Recently I celebrated a birthday and the same weekend, the mementos of a long gone past arrived to wish me a Happy Birthday. My friends had been storing the last few items from the days of my family and its time together, before my brother and I grew up…. My only living grandparent had passed some years ago and now in the early part of this century both parents.
These legacy items were an old desk, formerly called a secretary (not a word much employed today for a desk) used for many years by my Mother, and a sturdy old, oak, kitchen table (never used in our kitchen) given to us by a friend of my grandmother’s. The table felt kind of ancient when we first got it. It must now truly be over 100 years old.
With these items came three of my grandmother’s favorite lamps, lovingly and very selectively purchased some 50 years ago; a variety of nick knacks, and many pictures as well as old papers.
Musty!!! Goodness knows where my brother was storing these items before my Mom’s passing. Then again they did also spend 5 years in a basement, even if it was a finished one, before getting here now….
Lots of people receive handed down furniture and mementos. What made these feel special to me, even a bit surreal, was that oddly it felt like my family had come back to me to wish me a Happy Birthday! Among the papers and pictures were a number that I only vaguely remember seeing… Perhaps sometime in my childhood? Now decades ago.
Of the three members of my family who have passed on, in this moment in time my grandmother stood out the most for me.
A women born at the end of the 19th century, who lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, and also the First World War in then Eastern Europe. She continued to not only get through part of World War II in a Siberian labor camp (due to her husband’s underground work helping those who needed to, escape and survive) but went on to live out her life in the States, in the Midwest. All, as if not too much had happened. She was a pragmatist of the first order. Adapting, responding, envisioning and creating a path when there was none.
Granny (she hated the term Grandmother) kept her daughter, my Mother alive in the labor camp by telling her starving 16 year old daughter stories, creative visualizations, of how life would be one day: how she would live to have a nice house and a family of her own. And my Mom did. Always crediting my Grandmother with keeping her alive in those dark and dire times, Mom said that all the stories Granny told came to pass.
My Grandmother originally came from landed gentry, who had tenant farmers and a good sized estate. She never went to school but was educated by several live-in tutors. A voracious reader, Granny could often be found asleep in her chair having read into the night….. Marrying young in order to embark on her own life away from the estate, she took all life’s turns as they came.
Granny lost a beloved daughter who was only 18, and went through all the horrors of war to be able to provide her granddaughter with some sage advice: “Always buy good jewelry. You never know when you may need to trade a beautiful ruby engagement ring for a loaf of bread to save your daughter’s life”. Good jewelry can always be traded for something more valuable.
She had elegant taste, but was practical and adaptable. When I was a child, she was fond of buying me dresses from a Swiss catalogue (not common for a grade schooler in the Midwest) or, one day in summer out of the blue saying I needed a cool dress, and making one for me out of extra cloth and a pattern she cut from newspaper…
Granny had a passion for crocheting, and artistically developed highly refined and sophisticated patterns. Mom eventually sold a very long and large piece of my grandmother’s work that she made just for fun. It was for a formal dining table and quite stunning.
Being fond of flowers and herbs, she loved gardens of every kind…. Granny was a person of many talents and resources. But most important was her gift for perspective and resilience. Many, many times in her life she listened for and heard her intuitive guidance, her subjective awareness. It showed her a path and brought her through the worst and the best of situations. All this before the public popularity of concepts such as “mindfulness” and “being in the present moment”.
Statistics vary with sources (don’t they always) but roughly about 250K were estimated to have been sent to the Siberian camps during the period my Grandmother was there, and possibly as little as 20K made it out. My Mother and Grandmother were among them. Mom contracted tuberculosis there and Granny got her through that as well…. She lived in the moment in the very best way she could, in the present, however imperfect it was, never shunning an awareness of the facts as they were playing out before her.
Was she a perfect person? Is anyone? But Granny had style and courage; faith and inventiveness, and yes resilience. A pretty unbeatable package. In a different era she could have become a formidable business woman or professional consultant herself. A force to be reckoned with, if for no other reason than its quiet but forceful power. I’m glad I got to know her a little, even if just as a girl. She was one grand role model of how to lead the most present, perfect and resilient life possible.
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