Learn all you can now so you’ll have time when you’re old to learn the things that haven’t been invented yet.
—Louise Kirn Oguss
Louise Kirn Oguss was my maternal grandmother, and that’s what she said to me when I was thirteen and resisting the idea that I soon ought to learn to drive. I didn’t like the idea of piloting a two-ton machine that could kill people, and I wanted to leave my small town as soon as anyone would let me and live in New York City, where I wouldn’t need a car to get around. Grandma explained that, although it was fine to avoid driving in my day-to-day life, having that skill in my repertoire could be useful in many situations–in fact, I might even save a life by driving someone to a hospital, and if I were ever called upon for emergency driving, everyone would be safer if I knew what I was doing. I admitted that she had a point, and although I dawdled a little bit in learning to drive, I did get my license before I finished high school.
But by then, Grandma was gone. She died of cancer just after my fifteenth birthday. If she were still alive, today would be her one hundredth birthday.
I wish she’d stayed longer. I never got enough time with her, even in the summers when I went without my parents to stay with Grandma in her wonderful old house in Far Rockaway, in the southeastern corner of Queens at the very end of the A train subway line, and we had adventures together all over New York City and at Silver Point Beach just outside the city. I wished I could live there all the time! Grandma and I enjoyed museums and people-watching and eating exotic foods and exploring buildings and neighborhoods and parks, and we never ran out of things to talk about. She told me stories from all eras of her life, she told me things she’d picked up from her wildly varied reading, and she truly listened to me and made me feel fascinating and fully appreciated. She knew how to listen to other people, too, and what questions to ask, so that we got to hear the stories of pizza chefs and cab drivers and a very old lady in the supermarket who had once been the pianist for the Rockettes. Grandma had a gift for drawing out each person’s special traits and valuing them. I wish I were better at that!
But I feel guilty complaining that I didn’t get more time with her, because I’m her oldest grandchild–one of my cousins wasn’t even born yet when Grandma died, and some were too young to remember her well. I’m lucky to have known her as well as I did and to have so many memories of doing things with her.
I wanted to write a tribute to Grandma on her centennial, like I did for my other grandmother but better, explaining how very special she was to me and how profound an influence she has had on my life. Three months ago I started turning over ideas, hoping to come up with some kind of structure so I wouldn’t just ramble on but could really convey her wonderfulness. But then I was in an accident, and too much of my time and energy went into just getting by, and I’m still not fully recovered, and then in these last few days I’ve had big mood crashes and headaches just when I thought I was going to write . . . and I know Grandma would understand; I know she would say that the specific date is not important, that the most important thing for me to do is heal, that I don’t owe her a tribute anyway . . . but still, I felt that I was letting her down and letting myself down and that I’ve spent far too much of the past twenty-seven years regretting that Grandma isn’t with me instead of taking a positive approach like hers and being a better person.
Thinking about it this morning, suddenly I not-quite-heard Grandma’s voice in my mind: “But honey. You’ve already written so many interesting things.”
She’s right. I learned to do one of those things that hadn’t been invented yet: I write for the Internet. I’ve published more than 600 articles! Grandma would appreciate every one of them. (Who knows–maybe she does? Would it be heaven without wi-fi?) It’s true that I’ve written almost nothing about Grandma herself, but my mission to tell people about Earth and all the great things we can do here is something Grandma would totally get behind. She’d be thrilled to see how I can link my own articles together and link them to reference materials and other interesting stuff, and minutes later people in Australia and India and Holland are reading my words. And in the process, I have learned to be braver about what I say and to decide when it’s good enough without calling someone else to read it for me.
Grandma meant so much to me that I can’t cram it all into one article. Here is just one story that I hope will show you a little bit of what she was like and how she shaped me.
The first summer I went to Grandma’s alone, I was just six years old and not only shy but nervous and cautious by nature. I didn’t know how to swim and hadn’t been near the ocean for two years. On our first visit to the beach, I must have looked anxious as we approached the pounding surf. Grandma said, “Now, here is what I like to do: We’ll go into the water up to our knees and stand, holding hands, and as the waves go in and out they’ll pull sand from under our feet, but we’ll stay put and see who can stand the longest without taking a step.” We did this. The water buffeting my legs was daunting, so much deeper when a wave came in and then sucking at me as it went out, and it was full of slimy seaweed and scratchy bits of shell–but I was safe holding Grandma’s hand. I felt the sand being pulled out from under the edges of my feet, then more and more until I was standing on tiny narrow piles, and then one foot dropped and I was falling forward, face-first into the salty froth–and Grandma pulled me up and laughed and said, “Let’s go in two steps farther!” Pretty soon I was in up to my shoulders and loving every minute of it. I played exactly the same game with my son when he was six and made his first visit to the ocean. Yes, it’s weird and wet and powerful–isn’t it great?!
Being cautious has its advantages. Grandma never tried to talk me out of my essential nature. She showed me how to feel just safe enough to have fun and, by broadening the range of things I felt safe doing, to work up the courage to try new things more easily. That combined with fifteen years of her belief in my ability to do great things, and with the example of her own life, to support me in feeling able to do what I yearned to do: I left the small town for the big city (not New York, it turned out, but Pittsburgh), got a great education, had a lot of fun with some fascinating men, worked out a career and a home and a family that suit me, and found ways to help make the world a better place. I’d still like to be kinder and more positive and better at asking people about themselves, like her–but I feel that if Grandma dropped in on me now, she’d be very glad to see what my life is like.
And she’d tell me to get off the computer when it’s giving me a headache. Happy birthday, Grandma! Good night!