The most important thing my Grandmother White taught me—she never spoke in words.
If a person had put a glass in front of my grandmother and asked her if it was half-full or half-empty, I think she would've been too preoccupied by the fact that the glass was dirty and would have to be washed to answer the question.
To understand what she taught me, it's important to explain who she was and who she wasn't.
She wasn’t the stereotypical grandmother who baked cookies, made you cocoa, smiled sweetly and gave you big hugs. She didn’t wear button down sweaters, or floral print dresses. She wasn’t one to speak about feelings.
To describe my grandmother in one word, I would have to choose: pragmatic. She was a doer, not one to ruminate and spend hours in intellectual study. In her philosophy, you did things for the people you loved—words just got in the way of actions.
People often use the expression “words fail me.” My grandmother tended to “fail words.” She rarely could pick a good one and her blunt honesty could sometimes border on cruel. She never hesitated to tell me or my cousin when we had put on weight.
She assessed my backside one time, telling me, “You’re getting kind of a wide load, kid.”
But, I just think she didn’t know how to express herself. If she loved you, then she would criticize you because she wanted to help you be “better.” She was probably the harshest on the people she cared about the most.
When I finally received my first Master’s degree, I jokingly told my family one Easter that they would have to refer to me as “Master Sarah” from now on. My grandmother, brushing past me in the kitchen, told me that she wasn’t “impressed by titles.” That was the most she really said about my academic accomplishments. And, off she went to set the dinner table and put the meal of ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans on the hot pads she had crocheted.
I found out—though definitely not through her—that she was going around bragging about me, but she would never have let me know this.
One instance that defined my grandmother for me as a child was when she took my older brother Matt and I out to Big Boy for dinner. I don’t remember why she did. Perhaps it was a birthday. Perhaps she thought my parents should have a night to themselves.
In any event, the three of us sat down and ate our chicken strips, burgers, and French fries. My grandmother had ordered soup, and when the waitress brought it, some of the soup spilled over the side and onto the table.
When it came time to pay, we went up to the cashier, who asked us if we had enjoyed our meal. Now, my parents are not assertive. In the past, when dining with my parents, the response was automatic—“Yes, fine.”
Not with my grandmother.
“Well,” she huffed with a jerk of her head. “I don’t appreciate having soup slopped all over me.”
My brother and I stood aghast. We did not realize that you could say things like that.
She was also one of the first people I ever heard swear. She was telling some story about work, and she pursed her lips and cocked her one eyebrow (her signature mannerism for irritation), and remarked, “Wouldn’t he just shit a brick?”
Again, we sat there aghast. Did our grandma just say, “shit”? Could people talk that way?
She was fiercely independent, a trait I supposedly inherited. For many in the family, they claim that I am my grandmother’s granddaughter—at least in terms of spiritedness. We were different personalities, inhabiting different parts of our brain. But, we shared a spirit of independence that is palpable.
The one thing my grandmother taught me—she never put into words. As a younger woman, my grandmother was highly critical, judgmental, and no one would’ve ever accused her of being overly compassionate. She worked in a bank for years, rising through the ranks to Vice President. She used to terrorize the tellers—sort of a female Ebenezer Scrooge at times. There was no sympathy for sick days, personal days, or mistakes.
In her last few years, however, my grandmother mellowed. She worked as a volunteer at the local hospital—one of the “Gray Ladies” who volunteered in the gift shop and took flowers to the patients’ rooms. She spoke more kindly about people who were going through difficult times. She would shrug things off and sigh, “Such is life, I guess.”
She taught me that the things that seem so important to me now won’t mean a thing when I am older. People are what are important then. When you asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she always said, “For you to come visit more.”
Dorothy Alice White had her faults, and she wore them like old battle scars from her younger years. Life is worth the living, she taught me. Never give up. Change what you can and realize the things that you can’t.
My grandmother suffered a massive stroke last week. She has not fully awakened. The decision was made this last weekend to forgo the feeding tube and simply allow her to drift off into that final peace. As of when I write this, she is still asleep, her mind gone, my grandmother gone, but that strong body of hers still clings so tenaciously to life.
The last time I saw her, probably the last time I will ever see her, she was lying in a hospital bed, a pink and red afghan across her frail body--knitted by a volunteer "Gray Lady."
With one last squeeze to her hand, I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. Her blue eyes opened and seemed to focus on my face for just a second before she slipped back into sleep.
Then, and even now, I can hear what she would tell me:
Well, such is life.
And she would shrug her shoulders and give me that tilted smile of hers, as if to say that things are going to happen in life that you can never control, and that's okay. Things will work out the way they are meant to.
She never seemed to have the right words, but she always knew just what to do. Perhaps this is why I will always remember that phrase of hers. Finally, in the end, she had the words to express that sometimes "doing" means stepping back and allowing things to happen.
Someday, I hope I can be as eloquent.