14 questions for my 92 year old grandmother, one for each child she raised
My 30's lurk around the corner like an unfamiliar room. I continue to carve out the life I want to lead, yet it still has not taken form in my hands. What lessons have I learned in my 20's that shape me? What lessons have I evaded?
My grandmother, Rosemary Eleanor, is 92 years old and the mother of 14 children. She is active in her church, volunteers at a local hospital, and plays boardgames with her great grand children on the floor. Recently finding herself without the garage door opener, she hit the button, ran, and jumped over the alarm so the door didn't go back up. My dad, the best of storytellers, made the most of this one.
Over lunch the other day, I was privileged to ask her 14 questions (a fitting number) on living a fulfilled and thoughtful life. She downsized a few years ago to a cozy condo that wins in the battle of simplicity, comfort, and practicality.
We sit down at the table before lunch. A few newspaper articles of students from the high school where my husband teaches are carefully cut out for us and an old picture of some of her children around their table was wrapped in plastic for me to see. Grandma is in her slacks, loafers, button down, and a blazer - classic, poised, yet inviting. A reassuring bell chimes on the clock as we chat.
1. What type of activities rejuvenate you?
The best hour of her week is Adoration Hour at the church. She initially signed up out of obligation, but now decades later, this meditative hour is something that she greatly looks forward to devoting each week.
“It’s a time to put everything else aside and concentrate on whatever affects you and God together…it takes a while to calm everything down and let everything go away."
2. What do you do for leisure?
Grandma doesn't recall much leisure when the kids were small (imagine that). Nowadays, she plays cards, goes to breakfast with friends, and has meals with family. She also considers her volunteer time with hospice and church to be leisure since she enjoys it. At nighttime she reads and listens to Celtic music and instrumentals to fall asleep.
3. How do you manage and eliminate stress?
Organizing her day with routine allows her to move smoothly from one activity to the next.
“You learn when it’s time to give up things. You learn to say no”. This peaceful woman sitting across from me said that sometimes as a young mother she would go into the car and just scream. Raising her family in a Catholic community where the minimum amount of children per household was 5, I doubt anyone was there to judge.
“I always knew that no matter how hard my day would be, that come 5:30 when he (Grandpa) came home, he’d lift part of the load for me.”
4. Do you have any tips for not wasting food in a large family?
Oddly enough, she doesn’t recall there being many leftovers with 14 growing children in the house. But if there were leftovers, she would freeze the small portion. Eventually when there was enough, she would mix them all together and put them into soups or bake a hash. She said not to overbuy and only get special fruits within season. Meal planning was important - she just had to be organized. After every single meal, Grandpa would get up from the table and say, “Very good, m’ love.”
“We wouldn’t put more on a plate than we were willing to eat.”
5. What is the biggest thing you have learned about yourself in raising 14 children?
“I was a single child. I had to grow into this!” Having that many children taught her patience and flexibility...and a reliance on God."
6. What are some things that you enjoy about your children?
“I really have always enjoyed my children. My one big regret is that I didn’t have more time to spend individually with each child. But that’s beside the point: I did what I could do. I used to say that I wished Bob’s (Jr.) life away, because I was so anxious to see the next stage of development, him being the first one…I thoroughly enjoy my adult children. Just being with them and them allowing me to know a part of their lives with their families…it’s just spending time together.”
7. Can you describe some specific ways that Grandpa was resourceful?
Since they didn’t have much money, Grandpa learned to do things himself to make improvements and keep things in working order. He would learn anything from pouring concrete to upholstering furniture. And Grandma’s rule was that if she couldn’t do it herself, then she would never complain about the way he did it. He knew enough to get by with electrical and plumbing, and would often take the skills that he acquired and help with their parish. > “He was a very talented man, really.”
8. How did you and Grandpa meet?
“A blind date.” They got engaged during World War 2 and wrote letters back and forth during these years of their engagement. At one point, Grandpa’s ship was torpedoed and he had a 30 day leave. That’s when they got engaged. “He could be so funny. You should ask me the worst present I ever got. He gave me a scale during one of my pregnancies!” (Fortunately for him, Grandma has a good sense of humor.)
9. What are some ways that your reduce your waste?
She eats leftovers even if she doesn’t feel like it, turns out the lights, unplugs appliances and electronics when not in use, and conserves water when she can.
“The main thing is trying not to overbuy.”
10. Which is most important and why – reduce, reuse, recycle?
Reduce. “If you could see some of my pajamas, you would see that I don’t waste…it looks terrible, but I’m still wearing it.”
11. How did the Depression shaped you? Can you describe what you remember about this time?
While they didn’t lose their house, they had to rent it out. Grandma thought that World War 2 was more shaping to her. She said they used to ration out meat, canned goods, and gasoline. People would save grease to make soap and melt metal. “It engendered more patriotism at the time.”Vintage World War 2 Love letters
12. What has been one of your most lasting and useful clothing purchases? Household appliance? Furniture piece?
“The oldest thing you wouldn’t want to know!" she jokes. "My chenille bathrobe. It washes beautifully and is as warm as can be. It must be 40 years old!”.
Grandma said that the first thing they ever purchased after being married was their washing machine. She didn’t hesitate in saying this was her most useful household item.
Their bedroom set is her most useful and lasting furniture piece, which is around 70 years old.
“Buy the best quality that you feel you can afford because it will pay off in the long run.”
13. How do you feel about the way people connect through social media and use smart phones nowadays.
“It’s a double edge sword I guess…I love to see pictures… But too much information goes out.” As far as people connecting, Grandma see that it is negative that people miss opportunities to connect with each other in person because they are on their phone. "People are losing their interpersonal skills.”
14. What would you say to someone who desired to live a fulfilled and meaningful life?
“First of all you need God in your life. If you are going to married, you need to be FULLY committed. I don’t think anybody can lead a happy life without doing something for others. And of course…to me a fulfilled life is raising a family.”
A soothing prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr, shared by Grandma:
Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can; and
Wisdom to know the difference
While I continue to chisel away at finding meaning and fulfillment on this side of heaven, I can't help but feel hope that this woman has taken a part in moulding me. Her children used these words when asked to describe her:
Devoted. Sincere. Thoughtful. Amazing. Faithful. Loving. Compassionate. Resilient. Faith-filled. Inspirational. Supportive. Loving. FaithFUL. Adaptive. Intelligent. Optimistic. Delightful. Busy. Fair. Enjoyable. Smart. Strong. Supportive. Woman of Integrity.