Lessons from Grandma

I’ll never forget the hint of surprise I saw on my grandma’s face when I pulled her aside during my busy wedding reception and told her how much it meant to have her there.

She was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, but had traveled all the way from Kansas to Seattle with my uncle to see me tie the knot. She was still able to get around quite well then, and she got to dance with my new husband, John. Dancing was one of the things she loved most in the world and the memory of her dancing that day still makes me happy.

“It wouldn’t have been the same without you here,” I said when I got her alone. “You’ve made this special day even more special.”

Her eyes widened. Her breath caught. And we held back tears so our mascaras wouldn’t run. I bent to hug her, crushing the white silk of my gown and her corsage between us.

“I love you grandma.”

“I love you, too.”

Did she really not know, before that day, how much she meant to me?

I’m sure she knew I felt a familial love for her. I was her granddaughter after all. And although we lived in separate states for most of my growing up years, I wrote her letters, I sent her school pictures and I gave her big hugs when we went to visit. But I was a shy kid.

I wasn’t good at expressing myself out loud.

Because of my shyness, and the distance we lived from one another, we never got a chance to develop a deeper relationship like the ones she did with my cousins who lived in the same town. Knowing how much she loved all of us grandkids, I’m sure it bothered her that my brother and I weren’t around more. I’m sure she wished I would have talked more when I was. I wish I had, too.

But still, she made a big impact on me because when we were together she made me feel important. She made me feel special.

She made me feel loved, just for being me.

That is big stuff for a kid. Heck, that’s big stuff for a person of any age.

My mother-in-law says the most important thing you can do for a child is to light up when they come into a room. Author Toni Morrison believed the same thing and gave Oprah Winfrey what she says was one of her “greatest life lessons” when they talked about it on her show in 2000.

“When your child walks into the room, does your face light up?” Morrison asked the parents in Oprah’s audience. “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. It’s as simple as that.”

Yeah, it really is that easy. I can see this now that I’m a mother myself. I see it watching my mother-in-law interact with my daughters. I just never realized until recently that I learned this lesson a long time ago — at my grandma’s house.

Grandma’s face always lit up when she saw me.

That’s all I needed from her.

But that’s not all she gave me. In our short time together, she also taught me more practical things, like how to set a table and the proper way to wash dishes. (Just so you know, always wash the least dirty dishes first — that usually means drinking glasses — and the grimiest last. It keeps the water cleaner longer.)

She taught me that married people can be happy. She was married to my grandpa for 45 years before he passed away in 1990.

She taught me married women can be independent. When grandpa didn’t want to travel, that didn’t stop her from following her dreams. She went on her own.

She taught me that women can have it all. She raised three kids and then worked for 20 years at Sears Roebuck. I have fond memories of visiting her office in the 1970s. Ok, I admit that my most vivid memories are of the candy bowl on her desk, but grandma as a businesswoman still made a strong impression on me as a child.

She taught me to give back. She was a PTA president, cub scout den mother, 4-H leader and VFW Auxiliary member. She was a long-time volunteer at the hospital where my grandpa’s cancer was treated.

Grandma and my husband dance at my brother's wedding. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of them dancing at our wedding.
Grandma and my husband dance at my brother’s wedding a few years later. I don’t have a photo of them dancing at our wedding.

She taught me to dance whenever I have the chance. And always keep your nails well groomed so you’re ready to go.

She taught me the importance of family. As her Parkinson’s worsened, she went to great efforts to visit all of us. She came out for my oldest daughter’s first birthday and bought her first pair of shoes.

She taught me that I wasn’t alone. Grandma was there for me at the time in my life when I needed her most — when I was 16 years old and my mother moved out. My mom had tried to explain to me why she couldn’t live with us anymore, why she was divorcing my dad,  but I wouldn’t hear it. I had stopped talking to her and she eventually gave up on me.

When Grandma called, she asked me how I was feeling. That was a question no one else had asked, at least not in the gentle way she did.

I felt abandoned, confused, and angry. She validated my hurt. She sounded hurt, too. I cried it out with her on the phone and she must have talked to my mom soon after because she started trying again. The wounds started to scar over and I felt less alone.

Ida May (that’s my grandma) would have been 95 years old this week had Parkinson’s not taken her life in 2006.

The year before she died, I brought my young daughters to Kansas to visit her at Holiday Resort, the nursing home where she was living. Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? Grandma grinned about that.

She was a grinner.

No matter how frail Parkinson’s disease left her, it couldn’t steal the grin that lit up her whole face, the face that spoke what was in her heart. See for yourself.

Julie Grandma Ida Graves and Ben Oct 1972
Grinning Ida May as a grandma spending time with my brother and me in 1972.
A grinning Ida May with two of her three children, my Uncle Jack and my mother, Jane.
Grinning Ida May as a mother with two of her three children, my Uncle Jack and my mother, Jane, in the 1950s.
Grinning Ida May as a great grandmother with one of my daughters in 2005.
Grinning Ida May as a great grandmother with one of my daughters, in 2005.

During our last visit, her hands shook continuously, her feet would not do what she told them. But still, her face lit up when her great grandchildren walked into the room. For me, too.

And I told her again, how much she meant to me.

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