On the Occasion of a 100th Birthday and a Funeral

Originally published January 31, 2014

It’s been a week.

When you are contemplating one grandmother’s 100th birthday while at the same time attending the funeral for another, it’s easy to give pause.

“Is this a sign that life’s too short?” I question myself, as I watch my father eloquently search for the words that eulogize his mother, afraid to say too much lest he start to cry. “Or, when there’s so much more time behind you than in front of you, is it OK for my grandmother to say, ‘This @#!$%&* cake is all mine. Go get a Ding Dong, ‘cuz I ain’t sharing this with any of you fools.'” (My grandmother was a teacher. She would want you to know she would never say “ain’t.”)

Often times, writing exercises consist of composing letters to our past selves—what you would tell yourself that you know for sure now, back when it mattered more. Floss your teeth. Don’t stress over that a-hole who dumped you over the phone. Yes, that light blue eyeshadow is hideous. But as I spend time this week thinking about both these wonderful women, I’m compelled to lecture my future self—the one I know that will be looking back with a mixed bag of emotion, including regret and guilt. And this is what I would tell her:

Congratulations. Thanks to the gene pool from which you sprung, you’ve been blessed—yes, blessed, with a long life. I certainly hope it’s been one led true to your heart, as it was by your grandmothers. Mary, who was a lady in the truest sense of the word, and took absolute pride in raising her two boys and taking care of her husband. Mary, who would most likely have a good laugh over a book like “Lean In”—as if being a wife and a parent isn’t a noble enough calling on its own. Your grandmother Mary most likely never felt like she passed up the chance to do more, or better—the role she fulfilled was complete. As you look back on your life, as different as your path may be, embrace the gift you gave of yourself to the world—your children—and know that even in your darkest hours as a parent, you were at your very best.

And Ruth (that’s me, with her, enjoying a book, of course) whose path was a little different but no less important. Ruth, who while raising three daughters and taking care of her husband, also found time to be an educator. Who took joy in teaching. Whose love and caring turned strangers into family. I hope you have remained as connected with your friends throughout life as your grandmother Ruth did—because friends sustain you. Friends support you. Friends become extended family. I also hope you can look back on your life now confident in your ability to exercise patience and grace with your kids as Ruth must have with three daughters. With a husband that suffered through Alzheimers. With a calendar that just keeps going as you watch those you love pass before you.

And for heaven’s sake, relax! You’ve lived a good long life—while there are almost certainly things you would have done differently, you didn’t know that at the time, and you did your best, so let it go. Sure, sneaking your kid a little ice cream even when your husband said no probably wasn’t the smartest move, but no one went to jail. Maybe your son could have been a soccer star or the next Picasso if you had pushed harder, but do you really think so? It’s more likely he would have resented you more and liked you less. I think you did alright.

I know you, and I know what’s important—your husband and your kids. Just like your grandmothers. Both came from strong Midwestern stock. There’s an inner strength that comes from being a child of the Plains, and you’ve always had it, even when you think you didn’t. You had the most fantastic of examples to live by, and to aspire to. And I know they are as proud of you now in your twilight as you were of them in theirs.

Just please tell me you aren’t wearing elastic-waist pants.

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