By the time I was born, not one of my three living grandparents were married or raising families anymore. Some were only married briefly, some spent the second half of their lives living apart by choice. They had sacrificed and pushed through life with great challenge. But I never saw that. I knew them as three separate people, each their own version of super hero. My grandmothers, Irene and Mae, made a young girl believe that the only truth was hard work. These women were not soft or sweet — I never found them knitting or baking or singing lullabies — but they had courage. I watched as they secured mortgage loans, managed properties and turned blue collar careers into self-sufficiency. My girls carry their names, Lily Irene and Cassidy Mae. I call them by their middle names daily, to honor these women, to keep their fiery spirits alive in my daughters and in my home.
Mae was a legend. A single woman in the ’50s, she worked several jobs and cared for her own children, took in her late sister’s children and managed a home with her elderly mother. If you knew Mae, you were family. Everyone was included, but no one was treated special. She struggled and was sick with cancer most of my life. One holiday during her weakest moments, I watched as she pulled out a small stack of single dollar bills and handed one out to each of the children that walked in. I was tender and innocent — just 10 years old — but I knew I was witnessing grace in a woman who had endured.
Irene was fierce and full of life. If she was mad, you knew it. If she was happy, her laugh would radiate joy right through you. I would visit her in the city and watch her at work as she collected subway tokens and holler at teenagers jumping the turnstiles. She was generous, gathering her hard-earned savings to treat family to lunch dates, a new outfit and celebratory vacations. When I went away to college, she bought me toiletries and supplies in bulk that lasted well into adulthood. When my son was born, she gave him thirty new outfits for Christmas. She showered us in practical abundance, so we would never feel the pinch of life without. I felt her pride. And everyday, I try to walk with her strength.
My grandfather, Buster, was a retired electrician during the primary years of my childhood. He would pick me up on summer afternoons and we would roam farmer’s markets and ice cream shops together. I was certain he was magic. When I grew my first garden, he came over in the night and planted lollipops in beautiful rows, a gift to my wild imagination. When I was eight, we saw a sign on a lawn that read “Horse For Sale.” He pulled over and bought it for me on the spot. He taught me how to throw a curve and stand up for myself. He grew up poor, scavenging dinner for his family. As a parent he underestimated my mother, but he healed those mistakes with me. There are no words for what we created, but when we were together, the world was right. He taught me nothing about money, but everything about being rich.
I carry their gifts. And I watch to see what my children see in the spirits of their grandparents. What will they carry? My mother bowls them over with her love. It’s loud and open and obvious. She dishes out superlatives — in complete sincerity — without hesitation. You are amazing. You are a genius. You are the world’s greatest. You are the best. She seeks adventures and will cram a week’s worth of activities into a day. My Dad, steady in his love, brings piles of scratch tickets and stacks of pizza and bottomless ice cream sundaes. He doesn’t ask for much, just to be met with open arms and loved without condition. My in-laws live nearby, so we have their time. They build gifts with their hands — cookies, cards, blankets and swing sets. They carve nature trails into their backyard complete with rope swings, wind chimes and hidden treasures. They are mindful and deliberate in their love — each connection crafted perfectly even. It’s hard not to feel special around them.
My children’s love for our parents flows easily. They hold them high, unable to see flaws or strengths, history or potential. They just love them today. Our parents return the love with genuine freedom, without promise or regret, pressure or expectation. And I watch the relationship exist in this beautiful space, reserved only for those just before and just after me. I honor it, because I know it well. I carry my grandparents with a child’s love. Because of them, I have held the hands of grace, of strength, of spiritual riches all my life. And someday too, I will know that bond again — in a new way — and with deep wisdom I will continue the circle and pass on my life to them. Then, it will be my sacred time to be immortalized as perfection.