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Grandma’s Gems

Blog note: Tonight I gave my grandma speech at Toastmasters.  Here is the text, which I mostly approximated when I actually delivered it from memory, and a couple photos that I printed and passed around.  The speech was well-received.  Thanks to my sister for the title and thanks to my dad for performing feats of computer derring-do to retrieve the photos for me!

Grandparents are almost universally known for a few things: spoiling their grandchildren, funny sayings, and slyly teaching us some of life’s more important lessons.

Grandma posing in an ad for a women's clothing (and poodle?) store in La Jolla, CA

My grandmother was one of the most glamorous women I’ve ever known.  A former model, she was always photo-ready — impeccably coiffed and made up, even in the hospital, and quick with a perfect, practiced smile.  She was also a natural hostess; as a child of the Great Depression who grew up caring for her other siblings, and later a restaurateur, she had a knack for walking into a room and knowing exactly what was needed.  Above all, she was whip-smart.  As the matriarch of our family, she left us with a number of cherished memories and funny stories that we still repeat, but only as I’ve gotten older have I realized that the stories and funny sayings hide considerable wisdom.

My grandmother was in and out of the hospital many times during the last years of her life.  Even when she was in excruciating and prolonged pain from a detached rib, she would tell us she was ‘a little better every day.’  My family jokes that she was ‘a little better every day’ right up until the day she died.  Her sunny outlook extended to everyone she came into contact with.  Every child she met was the most beautiful she’d seen, and she always had a few seconds to stop and say so.  Some of her commentary could be a little ridiculous, like when she described her foreign-born nurses at one hospital as being ‘so gentle — like children.’  Or when she put the words ‘gentle soul’ on the memorial program for my grandfather, who never heard an offensive joke he didn’t like — but only once did I ever hear her say something negative about another person.  And believe me, that person deserved it and worse.

Obviously Grandma knew how to get along with others.  I remember being about 12 and expressing my disinterest in football, which my grandfather loved.  Grandma cheerfully suggested that I learn a little about it and learn to appreciate it so I could watch with my future husband.  While this struck me as a complete load of nonsense, and in some ways still does, I couldn’t help but remember her advice the other day when I was sitting in my office and three of my four nearest coworkers were all discussing football — on separate phone calls.  If you were here for my icebreaker you know that one of my performance metrics is schmoozing, and as it turns out I’d probably be better at it if I’d listened to my grandmother!

Another lesson that could benefit me at work, if only I’d learn it, is to ask for what you want.  Grandma got her way all the time, and it was because she knew how to make a request: she simply started from the assumption that her request was completely reasonable, no matter what it was.  This is how she got my father to bring a single rose to the gentleman who lived across the street from her.  This is how I ended up carrying a bottle of Kahlua back to my parents on a flight from California to Virginia when I was 14.  I’m still not sure how I got away with that.  I once called my parents during a visit to my grandmother’s house and told them, “I don’t understand how we do things here.”  That became family shorthand for Grandma’s sillier requests — but she almost always got what she asked for, and with a smile.

The final and most important lesson Grandma left us was one that was only revealed after her memorial service.  As a couple dozen people gathered in her living room and on her deck to share food and memories, my sister and I attempted to trace the family tree with various people and realized that the roots were hopelessly tangled without her there to sort them out.  We had no idea who was related, and who was not — because to Grandma, everyone she cared for was truly family.

Another photo from Grandma's modeling portfolio

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