Grandmamma (or, The Original Hipster)

We’re in California this week for the funeral of my grandmother. While a sad occasion, it’s also a time for celebration. Not only is the family gathering together, but we get to reminisce about a woman who walked this earth for just shy of 99 years.

Grandmamma was the original hipster because she was into things long before they were cool. Born before the automobile was common, she loved to tell the story of visiting family in Texas by riding the rail car to the various houses. Not a train, mind you, but a Model T designed to drive on the rails. Apparently most folks in her town pooh-poohed the concept, but she was always clamoring to jump into the rickety vehicle to visit kith and kin. A couple of years later, she hopped into the front seat of a new-fangled contraption called an “airplane” just for the experience.

She was also a single mother before it was cool. Divorce wasn’t as commonly accepted in the 40s as it is today and certainly not when it was initiated by the wife. Grandmamma spent a decade married to the wrong person before she filed for divorce, took her two boys, and made a living on her own. Years later, she married her best friend, the man my father came to know as Pop. A Marine who served during the island-hopping campaign in WWII, Pop’s steady hand and rock-solid confidence not only helped the family eke out a living, but influenced my father to join the Marines. And in turn, influenced me to follow suit.

Grandmamma was a savvy world traveller long before people “did that”. After marrying Pop, the family moved all over the US and Europe. When Pop retired, he made it 6 months before cabin-fever set in. Realizing he was going to drive her nuts, Grandmamma convinced him to answer an ad in the paper for a position in Saipan. Pop got the job and the two spent several years working with the local government to create and enforce fair labor laws.

In the years after Pop’s passing, Grandmamma was an active woman. Heavily involved in the church, she was as forgiving as she was blunt. You always knew where you stood with her and she never sugar-coated things. She continued to play golf, took rides on motorcycles, and used her rapier wit to keep everyone at the dinner table laughing. She refused to “grow old” by demanding that the younger generations keep her up to speed with modern concepts like cell phones, e-mail, and The Internet. All while continuing to enjoy a vodka tonic and a bowl of ice cream every single night.

Time isn’t kind to the human body. Parts wear out, things break, organs fail. But some people fight the aging process to the bitter end. In the past decade, Grandmamma survived a knee replacement, colon cancer, and a stroke. She slowed physically, but she never stopped. More surprising than anything, her mind never faltered. Despite the steady decline of her organs, her brain was as sharp the week she died as it ever was.

That last fact is something I’m especially grateful for. Over the last few years, she and I would chat on the phone every Tuesday while I drove the hour back to my house from rehearsal. She was full of stories, laughter, and love. And she was always willing to talk, even the Tuesday before she died. Sometimes our conversations were deep, other times, just enough to say hello and check in on one another.

She took her time with her stories, carefully plotting each word for maximum impact. She’d get sidetracked with memories she’d long since forgotten, but it didn’t matter. I’d listen, mindful that she’d experienced this nation evolve from pre-aviation to a rover crawling around on Mars. And in a day and age when everything is faster, where we want as much information as quickly as possible, she helped remind me that sometimes it’s okay to slow down. To enjoy the art of storytelling.

Death is never easy. No matter how long someone lives, it always feels like you don’t have enough time with them. But some people pack so many years into one lifetime that when they finally pass, you realize they lived far more than many of us ever will. As we place her remains next to Pop’s later today, my hope is that each and every person who knew Grandmamma, including her 4 great-grandchildren, will be inspired not to just survive each day, but to follow in her footsteps. May we all soak as much enjoyment out of our precious years as we can.

We’ll start with a bowl of ice cream.

 

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