My grandmother died four years ago yesterday. I think of her every year on November 1, but I also think of her at times when I’m somewhere that was familiar to her as well as at moments that often surprise me. Lately I’ve been thinking about how my image of her has changed as I enter middle age. In my twenties, fresh out of college with an abundance of confidence to boot, I pitied my grandmother. In the midst of the Depression, she had been forced to leave Smith before graduating. She was a smart woman of means, who could have had ample opportunities for progressive career choices during her time. Yet she never resented how her educational experience turned out. Of all the women I’ve ever met, my grandmother had a special ability to appreciate the gifts of an ordinary day. The beauty she found in simplicity suited her, and she wore it well. Now that I am 40, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own life recently, and what the future holds for me. September brought a new sort of liberation for me with all three of my children in school all day. On this fourth anniversary of her death, I am remembering some of the things she taught me.
1. Read voraciously.
Hi-Hi loved to read, and her love of this activity rubbed off on all those close to her. She kept a running list on a scrap paper of books she wanted to read, and continued this into her nineties even when her arthritis-ridden hands could barely write. She compared her lists with friends and loved ones, constantly making edits. She read mysteries, autobiographies, and non-fiction. She walked to Eaton’s almost every day that she was physically able to buy a paper and read it cover-to-cover. She read by the sunlight streaming into the bay window of her cozy pine room, and by the light of her milk-glass table lamp each night in bed. As her body failed her, her mind stayed strong, and until the day she died she had a book by her side. It always struck me that what she lacked in terms of a formal degree, she more than made up for with the amount of reading she did in her lifetime. I often think of her when new books come out that I know she would have loved, or when I’m at our library watching my own children dragging a tote bag full of books over to the checkout counter. Reading is and always will be an important part of my life.
2. Give people a drink and they will feel welcome.
When we first moved to the North Shore, we lived in a tiny house in Boxford. We fixed a lot of it up ourselves, and made the most of what we had. Gordie was just starting his business, and we were stringing things together month-by-month. Admittedly, I was self-conscious about our lack of means, and hesitant to entertain. I felt the need to wait until my house was decorated and looking exactly how I wanted it to. My grandmother convinced me not to wait. She always stressed the fact that people just like to be invited. “Give them a drink and they will have a wonderful time,” she would say. She was so right.
3. Nothing Beats A Hot Bath.
Whenever I visited my grandmother as a child, I could not wait to take a bath. She had an orange heat lamp on her ceiling. When you turned it on, the whole room looked orange, and it put off heat as well. I remember dumping boxed bubble bath flakes under the faucet and watching the tub fill high with suds. In my family, if you bathe, you do it right, and you make the water really hot. I would climb in, certain I needed to add cold, and she would say, “No, that will feel so good…hop in” Once I was immersed, I would lie there relaxing, studying the orange, white, and yellow wallpaper while taking in the familiar scents of my grandmother which surrounded me. When I got out, I’d wrap myself in a yellow towel and then use her powder puff all over my body in such excess that she would find me enveloped in a white fog of dust. A hot bath has represented security, comfort, and an overwhelming sense of calm for me for as long as I can remember.
4. Have A Hobby.
My grandmother’s hobby was knitting. She always kept a knitting project going, and while it was typically a sweater, it was sometimes a hat or a set of mittens. She had a bag with her supplies, and she kept track of the sweaters she had made so she could keep it fair among her children and grandchildren. I always enjoyed watching her progression through each of her garments, and her obvious sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when presenting her final product to its’ recipient. Ten years ago, I found sewing. Sewing is a hobby I would do every day all day if I could. Whenever we got together, she would ask what I was working on. Having a hobby fills my cup and gives me something to look forward to in my free time.
5. Act Like A Lady, Inside And Out.
Hi-Hi believed in a little lipstick and a spritz of Chanel #5. She believed in Sunday best, and sitting up straight. She promoted table manners and being a gracious guest. It was important to put your best foot forward in the looks department, whether the day was calling for spiffy slacks or a wrap-around skirt with espadrilles. She had no problem with traditional roles and values, and I always loved that about her. I think of her when the temptation to dash out the door in my yoga pants overtakes me. I make a point to at least grab a lip gloss and throw on some cute earrings. Looking like a lady goes a long way.
6. Strength Will Find You, Grace Will Guide You.
My grandmother was abruptly widowed before age 80 when my grandfather died of a massive heart attack in the bed beside her. Her life did a 180, but her positive, can-do approach to things kept her pressing onward. She surrounded herself with friends and family and busied herself with travel and volunteer work. A few years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and a mastectomy followed. She showed me her scar once, and in an upbeat voice said, “It’s no big deal! I’m still me!” Her body slowly became crippled with rheumatoid arthritis over the course of twenty years. She underwent a hip replacement at 90, and was golfing six months later. She handled it all with poise and grace, and while I know my life will surely have bumps in the road too, seeing her handle it the way she did provided me with the confidence that I can do the same one day.
7. Don’t Miss A Great Beach Day.
Hi-Hi loved the beach. She was in the ocean early and often each season. I can see her now basking in the sun, her body draped out over a fully-reclined beach chair, eyes shut, with the corners of her mouth upturned in the slightest smile. She would then wade into the ocean, gently pushing at the water with her legs, arms splayed upwards towards the sky at a 45-degree angle. She would squeal with delight before plunging onto her back and floating on the waves. I’m lucky to live near Crane’s beach North of Boston. Each summer day when I reach the top of the boardwalk and I see the beach and ocean below, I feel overcome by this slice of heaven. The sea is in my blood too, and nothing on earth beats a great beach day!
How lucky I am to have known such a special woman who is missed, but surely not forgotten. These seven things she taught me become more ingrained in me as I age, along with the dozens of other pieces of wisdom she passed along.
Have a great weekend!