My grandma was like the Godfather of my family. She ruled our family, her 4 boys and 10 grandchildren, with unwavering expectations, and didn’t mince words when one of us fell out of line. She was queen of her matriarch and she taught me what it means to be a strong woman. She grew up a farmer’s daughter in Iowa during the Depression, and she was the real deal. Tough as nails in every way. The strength of her spirit could fill a room. That’s what I remember most about her.
Now that I am a mother, and a wife, and a grown-up with real responsibilities, I understand her in a way that I couldn’t before she left us 12 years ago. She’s still teaching me now- possibly more than ever before.
She was only able to go to school through the 8th grade because of the demands of her family’s farm during desperate times. She wasn’t given the opportunity for the education she wanted, and therefore, didn’t have a lot of respect for people who were given the chance and didn’t take it. She used to tell me that I, “Damn well better go to college,” because a woman should always be able to take care of herself. She would remind me of how fortunate I was, and she would say not to blow it or else I would find myself, “without a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of.” She always said it with calm conviction, as she gazed at me over the rim of her Manhattan. Godfather style.
She was a pioneer for women’s rights whether she meant to be or not. Working full time with four boys at home simply wasn’t something most women did in the 50’s. And she didn’t give two shits what anyone thought about it. I imagine them all as little tornadoes, spinning chaotically through the world around her, their mama tornado, the biggest and bravest of them all. She used to tell me that she needed other people’s opinions like she needed a hole in the head, and I would be wise to take the same approach. She said as long as you knew your own way, you had no reason to stop and ask for directions. She defied convention whenever it suited her, and she never cared a thing about what anyone had to say about it.
She was not much of a “lady” according to your standard definition. She had no use for any of the pomp and circumstance that went along with the societal expectations of being a woman. She liked Vegas, was a closet smoker, and could curse a blue streak.
Once my mother passed my grandma while driving and beeped her horn to say hello. Instead of getting a wave in return, my dear old granny flipped her off without hesitation. Her reaction was a reflex- like when the doctor gives your knee a little tap and your leg kicks in response. She was a bolt of lightening. A firecracker in pearl earrings.
She drank a Manhattan every single day of her life at 5 o’clock. If you had a brain in your head, you knew the time to go to her for any sizable favor, or to face the music about something stupid you had done, was at 5:30. If you still got the wrath, well, that just meant nothing on this earth was going to save you. After one such episode when I was about 13, I spent the night looking up the words she used to describe me and my behavior in a dictionary. I had it coming and she didn’t mind giving it to me. She didn’t back down from a fight for a worthy cause, and I see now that my petulant teenage self was her cause. More times than one.
This spitfire granny of mine had a soft side too. Her eyes would shine whenever she would tell a story about my grandpa who had died of a heart attack when he was only 66. She had a smile that lit up the room and liked Danielle Steel novels. She loved hummingbirds and gardening and going to lunch at the Olive Garden. She liked to sit with me on her screened-porch and tell me stories about when she was a girl in Iowa, or about the of millions of times my dad and uncles did things that they weren’t supposed to when they were little boys.
She was afraid to swim because of a childhood accident but she still loved the water. With the true essence of a survivor, she didn’t allow her fear to get the better of her.
She made quilts and sugar cookies that she delivered to her grandchildren in coffee tins every Christmas morning. She taught me how to make a peach pie and took me fishing. She wrote me letters in beautiful cursive about how much she missed me when I was away at college.
I made sure I never went home without going to visit her. I adored her and her brazen and bold way of living. She taught me most of what I know about standing up for what I believe in and self preservation. She wanted me to be brave and live up to my potential. I can still hear her voice encouraging me whenever self-doubt rears its ugly head.
She didn’t think it was cute to twirl your hair and giggle at boys and match your sweater to your shoes. She thought it was cute to be an independent woman who knew about life. A woman who could take care of herself in a world full of men who thought they knew better. She looked at a little girl, and and willed her to grow up to be a woman full of strength, fortitude, and knowledge.
In a world where young women are bombarded with the wrong messages every day, I thank my lucky stars that I had her to answer to. I wish that for every little girl in the world. May they all have someone who shows them what they truly can become.