What my grandmother's letters taught me about life
My grandmother started writing me letters about her life about a year ago. She told me she wanted to write down her memories so she could pass them on to me. As she had gotten older, she had realized that she regretted not learning more from her elders when she was a young, because now they’re not around to tell her stories about their lives. She wanted to make sure that I had the opportunity to learn about her life in personal way that gave her the opportunity to reflect on her experiences before relaying them.
Ever since then I’ve had the privilege of looking forward to a beautifully written letter from my grandmother in my mailbox each month. Sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re sweet, and sometimes they’re funny. But no matter what, they’re always incredibly smart and filled to the brim with amazing wisdom. Here are all the amazing life lessons that I’ve learned from my grandmother’s letters:
Independence is incredibly valuable, and worth taking risks to achieve
My grandmother grew up in a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Growing up she always had an adventurous spirit. When she graduated high school she wanted nothing more than to strike out and explore the world. But it was 1950, and views on women’s independence were very different than they are today. In one letter my grandmother described her father’s thoughts on her independence thusly, “His idea of my being his daughter and “just a girl” was riding a bicycle—too dangerous; college—wasted, will just end up being a housewife and a mother; driving a car; he would drive me and then my husband would take over.” However, she had a good relationship with her dad and chalked his views up to him being man of his time, just trying to protect her.
Her parents wanted her to stay nearby after high school, but my grandmother soon found an opportunity to gain her independence. A recruiter from the federal government came to her high school to recruit young girls to take over clerical positions that had been left by soldiers fighting in the Korean War. My grandmother was offered a position in Washington, D.C., and a week at the YMCA to get on her feet. So at only 18, my grandmother packed her bags and set off to Washington. Before she knew it she was on a bus to her first job, and soon living in her very own apartment. To this day my grandmother is incredibly independent. She’s travelled the world on motorcycles. She also works two volunteer positions at her local sheriff’s station and at her local theater, frequently hangs out with her friends, and goes to the gym. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that women of today have a special kind of independence that hasn’t been seen before. Then I remember my grandmother’s story and realize that she definitely had it first, and I probably got it from her.
Mistakes happen, and you can embrace them
For every victory in my grandmother’s stories, she always shows me the downside. Most people like to rewrite the past to gloss over the bad parts. My grandmother is not one of those people. Remember that cool first job I just mentioned her bravely taking the bus to? After her first day of work she had no clue how to get home. She got on a strange bus, got lost, and wandered through D.C. for miles. When she finally buckled down and asked stranger for directions to the YMCA, he pointed out that she was standing right in front of it. She was embarrassed, but also incredibly relieved that she was finally home safe. Hearing the story today, I’m truly humbled that my grandmother lets me in on her mistakes. Hearing stories of her stumbles always make me smile, because they all sound like things that I would do today. As a result, my grandmother’s honesty has taught me that not only is it okay to struggle, it’s expected. And when we do struggle it’s important to remember that any mistake is really just a tiny stumble in the scheme of the big picture.
Be grateful for what you have.
I sometimes have a habit of throwing my own personal pity party. When things are not going quite the way I’d like them to, it’s easy to get down on myself and feel bad about my situation. But while that might be okay for a little while, to vent and feel my feelings, it’s not a good way to live. Any time I feel my inner brat coming out, I remind myself to flip back to my grandmother’s letters and read about what it was like for her to grow up in the Appalachian Mountains during the 1940s. My grandmother grew up in a “company house” that was owned by the local coal mining company that her father and many of her relatives worked at. The house was made of wood slats and the only insulation was layers of wallpaper, which made the winters very harsh.
She remembers practicing her penmanship on the ice that would form on the windows. (Inside the house!) Their only source of heat in the house was a coal furnace, and one of her main chores was to go out to the coal shed and bring a bucket of coal back to the house. She hated the chore, and would cry all the way there and back, because of the strain and the cold. But even so, she was acutely aware that her family was very lucky, because they could afford coal. Other families in her town had to spend the evening wandering the railroad tracks looking for spare pieces of coal that had fallen off of passing trains. The fact that as a young girl my grandmother was tasked with such a grueling chore, but was able to keep sight of how lucky she was, has always reminded me to count my blessings. No matter how tough things get, they can always be tougher, so it’s important to always stop and appreciate the good in your life.
You never know when you’re going to go on your next adventure
Reading about my grandmother’s experiences has shown me all the beautiful unexpected twists and turns a human life can have. Meeting a strange recruiter could lead you to working in a new city. That guy you agree to see on a blind date could be your husband for the next sixty years. Buying a relative’s motorcycle on a whim leads to a life long passion that will literally take you all around the world. Life is beautiful, random and chaotic. It’s really easy to get caught up in what happens next, but it’s much more worthwhile to pay attention to what’s happening now. Because right now is where your future begins.
Things that seem like a big deal today will seem silly years from now
My grandparents Dorothy and Chuck were star-crossed lovers in the truest sense of the word. They met in their early 20s on a blind date, and decided to get married within a month. Their parents were not thrilled. To quote my great-grandmother Wilma (my grandfather’s mom) on the subject of their marriage, “First the dog dies, then Charles says he’s getting married! What else could go wrong today?” My grandmother’s parents were upset that they didn’t know my grandfather, and that he was of a different faith. No one bats an eye at this now, but at the time my grandmother was baptized Byzantine Catholic and confirmed Roman Catholic. My grandfather was raised Protestant. Their union was considered very scandalous. My grandmother had to get permission from both the Byzantine Catholics and the Roman Catholics in order to marry my grandfather. The churches took so long with the decision that my grandfather left to go on assignment with the Marine Corps in California before they finally agreed to allow the marriage. Because of this, my grandparent’s wedding was effectively postponed because of church bureaucracy. But guess what? My grandmother flew out to California and they got married anyway. And now they’ve been married sixty years. All the uproar and scandal seemed so pressing at the time, but now it’s almost confusing to explain what the problem was. I think the same is going to be true for a lot of things that we think are ‘big deals’ in today’s world.
The mundane will seem amazing years from now
Not sure what I’m getting at? Read this passage my grandmother wrote about rationing during World War 2 and you’ll understand what I mean:
It’s easy to think what is happening all around you in every day life is boring or mundane because we’re used to it. The truth is, that it’s not. Every moment we live is a special, unique time in history. It’s important that we keep our eyes open so we’re aware of it.
A good sense of humor will get you through anything
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my grandmother is that life happens quickly and you’re often in the middle of an important milestone before you realize it’s happening. In life there’s going to be love, great opportunities, and adventure. There’s also going to be empty bank accounts, fear, and mistakes. But no matter what befalls you, humor is your secret weapon. Everything my grandmother has recounted to me comes with a dollop of witty self-deprecation and awareness. Humor will make tough roads ahead of you bearable, and the ones behind you hilarious. And it will only make the good times feel that much better. So try to face every day with a good intentions, hard work, and a smile on your face.
Learning about my grandmother’s life has been incredibly valuable to my experience as a young adult. It’s wonderful to get a peek into the life of such an awesome and amazing woman and hear all of her memories in detail. She’s even inspired me to do the same thing if I’m lucky enough to have grandchildren someday. My grandmother’s letter writing campaign has taught me that no matter what I think I’m going through, she’s gone through it before. And if she definitely turned out okay, so will I.
[Image via Warner Brothers]