I haven’t posted anything in quite some time, but I have been writing! Today I want to share an excerpt from that writing. It is about my grandmother, the most influential woman in my life after my mother. She passed away 3 years ago this August and I miss her as much as I did the first day she went away. This post is not only about her, but about me and just a few of the life lessons she taught me. I hope they speak to you and bless you as well.
Grandma. 5’ 10” with short, dark-blond hair (before it went white) which she set in curlers weekly for that June Cleaver kind of look. Not that my Grandma was much like June Cleaver. Gosh, I’d probably catch heck if she heard me comparing her to June Cleaver! Kim Novak…or Angela Landsbury…maybe she would like those comparisons better. After all, Grandma traded in skirts and dresses for elastic waisted, pocketless denim or polyester slacks long before I came along. And whenever she was at home, the only thing she wore on her feet were those toeless, backless, slide-on, terrycloth slippers. I guess she figured if clothes weren’t comfortable then they weren’t worth wearing.
I, along with my brother and mother, had the privilege of spending more than half my childhood living with my grandparents. While she didn’t work outside the home – and she cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed on a schedule you could set a watch to – my Grandma, Arlene was her name, found no bliss in her domestic duties. Domesticity was her job. Period. She lived for the moments in between. Those filled with piano playing, crossword puzzles, game shows, family visits, apple pie with cheddar cheese, diet coke, Pall Mall non-filters, Murder She Wrote and Fred Astaire.
One afternoon, when I was about 10, I came home from school with an assignment. I plopped myself down on the floor in front of the chair where she sat.
“Grandma, I have to ask you a question for homework. If there was one thing you could have done differently in life, what would it be?”
“Oh, let me see,” she said, resting her elbows on her knees and rubbing her wrinkled hands together. She turned her blue-green eyes to the floor to think, then looked back up at me and said, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have had so many kids.”
I, the firstborn of her fourth and very last child, stared back, wide-eyed, slack-jawed.
“I think I would have stopped after the first one. Raising all those kids…ah.” She waved her hand as if brushing away all the chores of childrearing. “Then maybe I would have gotten a job or something.”
She said it so casually, so matter-of-factly. My mind reeled. My grandma – the most dependable, reliable, non-threatening person I knew, one whose love I never doubted and whose care I never lacked – just wiped my name from her book of life! I imagined the consequences: my mother, my aunt Joanne, my uncle Gibby, my cousins and me…all gone. Uncle Thomas and his kids the only survivors. How easily she dismissed our familial line!
I took a breath and checked myself, searching for any internal hurt or anger. There was none. In fact, if I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have even laughed. Geez Gram, I thought, you can think those things if you want, but maybe you shouldn’t say them out loud…to your grandchildren!
But I found that I couldn’t hold it against her. Rather, my appreciation for her grew. She had hopes and dreams beyond motherhood and housewifery; she wanted more than us. I wondered what held her back. Was it falling in love with grandpa that caused her to settle down and have kids? Was it her limited education? Or just a lack of options for farm girls in the 1940’s? Whatever the case, she wanted something different and yet her dutiful, personal sacrifice betrayed none of those regrets.
My grandmother was the solid ground beneath my shifting sands of life. Borrowing from singer Sarah Evans, “she was steady as the sun.” Faithful. Predictable. Available. Consistent. She loved us all and would stand by us until the end. Of that I had no doubt. That day, I saw in her, perhaps for the first time, the incomparable value of a life sacrificed for others.
She was no saint. I’m pretty sure a woman who at times shared vocabulary with sailors can’t be canonized. And her insistence that “that Mary, she wasn’t no virgin” probably wouldn’t have won her any votes either. But she was ours and nothing, not even her own dreams, would change that.
At that moment, I made a point to tuck this little conversation away, knowing that someday, when I was old enough, its retelling would make us all roar with laughter.
I learned a few more things that day. I learned that while our choices matter, life is bigger than our choices. And that our regrets don’t have to define us. But perhaps, most importantly for me, an unplanned child, I learned that our plans might not always be the best plans.
How precarious was my entrance into this world! What if my parents never met? Never dated? What if they’d chosen to abort me? It was 1973 after all.
Or what if my grandma had stopped at just one child and went off to get a job instead?
Life is not only bigger than our choices; it’s bigger than me, bigger than all of us. That day, I stopped asking “What if?” and began to wonder “Why?”
Why was I here? Why was my mother here? My grandmother? Anyone?
I was Curious.