“She woke up every day whistling.”
Her son, my uncle Allen, said that at a large gathering we had to celebrate one of the milestone birthdays for my grandmother. And it was true. It was exactly the way my grandmother was.
I asked her about it. I asked her how she could be so full of life, so glad to be alive each day. After all, she’d had plenty of sorrows in her life. She’d outlived three husbands. A tragic accident took the life of her son’s wife at a young age. Her children’s divorces took a toll on them and their children. She was outliving almost all her friends.
So I asked her about it. How could she be so loving, so caring, so positive, so everything? I probably wasn’t the only one in our whole family that wanted to know her secret. She was probably 95 at the time I asked her.
Her answer: “It’s just the way I am.”
It wasn’t something she tried to do, it wasn’t something she worked to do, it wasn’t something she attained from reading books about how to live your life. It was just the way she was. And it was wonderful.
I try, not always succeeding, to think about that answer in my own life. “It’s just the way I am.” I find that it helps me to be more compassionate and understanding towards others and myself.
A Great Friend
My great friendship with my grandmother began in 1982 while I was in graduate school. Of course I had a good relationship with her when I was younger. I remember staying over at her house when I was little. She called me “Davy Crockett” and we played Yahtzee. She was there for every event of my life: the confirmations, the graduations, the family events. She was the kind of grandmother you’d hope all children would have. But she had not yet become a great friend or at least I didn’t realize it.
Her visit to Northern California in February 1982 was the beginning of our great friendship. I was 24 years old and it was the first time she was coming to visit just me. No other family, no big family event, just me. And I was a little nervous. She was 52 years older than me; at that point she was 76, about to be 77. What in the world were we going to talk about?
And we had the best time. We talked about anything and everything. She wasn’t my grandmother; she was my friend that had known me all my life. We visited her cousin in San Jose. The cousin was 85 and her husband was 92. My grandmother moved like a young person compared to them. She wasn’t an old person at all, not physically and not in her way of thinking.
Even though her 77th birthday was a month away, my friends Aaron and Liz made a birthday cake for her, complete with 78 candles. It was a huge surprise when they brought out the cake, now a fireball, and started singing “Happy Birthday”. What a joyous occasion.
What I found out years later was that I wasn’t the only grandchild that thought she was their great friend. She was that way for all of us. It was an even more amazing part of her. She was actually interested in what you had to say. She had smart things to say in response. She was curious. She always wanted to learn something new. The qualities that made her so special to me were part of what made her so special to almost everyone she met.
I remember thinking about her while I was preparing for a party at my house to celebrate the completion of my graduate degree. It was 1985, my grandmother had turned 80 that year, and I wondered how many years I would continue to have her in my life. From that point on, every time I saw her, I thought about the fact that it might be the last time. Not that I thought she would die soon but that someday she would and I needed to enjoy her while I could.
Amazingly, I had 20 more years of great experiences with her after that day when I’d thought of the inevitable. I visited her as much as I could. My trips to Kansas City to see her were packed with great conversation and great fun. I always learned something new about her life. One time I took my video camera so that I could film her apartment, her owl collection, and even some time of us just sitting and talking. I did it to capture just a touch of what it was like to be with her.
In her later years she lived in a very nice independent living facility in Kansas City. She had moved from her apartment of 29 years on the Plaza to a new place and not surprisingly she quickly made a lot of new friends. I remember visiting one time and one of her friends said “You are so nice to visit your grandmother.” I knew what she meant but it sounded so ridiculous to me. I wasn’t there just for her; I was there for myself, for both of us, and our great friendship.
My Grandma Rosa was 100 years old when she passed away, 8 years ago today. She is still greatly loved by me and those she touched in her rich, long life.