That beautiful lady up there in between my girls is my grandmother. She is ninety-three years old, and although she tells me that she has begun to feel her age, she doesn’t show it. What she does show us – all of us, is how to live lives that we can hang our hats on. How to look back over ninety-three years and know that you have SUCCEEDED. Why? Because she is loved as fiercely as she loves. And after ninety-three years, I daresay that’s the only yardstick that matters.
She laughs easily, at no one more heartily than herself. She does not suffer fools, none less than chauvinist fools.
She adores her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, weaving her presence into their lives, knowing every one of our latest projects, our proudest victories, our most agonizing failures. She is always, always there when we need her.
Thanks to some pretty serious family dysfunction, I didn’t meet my Grandma until I was eleven. What, you thought you were the only one?
Nonetheless, I felt her presence in my home. Even when she wasn’t there, she was. Love is like that. Every March, my dad would open a birthday card from her. It was always an odd moment when it came. I’d watch him read it at the kitchen table, then throw the envelope into the old wooden barrel that served as a trash bin behind his chair.
And when he did, there she was, undeniably in the room. Not willing, even estranged as they were, to let her son’s birthday pass without acknowledgement, without a mother’s love. All I knew of my grandmother then was that she didn’t give up on the people she loved.
I must have been ten or eleven when I finally decided that it was time. My mom’s mom, whom I’d been told time and again I would have adored, passed away long before I was born. I grew up with empty spaces where my grandmothers should have been. Only one of which, as far as I was concerned, was necessary. I wanted to know my grandma. And, somehow, I was sure that she wanted to know me too.
I told my dad. With a ten-year-old’s utter lack of tact, I told him that it wasn’t fair. Not to me, not to him, not to her. The hubris of innocence allowed me to say what maturity might not have.
No matter that I was just a kid; he listened. Because he always did. And he decided that it was long past time to move on from whatever had separated them. Plans were made. Initial meetings happened. And then finally, she and my grandfather came out to our house to meet.
I had already decided precisely what she would look like. She would be plump, of course, because grandmas are plump. She’d have soft white hair, because, well, grandmas are old and have white hair. She’d be dressed in a floral house dress and arrive holding out a flowery tray of soft, gooey, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookies.
When she showed up, I could see that I’d gotten one thing right – the cookies. Well, sort of. They were break-your-teeth crisp, but they were chocolate chip. (We’d later discover that if we kept them on our boat for a day or two, the sea air would soften them up, but that’s a story for another day.) The flowery tray turned out to be an efficient Tupperware container and the lady carrying it wore slacks and a sweater. She had a wiry poof of auburn hair and a strong, sturdy figure. She wore a marbled plastic ring that looked like a giant bowling ball on her finger and clip-on plastic earrings to match. Even while cautious and gentle as she approached the granddaughter she’d never met, she exuded a don’t mess with me attitude. It was clear that the earrings could come off in a flash and the bowling ball ring could do some damage if need be. If one thing was obvious, it was that this wasn’t a woman to trifle with.
I adored her immediately.
Over the years, I would visit her often and she, in turn, would come to see us. I would test her patience and she would test my tolerance for a far tighter leash than the one to which I was accustomed at home. (Along with a LOT more food, but again, that’s a whole other story.)
And with each visit, and each phone call, and each and every story, I’d grow to respect her as much as I would love her.
A farm in Ohio was not the easiest place for a young Jewish girl to grow up in the 1920s. She tells stories of rocks thrown at her back and slurs hurled right to her face. She talks of her days as a shop girl in New York, an early feminist without need of a word to describe her very personal brand of activism on Bond’s showroom floor. And then a bold act of defiance – leaving her husband in the 1940s, petitioning a reluctant judge to grant her a divorce when he didn’t show up, and setting out alone with two children to start a new life.
Over the years, my grandma has taught me more than I could possibly record or relay. About humility, about strength, about love. But more than anything, she has taught me, purely by example, that femininity and strength need not be mutually exclusive. That fierce, powerful, tenacious love can co-exist with tender, soft, gentle comfort. That our children are everything – our hearts, our pride, our legacy. That setting and enforcing limits is loving well. That judiciously saying no can be a far greater gift than indiscriminately saying yes. That compliments given without sincerity discredit the real ones. That family should not be narrowly defined, nor ever, ever abandoned. That laughing, particularly at ourselves, is life’s very best medicine. That growing old sucks, but that seeing your children have children, and those children have children, and seeing them all love one another is worth it all.
My grandma is ninety-three years old. She is strong and beautiful, raucously funny, fiercely loving and enormously loved.
I am so glad that at ten I had no tact, so grateful to my dad for putting love before pride, and so, so blessed to have my grandmother in my life to show me what success – real success – looks like.
I love you, Grandma.