Wisdom is available throughout our lives if we choose to recognize, accept and incorporate its meanings. Our ability to extract wisdom from our relationships and experiences is truly extraordinary… and then we get to try it out master it. I value the wisdom I’ve been able to assimilate from key people, books and life events over six decades. My very first teacher of many matters wise was my Grandma.
My maternal grandmother was my best friend when I was a little boy. She was my quintessential paradigm for everything “mommy”… in fact, she was more my mommy than my own mother. As her first-born grandson, she loved me unconditionally giving me seemingly limitless attention and warm affection… Besides, my mom was always too busy cleaning, cooking and caring for my dad and five kids.
I grew up calling Grandma “meme,” (mem-may) which was short for “memere” the French word for grandmother. My maternal grandparents were both of French Canadian descent near the farms around Montreal. Her real name was Beatrice but everybody called her Bea. She needed glasses to read the newspaper.
We lived in a “triple-decker” (Folks not from Northeast USA might be unaware: triple-deckers are 3 story tenement/apartment homes built side by side in older urban neighborhoods). My mom, dad, brothers and sister lived on the first floor. Grandma and grandpa lived on the second floor. They rented the third floor to the Barneys: Mr. Barney, Mrs. Barney and their only daughter Joan who had leukemia and died when I was 4 years old. Joan was my first playmate. She had soft long blonde hair in a pony tail and really blue eyes which were extra blue because her skin was so pale from being sick all the time. Joan was the first person in my life who died on me. (Another post for another day).
Grandma had black and white hair that she curled daily because she was getting bald. She was short, well nourished and had really big breasts that I used to like to nap on. Sometimes she wheezed inside.
I don’t remember every playing with my Grandma. We were friends… buddies… pals. Even when we played cards or she played her banjo and sang her songs… we weren’t “playing.” That was how we lived together her and I. We were just being. Sometimes I wonder if I was my grandmother’s best friend. She never did not have time for me.
For sure, Grandma was my first helper. She helped me set up the sewing machine in her kitchen corner so she could hem my pants and make fancy dresses for my mother. Her fingers hurt from crocheting which she did very quickly and didn’t have to look all the time. Sometimes I had to be quiet so she could count the rows and knots. I usually got to hold the yarn ball. She also got a thimble just for me. She said she didn’t need a pattern. “You just do it.”
My grandmother would let me visit her (climb upstairs to the second floor) whenever I wanted. Even though my mother told me to, I never had to ask for grandma’s permission to go upstairs and check things out. It always seemed like life was better upstairs anyways. T.V. was better because I could always watch whatever I wanted when my grandfather wasn’t home. It was quieter up there because she didn’t have any kids and after all, that’s where I got to be the center of my universe.
It took me a while to fully understand that my adult mother was grandma’s daughter.
Grandma’s house always smelled the best. She use to cook in her sister’s restaurant downtown in “the olden days.” She made the best soup ever and there was always something simmering on her cast iron stove with the blue gas flame or baking in the oven usually with the door open because the thingy never baked the way she wanted it too. Grandma had special fire because her’s was blueish with sometimes yellow spots in between. Everybody else’s fire looked red. Without a doubt, my grandmother literally cooked all day long, everyday for everybody.
My grandmother taught me about baking pies. I can still vividly remember her putting a bed sheet on the kitchen table, rolling dough, tossing flour and making a huge mess with white flour everywhere… but grandpa never got mad because we’d clean it up before he got from work at 4:30pm. Grandpa was a janitor at the fire station. He limped because a beer keg feel on his leg at the brewery where he used to work before the accident. Despite his disability, grandpa worked everyday until he retired. He went fishing a lot with his friend Mike. He fell in the cold water off the dock because he was dizzy because he smoked too many cigarettes, cigars and his pipe. Tired lungs the doctor said with congested heart like in your nose. Grandma said he was an old fool acting like a kid that day he went to the hospital all wet. Then he got ammonia (think:pneumonia) and died in there the day he was supposed to come home. Grandpa never came home again because God took him away too.
My grandmother taught me gardening. She showed me petunias, how to winter geraniums in the cold hallway and bury daffodil bulbs deep enough before Halloween. No exaggeration, I was a master composter by Grade 2 and we even raised night-crawlers (earthworms) next to the garage. She was especially kind when I ripped up the good plants along with the weeds. She also kissed my finger and sucked up the blood when I pricked myself on the red rose bushes. She taught me a great deal about nature in the middle of a city in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. She would be very proud that I’ve named my blog The Compassionate Gardener.
My grandmother taught me how to make believe ginger ale was beer or a high ball, napping in the summer afternoon with rain outside her open bedroom window, wash laundry in the kitchen sink and stay out of the parlor (think:living room) so it’s always tidy and clean when company came over – which was very frequently. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends – my grandmother was the matriarch of our extended family and local neighborhood.
My grandmother taught me how to tie my tie and probably how to lace my shoes (although I really can’t remember). She showed me how to dress for Sunday church best while reminding me to polish my black dress shoes every Saturday night – over old newspaper on her kitchen table – efficiently but quickly… during the TV commercials.
My grandmother taught me my first taste of coffee and how to “do” the tea bag in the cup correctly with increasingly less drips and wet mess. She also taught me tea bags were reusable. She was amazingly resourceful running a household on very little money and always seemed generous with an extra apple pie, loaf of bread or yesterday’s soup for the neighbors.
My grandmother taught me about God, memorizing the Catholic catechism, the 1938 hurricane that took her childhood home and to always leaving good tips in restaurants because “its hard work on your feet all day.” She taught me about compassion. caring, holding hands and living strong with few complaints.
My grandmother taught me about depression. She was frequently sad, withdrawn and melancholic. I don’t think they had pills back then for that but she was always trying different herbs to try to fix it. She also taught me about grieving the loss of her husband before his time. But even within the depths of anhedonia, she found a way to cheer me up. I always tried to cheer her up especially when she cried. Grandma was my first teacher about cooperation and “win-win.” She was also my first teacher about mental illness. She is one of the reasons I chose to be a psychotherapist.
My grandmother taught me about being chronically ill. She kept her gall stones in a bottle and showed me whenever I asked which was seems like it was very frequently. Apparently as a child, I was obsessed with her gall stones in a glass bottle in her nightstand. (I wonder what ever happened to her gall stones?) Grandma taught me about arthritis, rheumatism, neuralgia, asthma, diabetes and finally renal failure. She never smoked but probably could have sued grandpa for all the second-hand smoke she inhaled during all those years of marriage.
Just for the record… not everything grandma taught me has proved to be so wise. She taught me to eat when I feel bad, tell little white lies when “necessary” and always make my bed.
I’m thinking the Jewish Old Testament writers should have have included grandmothers in the 10 Commandments… “Honor they father and thy mother… and thy grandmother.”
Got grandma wisdom to share?