“To keep the heart unwrinkled, to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent – that is to triumph over old age.” – Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Getting older is not something that has ever come naturally to my grandma. She resisted and sometimes even denied being a grandmother at all when my older brother and I (the first of her grandchildren) were small. She was, “Too young!” she proclaimed, to all the world, in her words, her dress, and her lifestyle. On each birthday for years, she would announce it was once again the anniversary celebration of her 39th birthday. She found 39 to be the ideal age as she never had to reach the dreaded 40. Today, I hear that 40 is the new 30, which is the new 20. Times have changed a lot and my grandma has changed with them. She has grown old, against her better judgment, and while it has not been a graceful journey, I feel that she gives me more to love every single precious day. With her age has come, if not a deep or profound wisdom, a certain perspective and peace that influences our relationship. Somehow, talking with her these days makes it easier for me to breathe. Her advice is always simple, practical, often laughable, and endlessly comforting.
“We grow neither better or worse as we get old, but more like ourselves.” – May L. Becker
When I reflect on the lessons that I have learned from my grandma over the years, it’s not easy to be sentimental. Something that you should know about her: she is always the life of the party, but she is not always easy to like. When I was a young child, I was mainly scared of her. Not because she was particularly unkind to me, but because she was unapproachable. She was nylons, heels, and long, red fingernails clicking impatiently against coffee cups. She was lipstick kisses on the cheek, never hugs. She didn’t (couldn’t) cook or bake or clean the house, but she could drink wine and smoke cigarettes like nobody’s business. She drove the car while my grandpa gave directions. If us kids were in the backseat, the power windows were locked so we couldn’t, “fool around back there!” When my older brother was born, she told my mom, “Don’t ask me to babysit. I’ve raised my children.” However, I will never forget her babysitting for us the night that my younger brother was being born. My older brother and I were sent to bed right on schedule and we lay awake, whispering back and forth, waiting for the phone to ring with news of our new baby. Finally, it rang. My grandma called out to us, “You have a brother! Now go to sleep.” We cheered very, very quietly.
My grandma had to grow old before she could learn to express her love fearlessly (I don’t believe she was incapable of expressing love before she grew old, only incapable of expressing love in a way that most everyone could hear and feel). She had to grow old before she could be herself, wide open, flawed, and wonderful. I am thankful to have had the time to witness her evolution and to know many different sides of her, because I have learned that the sides of her that I am not particularly nuts about make the other sides, the sides that fill me up to the brim with love, that much more beautiful for the contrast.
In honor of her upcoming birthday, I wanted to take the time to record a few of the things I have learned from her over the years, as a way of celebrating the woman that I love so dearly. We are 3,000 miles apart and she is very ill. Not a day passes that I don’t hear her voice in my head.
Lesson 1: “Read everything, even the phone book.” My grandma was a voracious reader for years and years. Her coffee table, bedside table, and kitchen table would be littered with reading material, mainly books. She would, could, and did read just about everything, but she had a weakness for romance novels. As she got older, she found that she could read the same book a few times, only vaguely remembering that she had read it before, but this did not diminish her enthusiasm for certain plots and characters. Although she is not able to read these days, due to her failing eyesight and deteriorating memory, she still talks passionately about the hobby of reading and of being a reader.
Lesson 2: “Be sociable.” My grandma can talk to anyone about anything. To an introvert like myself, she is almost a superhero. She has never met a stranger and people love her. They find her adorable and hilarious and endlessly entertaining. “She’s a real character,” they say. (She is. It’s true.) She knows just about everyone and their mother, sister, nephew, and cousin. She knows all the gossip from their family although she will only repeat to you and only this once in a stage whisper. Incidentally, her stage whisper can be heard from across town. I am a friendly person by nature, but shy. When I feel shy, I think of my grandma and force myself out of my shell.
Lesson 3: “Do as I say, not as I do.” My grandma was never the most exemplary role model. While denying that smoking had any ill-effects (she smoked from the age of twelve or thirteen until she had to give it up because she was tethered to an oxygen tank), she was adamant that none of her children or grandchildren took up the habit. What she was really telling us, in her roundabout admit-to-nothing way was that she didn’t want us to make the mistakes that she had made. Because she loves us. She has always encouraged us to be the best version of ourselves, from giving us a dollar for good grades to bragging about our accomplishments to her friends and mailman to giving us heartfelt advice from her unique perspective.
Lesson 4: “Have your ice cream.” For a borderline anorexic, weighing in at less than ninety pounds fully clothed, who once had signs posted on the refrigerator that said, “A moment on the lips = forever on the hips,” and, “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,” my grandma is a huge supporter of desserts. One of her favorite and most grandmotherly excursions when we were kids was to take us out for ice cream. She would always get the same thing: a hot fudge sundae with coffee ice cream and extra nuts. It’s still her favorite. “And why not, if I enjoy it?” she says. Why not, indeed! My grandma taught me to enjoy the finer things and to indulge in a treat from time to time.
Lesson 5: “Oreos are the world’s most perfect cookie. And no one will ever convince me otherwise.” Enough said.
Lesson 6: “Walk five miles every day.” My grandma LOVED to walk, as long as she was able. A few years ago, she broke her hip. She suffers from congestive heart failure. The majority of her days now are spent in bed. But she still maintains that, “underneath all that,” she remains at heart, “a walker.” I absolutely love to hear my grandma talk about the walks that she used to take every day because as she talks about it, I can picture her in my head as she was then. My grandma never truly walked for her health. She ambled. She strolled. She leaned to one side, as she carried the world’s heaviest purse over one shoulder, and she chatted all the way. She lived just outside her small town square and every day following her retirement she would make her way “uptown” for breakfast and errands. It turns out I did inherit her love of walks, although I don’t carry the world’s heaviest purse and I maintain a brisker clip. For now.
Lesson 7: “Have a flashlight with you.” The immense weight of my grandma’s purse remains a bit of a mystery to this day. What did she have in there?! When we were kids and she would be at our house and needed her reading glasses, she would call out to us like a queen, “Bring me my purse, but don’t break your arm.” One thing that I know she carried in there was a flashlight. Every time we would be in a darkened restaurant or theater and I would lament the darkness, she would illuminate the situation with her trusty little light. The symbolism is not lost on me.
Lesson 8: “Every morning when I slide my feet into my slippers, I’m thankful for another day.” When I was taking a speech class in college, I had an assignment that required me to interview an elderly person. I interviewed my grandma. It was fascinating and fun. I had to record our conversation and play segments for the class when I presented about the experience. This quote, broadcast through the hushed classroom in my grandma’s distinctive voice, made my entire class tear up. Collectively, we were moved by her optimism and fragility.
“Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young.” – Samuel Ullman
In her refusal for so many years to age beyond 39, my grandma taught us of her absolute devotion to what she perceived as youth and beauty. Now, in her advancing years, she is more beautiful than ever before. She has long been an expert editor of her own life, altering a story to make it more interesting for her intended audience. Some of her stories have changed so many times that they are almost complete fabrications, but they’re fabulous and she owns them. She currently lives in the strange, unique sense of time known only to the very old and the very ill, where events know no set time and place — today, yesterday, fifty years ago, and next week are happening all at once. Talking to my mom the other night she asked, “Is it 8:00 in the morning or at night?” “At night,” my mom confirmed. “I’d better think about getting to bed then!” my grandma declared. From the bed she had been in all day. We laugh and laugh, so as not to cry, but it’s not all sadness. It’s a lot of poignancy and nostalgia and a mess of life, love, and loss.
I am so lucky to know this lady.