Today would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She passed away in 2011 and was a huge influence in my life. To honor her, I decided to share vignettes of who she was, how she influenced me and how she made my life better.
The picture above is the only picture I have of us together.
A life of observation
Gram was an introvert like me. We both would rather sit and observe the world, taking in the scenery than participating in a conversation. Silent in groups, but conversational one-on-one.
She was always interested in the things I was interested in, regardless of whether she liked them or not. She tried not to speak poorly of others and believed you shouldn’t judge people until you’ve “walked a mile in their shoes.” Her modeling of empathy and compassion are ones I observed regularly and have tried to implement into my life.
Gram loved to travel. She not only listened to my travel stories, she asked questions, showing she was listening and paying attention. I reciprocated whenever she told her travel stories. We got to travel together to visit two of the three places she wanted to see before she died: Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Yellowstone National Park.
We saw both when she was 77 years old and I was 29 years old. On a hike to the Artists Paint Pots, I put Gram between myself and Paul to catch her if she were to slip and fall. Over and over I heard, “Watch out, Paul the ground is uneven here,” and “Don’t trip on that exposed tree root, Paul.”
Standing next to her, among the rainbow-colored, bubbling mud, we looked out at the pine forest in front of us and the spectacular view. “Will you look at that,” she said. It was all we said to each other out there. We took in the experience with our eyes and ears. It was silent except for the blurping noises from the mud pots.
Five years later, I had saved enough money so she could visit the third place on her list – Hawaii. She and my mom spent 10 days there. I wish I could have afforded for Paul and I to go, but I knew I had to get her there. Gram passed away seven years later.
Gram loved traveling as much as I did. Maybe she instilled the idea of traveling and experiencing other cultures and places in me. Maybe it’s in our DNA. Maybe it’s both. Deep down, her descriptions of the places she had visited made me want to see them, too.
I still have the $100 she gave me in 1994 to go to Grand Canyon National Park. One day, I will get there. When I go, I have all her Grand Canyon stories in my head. I just won’t be able to share my experience with her.
Gram was always willing to listen my music. She liked Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine,” but not “When the Levee Breaks” or Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” She did, however, pick out all the reasons I liked those two particular songs. Not only did she say it was the drums, but she explained why. As for “Tangerine,” she thought it was a “really well put-together song.”
She also listened to me “make a racket” while I was learning how to play Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” until I could get it right in one go. It was the first rock song I learned to play on a drum set.
Every week, I had to turn in my practice sheet to my music instructor. She wouldn’t sign it unless she had heard me “make a racket” upstairs and practiced. Sometimes, she would come home and yell upstairs to me, “Irene. knock off that racket and come help me bring the groceries in.”
Animals were always welcome
Gram enjoyed animals of all kinds. She fed the birds in her side yard every day. Her favorite were cardinals. She didn’t like the bluejays though. Those “little bastards” bullied the other birds.
She took me to the vet when I saved a squirrel from being hit by a car. I used a Popsicle stick as a splint to stabilize the squirrel’s leg until she got home.
When my cousin Patrick and I found a crying kitten – the only survivor of a house fire with nearly 100 cats – we helped our new family pet, Tigger, heal. She would flip him on his back and hold him like a baby while I put a medicated lotion on the pads on his feet. His paws and whiskers were all that burned as he escaped an otherwise certain death.
My grandfather, who passed away two years before I was born, had trained a squirrel to come up on the back porch to get a peanut in the shell every day from him. When he died, she continued to feed the squirrel every day for about a year and a half until it stopped coming. Gram said she assumed the squirrel had also passed away, but “not by getting hit by a car or anything bad like that. Of old age as most creatures do.” Looking back, her reasoning could have been a lie, but her words were a comfort to my “don’t ever hurt a living thing” 8-year old self. My 52-year old self still believe that story and will not harm living things.
Time invested in me
She taught me how to be a better pitcher. She went to her grave never telling me how the hell she knew how to throw a curve ball or a slider. Gram never missed my baseball games. She got thrown out of the stands once asking the umpire if he wanted to borrow her glasses. She made a point to tell me after the game, in a loud enough voice the umpire could hear, “I could see just fine from my car.”
Although she always kept my stats during the game had her own little score book, she never said, “you should have done this or that.” It was always, “did you have fun?”
She never missed my band concert, even though percussionists are always in the back and I was short and rarely seen. I joined band when I was nine years old. When I was in college, some friends and I created a band, The Crayons. We made three albums. Gram listened to those to. She had nothing but good things to say. Of course, I never would have been able to be in the band if it wasn’t for her. She bought me my Tama Rockstar drum set.
Gram always helped me with my homework, even French and Algebra, which she tried to learn along with me. Due to missing the first semester of high school, I fell behind in school. She got me a free tutor at the high school when she couldn’t help me anymore.
Even though she really didn’t understand French, we’d search through my vocabulary book with conjugations and figured it out together. When she reached her limit, Gram got me a tutor for French, too.
She had many life hacks on how to survive in a right-handed world. For all of my childhood, we were the only lefties in the family. My cousin, Patrick, came along much later. One of the many tasks she taught me was how to write my letters. Gram was tenacious in her determination to be who she was and didn’t want me to struggle as a leftie like she did.
When Gram was in school, the teachers beat her with a ruler on her left hand until her knuckles bled. She would use her right hand until her left hand healed, then switch back to being a lefty. She did this the entire time she was in school. She never relented to society’s bias and discrimination that everyone should be right-handed or conform to society’s ideal.
Despite her asshole teachers, Gram understood the importance of knowledge and encouraged life-long learning. Tapping on the side of her head, she often told me, “Remember, whatever you put up here, no one can ever take away from you.”
One time, Gram and Mom came to visit Paul and me. Mom kept asking where I kept things in the kitchen. I replied. She would shake her head and move on. Eventually, she said, “I don’t know why you keep those things there. It doesn’t make any sense where they’re at.”
Gram yelled back from the living room, “I don’t know, Margaret. I don’t have a problem finding anything at all.”
Driving and cars
After I told Gram about learning to drive a 5-speed and the trials and tribulations that go with it, she told me about how she learned. One week, her father had to work and couldn’t take the family to church. She told everyone to climb into their car and she would take them. “We lurched all the way there and all the way back,” she said. I can still see her smile and hear her laughter, with the added visuals of her hands up like they’d be on a steering wheel and lurching after she “shifted.” We went for a spin in my Toyota Corolla SR5 after that and listened to the radio.
I could write stories, and I have, about my lead foot. I learned from the best. Once, I had three minutes to get to baseball practice. The ball field was on the other side of town, about five miles and several stop lights away. We made it on time.
Whenever I heard Gram yell, “God damn it, Irene,” I knew I had left my Matchbox cars in her bed, again. I didn’t learn until after she passed away that I was probably the only one she ever let play in her bedroom. I didn’t even need to ask permission to enter. My Uncle Dick refused to go in her room. After Gram passed away, he asked me to clean and sort her room.
I said, “Gram is dead. I don’t think she’d mind you cleaning up the place.”
“That’s Ma’s room,” he said. “I ain’t going in there.”
But back to the Matchbox cars. I played with them in her room several times a week. I was a little kid and didn’t always remember to pick up after myself. Sometimes, when she got into bed, she’d get one of my cars jamming into her back. I imagine it was a similar pain to stepping on a LEGO.
We shared a love of Golden Delicious apples and peanut butter, but not together. “If you want a quick snack, grab a spoon and get a scoop of chunky peanut butter,” she said. She taught me that creamy is for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but chunky is for snacking.
Peanut butter was a healthier snack than potato chips, but I like both. “If you want chips, don’t eat from the bag,” she said. “Put some in a bowl and only eat those so you don’t get fat.” Useful information I still, mostly, adhere to today.
Shoving money in my pocket
Whenever I traveled back to Nebraska for school – and later as an adult whenever I visited – Gram would give me a huge hug and shove a $100 bill in my left pants pocket. “Don’t tell your mother,” she said. I didn’t. Then, she would tell me she loved me. It made leaving that much harder.
I can still feel the warmth of her hugs and wish I could have just one more.
Regardless of what she was doing, how far away from each other we lived, or whenever I called, she always had time for me. I don’t care what anyone else says. She was the coolest grandma in the world and my world will always be a lesser place without her.
Happy 100th, Gram. Wish you were here.