Everything else will be there tomorrow.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.