[Viewpoint] Memories of grandma from afarMy grandma turned 102 last October. Born in 1907, that makes her almost 104 in Korean age.
After her last birthday, she got a letter of recognition from U.S. President Barack Obama in the mail, like the one former president Jimmy Carter sent her mother after she turned 100 in the 1970s.
A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, my grandma still lives alone in her house on the north side of the city, although someone began staying with her through the night after her most recent mini-stroke a few weeks ago. The slurred speech and blurred vision cleared up after a day, but even grandma had to admit it was time to get a little extra help.
What’s the secret to long life? Moderation, she says. She has one cup of coffee a day, enjoys sweets and smoked about two cigarettes a week up until the early 2000s when one of her best friends, and her smoking partner, died.
She uses a walker to reach the lift that takes her up the stairs to her bedroom, but the kitchen is the center of her world. From a padded wheelchair facing the window, she reads, eats, answers the telephone and visits. She was more active until just a few years ago. Swimnastics at a faded country club and trips to the bank, doctor and grocery were routine before she quit driving. She was about 96 at the time.
She’s outlived nearly everyone she knows. Her circle of sewers who met every Tuesday afternoon since 1941 has completely disappeared. Judy Lamb, Helen Ferree, Jane Falendar, Betty Davis and a list of others - their names and news about their lives popped up all the time at grandma’s house.
Helen’s son wanted her to move into a retirement home and used any means possible to get her to do so. She never did, and grandma trumpeted Helen’s independence. Judy played a wonderful piano and owned a cottage in southern Indiana where her family used to vacation. Betty was the youngster of the group and began coming at grandma’s behest. Her husband was one of my granddad’s best friends.
The last of the sewers died a few years ago, and Jane Falendar’s husband, Herbie, just passed away in his early 90s. Grandma says she’s ready to join them.
I got married in grandma’s living room in a family wedding with a few friends. Standing in the corner that the Christmas tree usually decorates this time of year, my wife and I exchanged the vows we had memorized the day before.
“I suppose you’ll be needing a place to stay,” grandma said after the ceremony. She expected us to stay with her while we looked for a place of our own and settled into our new life together. Her jaw dropped when I told her we were moving to South Korea, disappointment clear on her face. Though she never openly said so, I suspect my wife became the person who took me far away in grandma’s eyes - never mind the fact that I wanted to go.
With the holidays upon us, I’m thinking more about grandma. My whole family gathered in her living room this year, four generations of children, parents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. My wife and I were noticeably absent, as was our 3-year-old daughter. It sometimes seems like the only time we get to the U.S. is for funerals.
Holidays have a different feel on the other side of the world than they do when you’re surrounded by family. The passing of one year leaves you wondering whether you’ll see your family in the next. But living overseas has its own rewards, and 102 years is a long time by any standard. I’m glad I got to spend as much time as I did by grandma’s side.
*The writer teaches journalism at Ewha Womans University.
by Chris Carpenter