Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of driving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, WOW! What a ride!
For years, I would make the forty-five minute drive to Reading from my home to accomplish some errand or make some purchase and while I was in town, the thought would cross my mind. “You should stop and see Grandmom.”
“Next time,” I’d rationalize. “You ought to get home or you’ve been in town way too long already.”
I thought as long as she didn’t know I was local, her feelings wouldn’t get hurt. Who was really missing out however, was me.
When my Grandmother turned 99, I woke up. I realized she wasn’t going to live forever, so my kids and I started hanging out with her. We began to visit Grandmom on a regular basis, took her on outings, played BINGO!, shopped at the mall, learned to make fasnachts, embroidered pillow cases together, played 500 Rummy, etc. My own parents both died after only 57 years and my children never knew them. I wanted my children to know this Matriarch of the family. I was sure she could teach us something.
When I was driving in the car with my Grandmother one day, I became frustrated behind a slow vehicle. She said, “It’s OK, Cindy; we have all the time in the world.”
How absurd, I thought, for her, to say that at nearly at 100. She is freakin’ running out of time! But she happily lives as though she has all the time in the world.
Like so many people my age, I live with a sense of urgency. I drive quickly between errands, grow impatient behind slowpokes, cram in as many activities in a day as possible- move quickly and move often, is often my mantra. But when you offer your arm to a 100 year old, you don’t exactly zip along.
My kids were instructed to open her car door, offer their arms, let her lean on them, and walk her pace, which is very slow. My kids never did anything like this before- help the elderly, yet they did it well. They were polite, mannerly, kind and genuinely interested.
Sometimes to get into the car, she had to grab her foot and yank it in, like it didn’t know it was supposed to follow the leg in. At these times, she giggled and said, “It needs a little help sometimes,” but she would never complain.
On our drives, she would look around and marvel at everything- a dormitory at a local college, a line of doves on a wire, etc. She read the sides of tractor trailers that we passed, every billboard. At the cemetery where my parents are buried, she exclaimed,
“Look how all the gravestones are so beautifully lined up!”
And my kids whispered, “Grandmom sees beauty everywhere!”
Yes, she sees beauty everywhere and everything is a gift- very powerful medicine to be around.
When we shared a meal with her, she would cast her eyes up to heaven, or to a nearby holy picture of Jesus and get teary eyed and say, “Thank you for bringing my wonderful family to me.” This completely amazed my kids, how a 1-2 hour visit could move someone to tears. They realized what a great gift they were giving her- the gift of their presence and they never saw a visit with her as a chore.
My grandmother’s parents met on a boat coming from Europe- her mother from Germany, her father from Poland. She was one of sixteen children. She had to quit school in the fourth grade to help support the family by ironing at home. She entered the work world at age fourteen, after her parents died. When I appeared shocked, she replied, “I thought it was normal.”
(I’ve said this myself about my own life, when people were surprised over what I had done. To me also, it did not seem strange but normal. It was just my life and the choices I had made.)
All through her life, my Grandmother learned to make the best of things. Her husband, Joe, died almost 50 years ago, and she lived alone ever since, outliving all her siblings and most of her children. She was the landlady of her apartment house in a rough section of Reading. In her elderly years, a wounded bleeding man from gunshot, crawled into her vestibule and woke her up one night.
“Mister! What’s wrong! Mister!” she asked the moaning man through her cracked door.
She was also startled another evening by thieves trying to pry her stained glass transom window out of her front door. Fear never entered into the equation. She simply dialed 911. Her daughter, my Aunt Dot, wanted to see her live somewhere “safer” with company, but it had been her home for over 50 years, and she had always been fine there.
My Grandmother fell down her open wooden cellar steps one day, and no one was there to help her. Her clunky high heels hooked on a step and left her hanging face down. She laughed with tears streaming down her face at her silly predicament, then muttered, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, help me.” Her heels “miraculously” let go, and she bounced down the remaining steps to the cellar floor, no bodily harm done.
Her resourcefulness knew no bounds. One time, her gas range did not work. For days she waited for the repairman to come, but in the meantime, she wanted hot soup (rather lukewarm), so she got the brilliant idea to heat up chicken soup in a frying pan over her toaster.
“It’s OK,” she replied when I acted alarmed over the inconvenience. “I live alone, and I have to do what I need to do to take care of myself.”
She’s was still “a looker” at her age, for every day of her life, she wore nylon stockings, a dress, and never went out the door without lipstick. She has never worn pants. “My mother taught me to dress like a lady,” and she puts on a hairpiece of white curls (and until recently, high heels), every morning.
Part of her good looks was a direct result of her fine health, for she was never on medication. The only bodily ailment she had was an occasional sore “hammer toe.”
She drank a glass of red wine every night, was never been afraid of hard work, and got down on her hands and knees to scrub her floor. In her 80’s, she tarred her roof, (even though my father was still alive and could have done it), simply because she could. She also took care of her spiritual health by praying voraciously. At 100, she felt “too young” to use a wheelchair, a walker, a cane or even a hearing aid.
When I visited, she regularly filed through her dress closet, pulling out a tailored beaded dress or a well-made pair of patent leather heels, for our sizes were similar.
I thought to myself, what makes her think our tastes are the same, a 50 year span?
Her wanting to share her clothing with me makes you realize that this woman has a completely different philosophy of looking at age in life. Age spans/age gaps are pretty irrelevant in her mind and here lies another piece in the secret of how she has survived and managed to live so well.
“I don’t feel 100, I don’t feel old at all. I feel I can do anything that I want,” even though she could hardly walk and was hard of hearing. And so she does, or at least she is willing to try. As my friend once shared, “Your biography becomes your biology” and so it was with my Grandmother.
The kids and I talked about this in the car, Grandmom’s unwillingness to see herself as old and then went into questions on life and death. They wanted to know how my parents died, what it was like to watch my father’s spirit leave, how a person’s essence has nothing to do with their shell of a body which they inhabit while on earth. They wanted to discuss different burial methods – vaults, cremation, embalming, the smell of cremation. We talked about where you could sprinkle someone’s ashes- just a barrage of questions about life and death. It was good. Time spent with my Grandmother stimulated my children to think, to look at things differently, to wonder, to question. It gave them information on who they want to become, what type of attitude of life and behavior they might want to adopt.
In 100 years of life, enough negative experiences could justifiably impact you to make you into a complainer. Yet my Grandmother was always positive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her grouchy or complain and that in itself is a huge lesson to learn.
Only one time did I see her angry and that was over a moldy cake. I was visiting with my Aunt and when Grandmom took out her pound cake to feed us, blue mold clearly marbled the white cake. She cut off the ends. She cut off the top and then the bottom, yet it was riddled with the mold like blue cheese. My aunt told her to throw it out but she wanted no parts of it. I defiantly told her I was not eating it after she insisted it was OK, and she became visibly emotionally upset.
I knew this stemmed back to her past, when times were very hard and you wasted nothing. I’ve been in friends’ homes who automatically throw out leftovers immediately after a meal, and save nothing, which I find wasteful. If we happen to forget to consume something in our fridge, we at least have our garden compost to add to. I admired my Grandmother for her principals, even though they seemed a bit extreme to me, but I was not 100. This gap of what each generation considers to be OK is interesting to observe, for me but especially for my children.
A few times, Todd came over to paint her porch and my kids came along. They would be mesmerized by the Puerto Rican neighbors who played loud music, hung out on their porches, their toddlers roaming the pavements unattended in diapers. What possessed them to stay on the pavement and not run into traffic was beyond my kids’ imagination. My kids, who grew up on a ½ mile long dirt drive and to this day aren’t real sharp about crossing in traffic. It was like living in a different culture.
They were amazed to realize that although most old people grow timid as they age, my grandmother was not phased at the wild lifestyle occurring outside her door.
She told them a story of how she chased a man up the block while whacking him with her purse, after she caught him urinating alongside her ironstone row home’s steps. She was very proud of her property, and although it resorted to a rundown neighborhood in the later years, even dangerous, she swept her sidewalk every day, always picked up the trash and was a friend to her neighbors, however rough.
We wanted to take my Grandmother to the beautiful Longwood Gardens one early spring but because the property was so widespread, she needed to be in a wheelchair. Todd said she would never go for it, too young for that, and we’d have to turn around and come home.
But I saw an angel on a wheelchair on my way to the bathroom.
“What’s your name?”
“Marion, how old are you?”
“Marion, can you do me a big favor. My grandmother is 100 and she is going to resist going in the wheelchair. Would you come over and encourage her to ride in it and tell her how much nicer it’s going to be?”
Marion’s daughter pushed her over and she said, “You’ll enjoy it so much more,” and with that, my grandmother immediately got up and plopped herself into the chair my husband stood poised with.
“Don’t you tell any of my kids!” she reprimanded us.
My Grandmother always tried to pay her own way so to fend off any argument, we told her it was free to enter Longwood Gardens.
The man at the door teased, “If she misbehaves, there’s a good hill out there that you can push her down,”
I said, “Thanks for the tip.”
Boy did he have her pegged.
My Grandmother was amazed at every garden and display and never stopped exclaiming on how beautiful everything was. She wanted to race Bryce in her wheelchair as he ran alongside.
However, she was dying to pick a flower. Her fingers itched to do so. I could see that.
“No one will ever know. I only want one.”
My husband said, “You’ll get arrested. You will spend the next 100 years in jail. What if everyone picked a flower?” he asked her as if he were talking to his kid.
After our good time, she told the doorman as we departed, “That was so beautiful, so beautiful, you really ought to charge people. They would pay to see that.”
“I’ll make that suggestion,” he played along. “What do you recommend?
“Oh, people would pay a dollar or two.” (the entrance fee is $12).
He said, “What would we do with all that money?”
I learned a lot about myself since I began hanging out with my Grandmother, what kind of stock I come from. I originally wanted to spend more time with her for my children’s sake, but I am benefiting so much personally.
We’ve learned that a fast pace doesn’t add to the quantity nor quality of your life. And there are benefits in seeing beauty everywhere and living in a constant state of gratitude- perhaps a long happy life. My kids listened to her every word, watched her every move, and recorded information for their own future reference. It’s so unusual for anyone to be in the company of a 100 year old.
“I don’t pay attention to time,” she told us. “Only when I go to sleep. I want to make sure I slept enough.”
She went to bed every night fully aware that “this could be it,” as is really the case for each and every one of us.
On one of my last visits, she remarked when she saw my hair tied back, revealing my temples, “Why Cindy, I believe you’re getting gray.”
“No Grandmom, I’m getting white, but I’m not ready to dye it yet.”
To that she replied, “Oh, I’m not ready to die yet either!”
My Grandmother died at the age of 102 with her grandchildren and great grandchildren gathered in her bed, singing Bobby Vinton Polish songs with her. She merely “got tired” and climbed into bed, with no illness whatsoever, and finally “went to sleep.”
My children and I were cycling in Maine for a magazine story and missed the event. But we were OK with that. We had made sure we were by her side during the moments when she was most alive. She taught us all how to live and so she will live on.
Her daughter, my Aunt Dot, just celebrated her 80th birthday and it is obvious to me and my children that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. In her 70’s, she sky dove (four generations) and zip lined for the first time. I am excited to see what the next decade holds in the area of “firsts” for her. She said to me,
“I don’t feel like I’m old. I feel like a teenager.” Like mother, like daughter. And hopefully like granddaughter and great-grandchildren too.