Wednesday, January 30, 2013

103 Years Cool

I called my grandma on her birthday. “A lot of people have been coming to see me today,” she said. “I guess they all want to look at someone who’s 103.”

Grandma’s partly right—making it to 103 is an accomplishment, no matter what shape you’re in when you get there. But my grandma got there with class and style. My kids regularly exclaim, “Great-grandma is cool!” I’ve even caught myself thinking, “Wow, I hope I live to be 103, so I can be as cool as Grandma.”

But Grandma’s cool did not begin at 103, or even at 95. In hopes of someday achieving a cool like Grandma’s, I shall attempt to unpack this compact expression.

In Grandma’s case, cool means having lived history:

Women weren’t allowed to vote in national elections until Grandma was nine. Prohibition started when she was ten, and ended when she was 23.

Her father bought their first car—a red Maxwell-Chalmers—when she was twelve. Her mom would get out and walk if he went “fast” (over 30). “I rode, but I was scared,” Grandma says.

The first time she voted was for FDR in 1932.

Her husband was a pediatrician, and he was sent to Europe as a doctor in WWII, leaving her home with three young children.

Grandma’s marriage was an early casualty of the sexual revolution. When her kids were teenagers, her husband decided he wanted one of the first no-fault divorces—and Grandma was the one who got to establish residency in Nevada by living there alone for six weeks.

She doesn’t have much use for our new-fangled computer gizmos. “Intel Celeron D processor,” she read at random from an ad in the paper. “Windows Vista. So what?”

Cool also means having the constitution and will to live independently:

Grandma lives in a retirement community in her own apartment. Someone comes in a couple of times a week to clean for her…but she cleans up before the cleaning lady gets there.

She cooks for herself.

She holds strong political opinions, completely opposite of the rest of her family’s, and firmly states them at every opportunity. Her family state theirs back, just as firmly. To visitors from out West, watching this process at family gatherings is hugely entertaining.

Noting the crossword puzzle book in the bathroom, I asked her if she’d like a new one for Christmas. “Oh, yes,” she said. “But it would have to be hard ones—only.”

But cool, I think, mostly means reveling in life, and in people:

Grandma doesn’t spend a lot of energy on what she doesn’t have, or can’t do anymore. We took the whole family back East to visit Grandma when she was 99 (after all, when someone is 99, you don’t know how much longer they have left…) “Let me show you my pride and joy,” Grandma said. She went into the next room, then emerged, smiling, with a shiny, candy-apple red walker. On the same trip, she and my daughter were tickled to discover that they were both halfway to their next birthday: my daughter was 12½. Grandma was 99½.

That six-week stay in Nevada? Grandma kept a journal. It wasn’t a joyful or fun time, but she made friends with the people who ran the boarding house, and she learned to love the West. “It’s a nice day again today,” she noted daily in surprise. Grandma’s from Western New York. I grew up in the Mojave Desert. “Grandma!” I exclaimed when I first read that journal. “It’s the desert! It’s never going to rain!”

“I used to have people I didn’t like,” Grandma says, “but I don’t anymore. Don’t have time for that, I guess. Now I just like everybody.”

Grandma remembers and maintains contact with people she knew eight or more decades ago: a kid my mom used to play with, presumably in his 70s now, sent Grandma flowers for her birthday. The lady who did my mom’s hair on her wedding day also sent birthday greetings.

The caregivers assigned to come in and help her out invariably become her good friends. The Mormon missionaries, who’ve long since accepted that Grandma’s not converting, drop by just to say hi and see how she’s doing.

She maintains extensive, handwritten correspondence. My kids have learned to read cursive and learned to enjoy hand-writing letters largely because their great-grandma writes to them.

Grandma fell and had to live in a care center for a few weeks. When she went home, patients and employees lined up to say goodbye. It seems like everyone wants a piece of Grandma’s cool.

Interested. Independent. Involved. Inquisitive. Inspiring.

Maybe if I live to be 103, I’ll have time to achieve that level of cool…


  1. I can sense how wonderful your grandma is as a person. It's no wonder people in the care center have loved her very much. With all the things that she experienced, I think she deserves to be called a cool and amazing woman. Well, you still have a lot of time ahead to be like her. Make her your inspiration to achieve that kind of awesomeness as well. :)

    Taneka Carl

  2. She sounds pretty amazing. Then again, get that old Lee Ann and you just might find yourself amazed at all the things you lived through as well.


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