The following post previously published in The Fresno Bee on April 5, 2020.
This weekend, my Grandma turns 100 years old and none of us will be able to celebrate with her. Whoever penned ‘life isn’t fair’ can put this one in their book — you make it to 100 years old and can’t even see your family and friends to commemorate it?! I’ll compartmentalize my rage about that for now….
Because here we are, in a freakin’ pandemic. Three weeks into ‘safer at home,’ my days run high with competing emotions — extreme positivity (we can do this!) and shameless annoyance (please shut-up on Facebook). Daily conversations with my sister, dad and extended family [in Fresno] affirm that we here in Los Angeles are about 7-10 days ahead of the Central Valley in number of COVID-19 cases and shifted lifestyle. On the outside I’m a strong mom for my kids’ sense of security. On the inside I’m panicked about our health and freedoms going forward.
Every morning, I open my eyes with “Thank you God for this day.” I then quickly followup with “What is this world?!” Talks with with my now-centenarian Grandma are my latest therapy. (The last time I saw her in person was Christmas.)
She doesn’t take one smidge of medication, walks without any kind of help/equipment and (up until recent government orders) she’d get her hair done weekly at a salon. She’s lived longer than anyone I’ve ever known and has experienced everything from great success to deep tragedy. She was raised during the Great Depression and is now one of the last living examples of our country’s Greatest Generation. “I didn’t even know what a father was,” she recently remembered with me over the phone [her dad died when she was 6]. After graduating high school, she moved from Sanger, CA to San Francisco to work for a bank. “I had a ball,” she’ll reminisce from time to time. “I used to get dressed up and walk payroll papers up and down Market Street… San Francisco was my town.” She still plays piano by ear — name a song and she’ll play for it you on command.
Later, as a wife and mom [in Fresno’s Easton area], she was a homemaker — drove her kids to music lessons on weekends and drove a tractor through rows of raisins on weekdays because it was “the right thing to do, to help your husband and family back then.” She helped her husband [my grandpa] build a formidable farming business of grapes and raisins.
When I was a kid, my mom would take my sister and I to have lunch and shop with our Grandma every Saturday. It was always fun — we’d order grilled cheese sandwiches and chomp them down while my mom and Grandma gossiped and then they’d inevitably fight over who’d pay the bill when it came, literally yelling at each other “I’VE got it! / No, I’VE got it!” in front of young waitresses. I remember watching the Miss America Pageant at her house when I was a little girl and she said to me, “You know, you can be like all these girls and do this when you grow up.” (So I did…)
She’s outspoken yet reassuring. She’s fun and adorable. She’s tough. Up until a few months ago she lived in the same home she raised a family in. (Now she’s at a beautiful independent living complex.)
“I’ve lived too long!” she playfully says on every phone call these days. I always laugh, “Yeah, you have! Why do you think you’re still around?” She doesn’t know. I remind her to ask God ‘why’ when she gets to the afterlife and send word back so we can all finally find out. Then she laughs. And then she tells me this, every time: “Jill, whatever you do, just enjoy your life — your family, your kids.”
She raised two great kids — smart, hard-working, capable (one of them being my mom, rest in peace). Those two great kids raised more good kids (5 of us cousins). And now, all of us grandkids are parents. My ‘little blonde Grandma’ is now Great-Grandmother to 10 great-grandchildren — infants to 9 years old. “So what’s the key to raising kids, Grandma?” I ask this same question frequently, just to see if her answer changes with her mood. (It never does.) “Your children come first,” she repeats, every time. “If you’re going to have kids, you’d better think about them before yourself…” (My sister and I tend to live by this with our collective four daughters….)
“This world has turned crazy,” she told me recently, with her TV news on in the background. I tried to seek comfort, “Do you think this [COVID-19] is a wake-up call for people to live better lives?” She paused and then offered, “Well, the people who really should wake-up… WON’T.” (Unfortunately, I think she’s right.) “This world has gotten so much worse than how it was back in my day,” she added.
“But I’ll say this, Jill…” she continued. “Even when things do get worse, they always get better.” My eyes immediately welled, grateful to absorb 100 year old wisdom like this any day… especially during a pandemic. Happy Birthday, our Grandma E.