My grandma turned 90 years old a couple of months ago, on April 6, 2015.
It was the first birthday she spent away from home. Though we celebrated her at my mother’s house and had a wonderful time, I know we all wished we were celebrating her as we usually did, at her green house across the street from our favorite park.
But about 4 months ago, due to early Alzheimer’s, Grandma had to move into an assisted living cottage. As we were going through some of her things at her beloved home to see what keepsakes we might want, as we were running our fingers over her memory-laden dining room table one last time, as we stood together as cousins in the emotion-filled rooms where we also became friends, I began to think about all the lessons I have learned in that house. It dawned on me bit by bit, memory by memory, that my Grandma taught me about what is really important in life – the most profound, meaningful lessons a child can carry into adulthood. And she did it all her way, which is, without saying a word.
No, my Grandma is not mute. She is quiet, but she talks perfectly well. It’s just that she’s the kind of person who shows and teaches by doing. The consistent actions of this quiet woman assured that she’d never need to deliver a lecture.
Every Sunday for my entire life, and indeed, long before I was born, Grandma’s family gathered at her house Sunday afternoons. She cooked us a smorgasbord of food: meat loaf, biscuits, green beans, corn, pork chops, roasts, cauliflower salad, fried chicken, and always, always desserts: chocolate pound cake, Hershey pie, home made cookies and apple pies and an endless supply of ice cream.
She spent all morning cooking and always had the big table and the kids’ table set for a crowd. She made sure everyone had their plates and glasses filled and rarely sat down to eat herself until everyone else was almost done. When she was doing for us, she was truly in her element.
And she loved every minute of it.
By serving us cheerfully and tirelessly, my Grandma taught me that there is great joy and value in serving others.
After lunch and more dessert than necessary at Grandma’s we kids would run off to play. Grandma, who had just served lunch and dessert to a minimum of 10-12 people, never cleaned up a dish or accepted help with the dishes in our presence. She preferred to sit and enjoy her company and clean up the mess when her house was empty again. A dozen or two plates, ice cream bowls, glasses, sets of silverware, and serving dishes sat there for hours until all her company had left with a grocery bag stuffed with aluminum-wrapped leftovers, and then, and only then, did she tend to them.
By saving the clean-up until after we were gone, my Grandma taught me to savor each moment with the people you love, and to prioritize time with loved ones over the “clean dishes” of life.
Grandma loves children and she absolutely delighted – I cannot think of a more fitting word – in her five grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren. She was definitely one of my very favorite playmates. She would play hide-and-seek with us for eons, never tiring, and finding the most creative hiding places.
“Here I come with big eyes open,” she’d say loudly in a sing-song voice. It was then that we knew the hunt was on and we’d better not move a muscle.
Even into her 80s she would get down on the floor with my children and play blocks or ball or whatever they wanted. Grandma was game, no matter the game. If we wanted to do it, so did she.
Grandma loved to play with us. With us.
By prioritizing play with me as a child, my Grandma taught me the paramount significance of playing with my own children, and of speaking a child’s love language.
Though Grandma loved to play with us, she was, as I have mentioned, a quiet person. Sometimes we could get her to talk and tell the old stories but mostly she preferred to listen. When I struggle with patience when my daughter verbally details and categories every last mosquito bite on her body, I think of the way my Grandma would sit silently at the dinner table with us, not talking much, but very much engaged, listening to everything every one of us had to say. I think of the way now, with her hearing going, she leans in and concentrates when my children want to tell her something, because she wants to hear it. It is not manners that dictate her behavior, but true interest in what each of us has to say. She has no motivation, as I often do, to pepper the conversation with witticisms and draw a few laughs. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention, but she’s excellent at giving attention.
By listening thoughtfully to me, my Grandma taught me that what I had to say had value, and that listening to someone who needs to talk is a gift.
My Grandma now lives in a small room in an assisted living cottage. I take my kids to see her about every other week. Because of her Alzheimer’s, she may forget a name or say something a little wacky, but she is for the most part, the Grandma I know, and I am thankful. She still went down the slide at the park with my kids today (and almost got stuck), she still scrounges up some candy or a drink to feed us as best she can, and she still listens intently to everything we have to say – even if she can’t hear. But the truth is, there is a time coming when, even though she may be living still, I will not have my Grandma anymore.
And that pains me more than I can say. I would love to be eloquent about it, but all I can say is – it really hurts.
But below, above, and around the hurt there is gratefulness. There is serving joyfully, playing with abandon, knowing and doing what really matters in life and saving the small potatoes for later, and there is listening to others and showing them they matter.
Those are values I will always possess, and when I intentionally act them out every day with my loved ones, I will have my Grandma with me.
I will always have the things she taught me without saying a word.
Thank you to Anna for the beautiful photographs.