My 99 year old grandmother died last week. She wasn’t your stereotypical kind of grandma. She painted, but she didn’t paint still life or scenery, she painted vivid abstract compositions based on nebulae and quantum physics. She was fierce in her hunt for knowledge and her passion for science and art. She engaged with socialist ideas well before they became hipster.
At her funeral, we all shared our memories of Grandma and some consistent themes came up. Her huge sense of fairness and the importance of equality, the love of knowledge, the loyalty to and importance of family. We talked about how all of these had been passed down through the generations and her 23 descendants.
Today I’m sharing some of the many lessons my Grandma taught me.
Childhood Trauma can Shape you Forever
Grandma lived through the Great Depression. Born in 1920, she was just a child when the Depression hit, her father died, and her family had to leave the big house she loved and move cities to live with extended family. She didn’t live with her mother, but with a cousin whose wife treated her very badly. She had to leave school at 14 and help her family. These early experiences shaped my grandmother deeply, some in sad ways (her fear of being thought ignorant which drove her fierce acquisition of learning in later years) and some in more quirky ones. Grandma could not abide waste. She was known to slip bacon from the motel breakfast into her purse ‘for later’ and couldn’t throw away anything that might end up being useful later.
I didn’t understand a lot of that until I was older. When I heard more of the stories of her life I had a much greater understanding of how she came to be the way she was. It’s so important to remember that people are so often the products of their upbringing and their earliest experiences, and to be kind.
Not long before she died, Grandma told me about when she was 10, and the woman she stayed with took the roses Grandma had gathered to give to her mother and put them in her own living room. Grandma was as furious as a sad little 10yo deeply missing their mother could be. She told me she went to every corner of that room and stuck her finger in the wallpaper and ripped it down. I nearly cheered.
A story I remember hearing when I was younger and I really hope isn’t apocryphal because I tell it to all my students 😬, is that during the mass protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour, Grandma hit a policeman on the head with her handbag when he was rough with protestors. My grandmother was never one to bow to authority unless she deemed it moral and worth listening to. Even then I doubt she would bow.
Be Yourself even when Others Have Opinions
Grandma was never one to worry too much about the opinions of those she didn’t care for. Certainly not by the time I knew her.
She and her sister opened a fashion store in 1950s Hamilton and shocked many with their glamorous selves. And she was glamorous.
She was a working mother when that was frowned upon. She read about communism (although she did burn her little red book in the backyard in the 60s when anti-communism was at a high). She learned acupuncture and ran a successful clinic in the 1980s in central Auckland. She was always a rationalist and had little patience for sentimentality. She painted her house herself. She had staunch political opinions and was not afraid to discuss them.
Grandma was so very much herself. So much of her childhood always sounded to me as if she was being required to repress her feelings and experiences and I’m so very glad that for most of her life she allowed herself to just simply BE.
Young Women Have Urges
So…. When I was in my early 20s and single, I was visiting grandma when she asked:
“Have you found a nice boyfriend yet?”
“Ah no, some dates but they never last long.”
“Don’t worry you’ll find someone.”
“I’m sure I will.”
her: *looks intently at me* “But, young women have… urges….and it’s quite alright to date someone you aren’t in love with to satisfy those urges.”
I couldn’t believe my grandma was telling me to have one-night stands 😂
You are never too old to create
Grandma taught herself to paint and came up with her own style. She painted and learned and had her first exhibition at the age of 96. It was such a success they brought her back for another the year after. She was still talking of having another exhibition not many months ago.
Three weeks before she died, grandma was still working on her paintings. She still had so many ideas she wanted to try, visions to pursue.
I began writing again in my late thirties, dropped it, and picked it up again a couple of years ago. Knowing that age is no barrier to creativity is endlessly inspiring.
The world will change, and we change with it
Over Grandma’s 99 1/2 years, she witnessed so many things: The Great Depression, the creation of the first welfare state in New Zealand, World War II, the first Atomic Bombs, the rise of second wave feminism, gay rights, first woman Prime Minister in New Zealand, fights for civil rights, the Vietnam War, protests, climate change, the hippy counter culture of the 70s, the rise of computers, televisions, movies, mobile phones, passenger flight, the Moon Landing, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, 9/11, the #MeToo movement and third wave feminism….
It’s been a huge century, and she saw and experienced so much of it. And I know I said we change with it, and we do, but the essential core of who my grandma was – the loving, curious, determined, creative little girl she was – remained throughout her life.
I was so incredibly blessed to have known her.