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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ninety Years Young

Life is a series of consequences from the choices that we make. Yet, one of the major factors in determining who we are and what we become is when and where we are born, which is utterly out of our control. In birth we are either lucky or unlucky: silver spoon, plastic spoon, or no spoon at all. My grandmother Mary was born in  the warm summer months of Wisconsin in 1924, the only daughter of German immigrants, the youngest, born with a plastic spoon in her mouth.
Today she is 90 years old, fiercely independent, unapologetically sarcastic, deeply thoughtful, resilient, sensitive, practical, and kind beyond words to animals. She is a product of her birth decade, 1924-1934. Born in the blissfully ignorant gap between Word War 1 and World War 2 she lived her toddler years as a child during the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition, riding the heels of the Women's Suffrage Movement. But life in rural Wisconsin didn't have all the opulence, flappers, parties, booze, and jazz so she spent her childhood playing outside in the sun, the rain, and the snow, picking snacks from the vegetable garden when she was hungry. Too soon, though, the carefree fun was over. On the evening of December 17th,1927, while she was in the kitchen with her mother, several somber men paid a visit to tell them that her father, a carpenter, had been killed on the job. It was just a week before Christmas. A couple of years later The Great Depression began, a "learning time to grow up", as she recalls. So grow up she did.
Six children, two husbands, dozens of grand children, and a handful of great grandchildren later, Grandma Mary continues to grow up. Armed with the coping skills of a survivor, she has lived through many difficult ordeals, including the death of both her husbands. The first, my grandfather Felix, left her a widow at the age of 46 with six children to continue raising, most of whom were teenagers, on her nursing salary. But life continued and Grandma remarried my grandfather Vencil. Together they traveled, hosted many family reunions, and eventually helped raise grandchildren.
It wasn't too long after Grandpa Vencil passed away that Grandma's self-sufficient and slightly stubborn tendencies came to light, personality traits that have surely floated around our family's genetic pool. She moved out of the house in Sweeney (a house that had been the center of gravity for the rest of us in the extended family that seem to constantly be on the move) and spent the following five years moving from Uncle's cabin to other Uncle's trailer to Aunt's house and eventually to her very own place in Portales, New Mexico.
So even though New Mexico is dry and hot during the summertime, and even though Portales is not the most convenient city to get to and it only has two hotels (but thousands and thousands of cows), we gathered as much of the family as possible, made reservations at the Super 8, and went to Portales to celebrate her birthday because she deserves it, she's our matriarch, and, simply put, turning 90 is a big fucking deal.
Together we raised a toast to celebrate this milestone in Grandma's life and, in a way, to celebrate ourselves, for who would we be without her? We are literally on this earth because of Grandma. Hyperbole aside, I see so much of her in those of us who share her blood.
Our penchant for rescuing and loving animals certainly comes from her. She is a living, breathing Statue of Liberty for discarded pets: "Give her your tired, your poor,your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to her, she lifts her lamp beside the golden door!". 
The roundness of our noses, our introversion, our ability to get lost in thought, our appreciation of strong beer, our dry sense of humor - all related to Grandma. My love of reading and writing, my crooked smile, my fascination with birds, and my comfort in solitude I also attribute to my grandmother. Each of us descendants of hers (we are many) have something we can trace back through our own fathers, or mothers, or, with the younger ones, grandmothers, to her; something we notice of ourselves in our siblings and cousins and uncles and aunt that forms a connection that leads to Grandma, despite the differences, and binds us as a family.
And on the evening of her 90th we gathered at one of her descendants' homes, a ranch-style house surrounded on all sides by the sprawling land of New Mexico. As the sun set Swallows busily tended to their babies, tucked inside little mounds of dirt nests hidden under the corners of the roof. The dogs romped and barked, excited by the visitors. Smoke floated above the grill and cold beverages were popped open.
Grandma sat quietly by, looking on as the rest of us introduced significant others to the family, chatted with cousins we hadn't seen in years, met one of the youngest for the first time, and ran around acting silly - a penchant we all have but are hesitant to display unless we're in the comfort of family. I didn't ask what she was thinking while she sat and watched but whatever it was I hope she felt happy. Happy knowing that even though her life was very hard at times she managed to make so much happen for so many; happy seeing these baby grandchildren of hers all grown up: in love, going to college, being independent - just like her and just like her own children, too. My Grandma, who has signed off on emails to me as "Mother of All Geezers", has lived such a long and prosperous life that soon enough she'll have to sign off as "Mother and Grandmother of All Geezers". 
As I write this post I imagine my grandmother sitting in the New Mexico breeze in her backyard, sipping freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee among the flowers with her dogs and cats, watching the birds feed at the feeders. At ninety she is strong and healthy, in body and mind. Certainly some of her longevity is genetic, and she might even tell you it's because she drinks a lot of coffee, but I think most of it, perhaps the essence to a long life, is her continued curiosity. She loves to learn. She reads everyday - fiction and non-fiction, online and offline. She voices her opinions in eloquent letters to editors, she volunteers at her church, she became vegan, she became a master gardener, and all within the last few years. She is an inspiration to us all.
So happy birthday Grandma. Again and again. 

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very nice!! Grandma is surely going to love this post!
Mami

Name said...

This is really nice, Nana; thanks! (Although I can't believe how wrinkled up I am; scared to think what I'll look like IF I make it to ninety!)
Pop

coot doot said...

This is lovely! Beautiful writing, just like Grandma's! Thanks for documenting your life through this blog because through it you document all our lives, too! But how could you not? This is a life. A series of the consequences of everyone's choices!
I love Grandma! And I love you!
And, damnit, that jumping picture...

Anonymous said...

I think this is your best post by leaps. The writing is top notch but likely because the subject was close to the heart. The pics jump off the page too.

Your Grandma Mary is very special and I hope she feels that way after reading this. What a life that continues!

-C