True North: An Ode to My Grandma


My grandma was the love of my life. She taught me to laugh, to be strong, to survive. The day that she would inevitably die seemed like an impossibility to me. The world (to me) had never existed without her, and so a world without her in it was one that I could not wrap my mind around. Until I had to.  

My grandma’s story wasn’t painted with unbridled adventure, but I could sit in her kitchen and listen to her talk about her life night after night. I grew up down the street and so she was a constant in my life. Every school play, every marching band contest, and every holiday–she was there. But it wasn’t until I became an adult, my parents divorced and moved away, leaving me “homeless” when I returned home, that I was able to spend my school breaks and visits to my hometown, with her. She became home. And her kitchen became a late-night time machine transporting us both back to a time when she was younger—a person that seemed so separate from the woman I was listening to.

Even when she repeated the same stories of weddings, and dances, and homes and children, I loved getting a glimpse into the world of someone who had only existed to me as my grandma. Being able to place her in a setting where she had a life that didn’t involve being my grandma, seemed magical and historical and foreign. Like traveling through time through the eyes of someone whose story would inevitably lead to my own.

Her life was very typical for a woman growing up in southern Indiana in the early and mid-twentieth century. Born on a farm with 8 siblings, minimal education, married to a young WWII soldier, had six kids of her own, worked for minimum wage, lots of grandkids….you get the idea. But to me, someone trying to figure out my own life and how I was connected to what came before me, every detail of her life was a gem of insight—or at least something to entertain me over a bowl of ice cream at her kitchen table.

88 years of life with six children, 13 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren has its inevitable ups and downs, twists, and nose-dives. My grandma married an alcoholic and shouldered everything that comes with raising children in that type of unpredictable, explosive environment, in a time and place where support systems didn’t exist. He went on to recover and become everyone’s favorite grandpa—while she bore the brunt of the bitterness some of her children would develop from that type of childhood. That snapshot of her life, allowed me to gain perspective on my own life growing up as the child of an alcoholic father. Most importantly, my love for my grandma, helped me to understand my mother’s humanity and curtail any potential anger I might have harbored towards her for my own trauma.

Like any mother, grandma worried and cried and worried some more as her children created their own lives; enduring war, illness, divorce, challenges with children, and struggles with money. She felt unnecessary guilt. She witnessed and shared in joy, quietly and without applause for her own role in making those opportunities possible.

She never sat down. She didn’t slow down. She mowed her gigantic lawn until the very end. She volunteered at the hospital with a pink smock and a giant smiley button. Her skin grew thin and she seemed to shrink in stature each time I saw her. But she never seemed weak.

My children adored my grandma. I am so lucky that they were able to get to know and love her. Her relationships with them were vibrant and happy. They squealed with laughter, running down her hallway after finding “monsters” in her closet. 

It’s a funny thing about grandmas. She had all the same “quirks” that might annoy us in other people—but in my grandma, they didn’t drive me crazy. They made me laugh. To me, she could do no wrong.

My grandma was my true north. I didn’t agree with everything she thought, believed, or said. But when I was with her, I was home. And I felt like I was able to return to my truest self. I miss her. And I miss the person she was able to remind me to be.