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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What I Learned from Grandma

*Edit: after a rough week, my grandmother finally let go and died in her sleep early this morning, Tuesday, June 26th. She takes with her the love of her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and all the people she impacted in her life with her warmth, humor, and strength. Rest well, sweet Betty.

Today is my Grandma Betty's 91st birthday. The photo below was taken about a year and a half ago at my parents' house during one holiday or another. My aunt was trying to get Grandma (whose mental health has been in decline for the past decade) to smile for the camera, but Betty looked at me instead and put her hand to my face in an affectionate gesture - a gesture that brought tears of surprise and happiness to my eyes because it was so unexpected. I guess I hadn't realized how much I really miss her.

Grandma's not so good with names anymore, but I like to think that she knew who I was during this moment. And as you can see, she's as lovely as ever.

Betty was (and is - I would hate to say that she isn't anymore) quite a remarkable lady. She and my grandfather raised nine children – eight girls and one boy – who all turned out well-adjusted, successful, and happy. This, I believe, is a testament to my grandmother’s character. She was challenging, but loving. She was intelligent, inquisitive, and sharply funny, but also had a strong spiritual side. And she treated all of her approximately two billion grandchildren with equal love and attention. Even after she starting losing her memory, she retained her sense of humor, which was something that kept my family going even as things got tougher and tougher to deal with emotionally.

Being a voracious reader herself, my grandmother was a big influence on my own love of literature. Many of the books from my childhood are inscribed with her scrawling handwriting. (She was an excellent writer, despite the fact that her script was barely legible.) One day in the early years of her descent into dementia, Grandma was on my parents' couch reading a book of short stories. When she finished the book, my mother asked her how she liked it. My grandmother, not realizing that it wasn't a novel, said:

“It’s well-written, but it seems to jump around a lot.”

"Mom, it's supposed to jump around. They're short stories."


This exchange was an alarming clue as to the start of the downfall of her comprehension, but now it's an anecdote my family members like to tell with a smile. Like I said, this is how we deal with strife – by making a joke out of it to ease out some of the pain. I don’t know, maybe it's an Irish thing, but it works for us.

When I was growing up, Betty and her second husband Jack had a cute house out in Southampton with a swimming pool in the backyard. This, to me, was one of the greatest luxuries a person could have - an oasis of calm, blue water right outside your own house. I loved to swim, but around age nine, I was still afraid to dive into the deep end of the pool, mostly because I couldn't picture doing it in a way that wouldn't result in my untimely demise. I mean, the concept of diving is a little insane, if you really think about it. You are propelling your body - headfirst - into a body of water. Water you can drown in. Who would want to learn how to do THAT?

But learn I did, and it was all thanks to my grandmother's patient guidance. Wearing her nose clips and flowered bathing cap, she showed me the proper stance to take, how to hold my arms and jump off using my knees, and reminded me to hold my breath as I dove - a key point that I somehow forget at times. Soon, I was staging diving contests and making my relatives "rate" my dives (if I got anything less than a 10, I would get a self-imposed do-over). These are happy memories. These memories, and others, helped shape who I am today.

So, Happy Birthday, Betty. You may not remember who I am, but I will always remember you as you were that summer when I was nine, cheering and clapping at the side of the pool. Thank you for teaching me to not be afraid of diving in headfirst.


  1. What a great lady and great way to celebrate her! My grandparents are 91 this year too, and I hate thinking of how little time I have left with them. This got me a little teary, but in the best way. Thanks.

  2. Such a lovely post. Thank you.

    My mother's in a similar situation as your Grandma. The photo of Betty stroking your face made me smile. Those fleeting moments of recognition/connection are so precious.

  3. Such a beautiful posting! You definitely made me a little bit teary eyed! My grandmother's memories are starting to fade as well. It definitely makes you appreciate every moment that you have with them! Happy Birthday to your grandmother! :)

  4. Beautiful post..I can only hope that my grandchildren remember me that way. Caron ET @runreadrant

  5. Rita, this is beautiful --day nothing short of exquisite. This brought tears to my eyes, but I am so glad that you shared it. Betty is an awesome lady, and I am glad to have learned about her. As for keeping your sense of humor, it's an italian thing, too. And New Yorker thing, too (most of family is from there). It is what gets you through.

    Again, I loved this.

  6. Oh, Rita. What a beautiful story about your Grandma and my Aunt Betty. She always had a great sense of humor and I loved the many Octobers I'd travel to Long Island to visit her and your aunts. She was always a comforting soul to me, as she shares the same beaming & smiling eyes my father had with each glance my way.
    You will always have her. And she will always have you.

  7. Lovely...thanks so for sharing!

  8. That's a lovely post Rita. I no longer have any of my grandparents, but reading this reminded me of some beautiful memories of my family.

  9. Rita that is a beautiful testament for your grandma my mom! I was blessed to spend the whole day with her yesterday. You captured her essence perfectly. You mom & I were there to celebrate with cake (an experience she so enjoys and remains in her memory bank somehow!). I just sat and spoke with her yearning for an utterance just to hear her sweet voice that made me recapture my entire life with such a "loving" mom. Indeed our lives are rich for having her and all that she was willing to share with us. A true giver.
    That willingness to share herself so fully empowered each of us to be who we are today and that is a blessing that I know will continue down to each generation of us.

    She truly loved you so.


  10. Oops lots of errors above, mom, please forgive me. I was writing from my heart!


  11. Thank you all for your lovely and kind comments. I know that a lot of people can relate!

  12. Rita, I am so sorry. I have no grandparents left and there are days when that thought hits me like a punch to the gut. I love that you had time to not just love her but appreciate her... too often, kids look at their elders as a nuisance so I think it's awesome how you learned from her, how you respected her.

    I never learned to dive. Maybe I would have if I'd known Betty. *hugs*

  13. Thanks for sharing this, Rita. What a blessing for you. I'm sorry for your loss.