I moved away from Minnesota when I was 18 and haven’t always been the best at communicating with family members back home. This is especially irksome to my mom’s mom, who happens to be a prolific letter-writer. Once, when I returned for my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary, Grandma asked me, “Have your hands healed?”
“Nothing’s wrong with my hands. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you never write! I assumed they were broken!”
Point taken, Grandma.
I have not been a good letter writer for some reason, which is weird because I actually enjoy writing. It’s just easier for me to pick up the phone and call. I like hearing her voice on the other end of the line, the Minnesota accent that thickens with age and the Scandinavian colloquialisms that make me quietly chuckle.
So, to kickoff my “40 Days to 40” project yesterday, I called my now 92-year-old grandma. I wanted to ask her if she remembered turning 40. I figured she would because this woman forgets nothing. Especially birthdays (I get a card every March 26 with $2 or $3 tucked inside). But, to my surprise, she did not actually remember! She reasoned this is because she was chasing after a 2-year-old at the time, and turning 40 just “wasn’t a big deal.” The extended family probably would have come to the house, and there would have been a cake, but the details are all lost, blurred together with her 91 other birthdays and milestones. “It’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal,” she said.
That’s probably true, but since I don’t have 5 kids–including a 2-year-old–to run after, I suppose I have a lot of free time to make a big deal out of things.
My Grandma has spent most of her 92 years taking care of other people, mostly children. In fact, she still babysits! I think that’s one of the secrets to longevity – always having a purpose, knowing that waking up every morning will make someone else’s life a little better. Also, I imagine she has one heck of an immune system after caring for 3 generations of children with all their mutant flu and cold viruses. I’m rooting for her to be the first centenarian in the family, although she laughed when I told her this. “As long as I’m not stuck in no wheelchair!” Truth be told, I think she’s far too stubborn to get stuck in a wheelchair. If her legs stopped working, she’d will herself to move them and walk home. That’s the kind of person she is.
While children have dominated the landscape of Grandma’s life, there were other interests that speckled it with color. Back in 1943, “Pageant of Poetry” published one of her poems. She showed it to me after her 90th birthday party. I had known about the anthology for a few years but had assumed she’d never be able to find it. Surely, it was buried under 70 years of memories. Not so! She simply walked into a room and proudly emerged with it a minute later.
I was thrilled to hold that book in my hands, knowing that Grandma was the first woman (that I know of) in my family to be published. It meant that my desire to write and be published came from somewhere.
“Do you wish you’d have written more?” asked my mom, who also happened to be there at the time. I had been wondering that myself, but there’s something in Mom that also loves to put pen to paper.
“Oh ja,” she’d said. “But you know it cost money to send things in and there were always kids to take care of…” There may have been a hint of sadness in that statement, but I could be projecting.
As she talked, I thumbed through the book, and something caught my eye. Inside the front cover were a few, crisp sheets of paper. I pulled them out to take a closer look. They were the birth certificates of each of her 5 children! Again, I could be projecting, but I can’t help but think that’s significant.
I remembered this as I spoke with Grandma yesterday, contemplating existential anxieties and what it means to turn 40. And suddenly, something clicked for me. For a while, I thought that Grandma put her writing on hold to put her duties as a parent and grandparent first. But, that’s not true–Grandma never gave up writing. She adapted her writing to fit her life. She expressed herself in the hundreds of letters she’d sent to me over the years.
It makes me think I should try a lot harder to write back. And, I should finish all of those writing projects that I’ve started. I think I can make a big deal out of that.