Living Grand: Editha Walker

Growing up, Editha Walker never knew when she might come home to a living room full of strangers.

Her family’s home on the south side of Chicago was a frequent gathering place for her father’s relatives as they arrived in the United States from Barbados, or for her mother’s side of the family as they migrated from the South. 

“It wasn’t unusual to come home from school and find a whole family had moved in until they could get on their feet and get jobs,” Editha said. “A lot of other families were doing it, too. It was just the way we lived.” 

Editha grew up with two siblings, but family was never just about mothers or fathers, sisters or brothers. It was an extended network that embraced the entire neighborhood. 

Editha Walker

While she spent her early years in what she describes as the ghetto, that family atmosphere helped make Editha’s childhood idyllic. She went to parties or to the movies and lived close enough to Lake Michigan that she could walk to the beach. 

Editha graduated from Hyde Park High School and attended the University of Illinois for a year before returning home and taking a job as a government clerk. But it was a substitute teaching job she took to help pay her way through DePaul that helped set her path. After college, Editha worked as a teacher and principal at a number of schools, including at Willa Cather Elementary School, which her daughter Crystal describes as the “best school on the west side of Chicago.” 

In 1988, Editha studied in Africa on a Fulbright Scholarship. There, again, she found close-knit communities where everybody helped one another. While the people around her had to walk miles each day to collect water, Editha also saw people come together to provide meals for older residents. Though she had never visited Africa before, she felt at home there and returned to the United States with a love for African drums. 

Editha’s goal as an educator was always to help people improve their lives. She’s not convinced she always succeeded, but she still believes it is important for children to see educators of all backgrounds so they can envision opportunities for themselves.

“You can’t teach someone to be better. You can only better yourself and teach them by example,” Editha said. “You can’t sit down and say, ‘You must do this.’ You keep looking for little snippets of it in your children.” 

A constant companion

For someone so invested in family, last year was difficult for Editha, who describes herself as “a little older than 85” (she’s 86). When her assisted living facility locked down due to COVID-19, Editha was largely cut off from the people who meant the most to her, and was frequently confined to her room. Although she has a cell phone, she missed seeing people’s faces. 

“We tried Google Duo video chats on the phone, but it was hard because Mother would put the phone up to her ear,” Crystal said. “We were talking to her ear, but the phone was too small for her to manipulate.” 

Editha’s children bought her a GrandPad earlier this year after getting a recommendation from another relative.

The impact was immediate. Now, Crystal talks to her mother three or four times a day. Editha has chronic health conditions, so the video chats allow Crystal to see how she looks. If Editha appears to be struggling, Crystal can call staff at the home and have them check on her. 

“If she had a bad day yesterday, I can push a button in the morning and I can see if she looks better. I can see if her breathing is labored,” Crystal said.

GrandPad also allows Editha to keep up with her eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

One is learning to play the saxophone, the same instrument Editha’s father played. A 4-year-old great-grandson knows when he sees the GrandPad app light up that Grandma Edie is calling. 

These days, the GrandPad is by Editha’s side from the moment she wakes up around 4 a.m. She starts the day by checking the weather, then reviews the GrandPad’s Inspirations section. She reads the Bible, reviews the Cat of the Day and Dog of the Day photos, and plays bridge and solitaire. After all that, she’s ready for breakfast and calls with her family. 

“The cost for a GrandPad is nothing compared to the peace of mind you can get,” Crystal said. “My mother can see her children. She can see her grandchildren. She can connect in a more intimate way than just hearing someone on the phone.”