Lessons from Grandma

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.

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17 thoughts on “Lessons from Grandma

  1. My grandparents (my mother’s parents) weren’t supposed to meet, nevermind date or marry. My grandmother snuck out of her house to meet my great-uncle (my grandfather’s brother) on a blind date at a dance. Instead, she ran into my grandfather. And the rest, as they say, is history. Every now and then, I get a Marty McFly from Back to the Future moment….what if things had gone as planned? What if she really did meet Uncle Kelly instead? What if my great-grandmother caught her sneaking out? (Surely, there would not have been another generation after that! One did NOT disobey my great-grandmother! hehe)

  2. I loved this, Nichole! And I love that it’s filled with love and family and humor. I’ve always heard you speak about your grandmother, and this gives me greater insight into her, and you as well! You were a very insightful 10 year old (but, that doesn’t surprise me!). On another front, I sometimes find myself wondering what will I be like, and how will I be remembered by my grandchildren, should I be so blessed? Your grandmother sounds like the kind of person who didn’t “try” to be a grandmother….she just was who she was, and it was beautiful…And you loved her so completely and unconditionally in return. Thank you for your message.

  3. There is no greater gift than to have someone love us “warts” and all, and you obviously gave that gift to your grandma. Your wonderful word picture evoked visions of my own grandma who had a lot in common with yours. She was my rock in a sometimes shaky world. The only thing on earth that scared her was tornados because one once blew the roof off her house. But they weren’t going to get a 2nd crack at her because she had a storm cellar built after that incident and took shelter in it if any dark cloud appeared. You could set a calendar or clock by her schedule. Breakfast at 7:30; lunch at high noon; dinner at 5:30. Meals were fresh cooked- not from a freezer or a box. Bed linens changed and laundry done on Mondays, ironing on Tues., housecleaning & dusting on Weds.; canning veggies from garden or sewing & quilting Thurs & Fri.; Sat.: grocery shopping unless she was called upon to play the piano at the movie theater in town between shows. Didn’t have a TV but she’d kick off her shoes and listen to her radio programs after the dinner dishes were done. Her husband died suddenly in his 30’s and she was left to raise 4 kids on her own, but one almost never heard her complain. Her philosophy was that complaining doesn’t get you anywhere but feeling sorry for yourself. It was simply her job to raise her family and run her household. Although Grandma didn’t curse, she used colorful language with her lady neighbors as they had a cuppa Folger’s on the porch while watching the world pass by. A certain woman in a shiny new car was a “hussy”, another was a “grass widow” (divorced person), a swaggering teen was “too big for his britches”, a man who left his wife & kids for a “bottle blonde” was an “SOB who should be neutered”. I had to ask what that last thing meant and was told that “little pitchers with big ears don’t need to know some things until they’re old enough to understand”. Wish I could sit on her porch one more time eating homemade pie and eavesdropping with big but innocent ears!

  4. Thanks for sharing that, Nichole. I have to be reminded of the difference in both my grandmothers, to whom I was very close growing up. They both enriched my life in their own special ways. It also makes me think of what would have happened if my grandfather had been killed earlier and my mother had never been born. What if she had married the man she was engaged to, who passed away, and had never married my father. I guess God has a plan for each of us.

  5. Grand parents have a great influence in our lives if we know them. I never really knew my fathers parents, even though my grand father was around til “1998” and grandma til 2010. The only one I knew well was my mother’s mother, and I have great memories of her.

  6. Glad you’re submitting again to your blog, Nichole! God’s plans are so much bigger and better than our plans as shown by the lesson you’ve learned from your grandmother!

    This message is such a comfort to me today. David just left for his freshman year in college yesterday and a part of my heart went with him. I’m trusting God with his plan for David; though the pain of missing his presence in our home feels like I’m just barely able to move ahead at times. Still, I’m going to choose to walk by faith and not cave to my emotions because God is worthy of my trust.

    • Oh, I remember how hard that was for me last year!!! Interesting how “having” kids is really just the beginning of a long journey of letting them go. Praying for you all!

  7. Great Story Nichole and you to Beckie! “What if” is a very interesting game!

    My Dad’s mother before she married dated 2 men. That wasn’t typical in that generation and her father told her to pick one. She did… My Grandfather. He died before I was born, and I wished I got to know him… But what I really wonder… what if she picked the other guy?

  8. Pingback: If My Heart had Wings | Lightning Bug

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