Most grandmothers are extraordinary, but mine seemed especially so, in her own quiet way. In one sense, she was like every grandmother who had been a housewife in the 1950s. When we were young there were always handmade hearts to glue into Valentines, gingerbread men to decorate, and doll dresses to sew. When we were older, there was always something lovely baking in the oven, and the house was always tidy and cozy at the same time.
But she was especially good at making us feel loved. Even now, two years after her death, I have on my refrigerator a note that she had mailed to me with some loose leaf tea when I was in college. It reads, simply, “Dear One, I thank God for the blessing of watching you and your sister grow and mature in love for each other and for God! Have a cup of tea on me! Love and prayers, Grandma.”
Later, when my sister and I were older, every once in a while my grandmother would tell us a story that revealed quite a different woman than the sweet, doting grandmother we knew. As it turns out, my grandmother was quite cheeky she was younger. I remember a story about her single days in which she was entertaining one gentleman caller in her little rented room and then showed him out the back door so she could welcome a different gentleman caller at the front door. She told us this very matter-of-factly, and it so contrasted with our image of her quiet, steady marriage to my grandfather that my sister and I just stared at her, baffled and amused and delighted all at once.
I remember too a story about an apartment in Minneapolis that she had rented once but that stood empty months later. She still had the keys, and one night she had nowhere to sleep—I can’t remember why—so she snuck in and slept on the floor. That must have been in the early 50s, and I can hardly imagine my grandmother doing something so bold.
Those were the days when she worked as a bank teller with other single young women. She told us that they wore high heels—very high—every day and that they had to stay on their feet all day long. This too she said very matter-of-factly; it was clear that she didn’t view it as any kind of abuse, as unreasonable or exploitative. In fact, I distinctly remember her saying, “It was terribly uncomfortable, but we never complained.”
Never complained. I believe this of my grandmother, who complained shockingly little even when she was dying of cancer. But that none of the women complained—that still surprises me. What a different era from our own. And how strong these women were, how very unlike myself. I complain about high heels even when no one makes me wear them. I also complain when my office—an office where I get to sit down all day—is too cold, when my computer is slow, when the doctor is running late, and when there’s “no food” in the house (there is always food).
I suspect that my grandmother’s habit of not complaining took more than a little effort to develop, but then it became something even more than a habit; it was, very simply, who she was. She accepted inconvenience and hardship and even pain as part of life, as matters of fact. And that enabled her to love and give and give and love without feeling overlooked or unappreciated or depleted. It enabled her to be the grandmother I knew, the woman who surrounded us with love.
Of course there’s only one thing to do in light of these memories. It’s to complain less now—today, tomorrow, and every day—so that someday I can be the kind of grandmother that my grandmother was to me.