I’m back in Florida with my family, decompressing after an incredibly productive and fun—but exceedingly stressful—week of archival work. Unlike previous trips, I am actually excited to keep researching. The one major impediment to continuing research is my present location, which is approximately 3,000 miles away from both my home and the majority of my archives. Thing is, I’m really happy here, and reluctant to leave. I’ve found that happy medium between work and family, and am loathe to give it up. That feeling is even stronger today, because today would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday.
My grandmother—I always called her “Granny,” which drove my mother up a wall—died seven years ago. She died in her sleep, the death she’d always wanted, at the age of 73. I was in college 800 miles away, attending Bryn Mawr. It was a matter of personal pride for her, because, despite growing up mere miles from the campus, she always told me she never would have gotten in, on account of being an Irish Catholic.
By the time she passed away she’d been living with my family for over a decade, and was equal parts my third parent and my responsibility. I drove her to her doctor’s appointments, she taught me how to knit. I brought her food when her foot got run over by a Buick (that actually happened… she broke six bones and developed a serious case of “Frankenfoot” as a result), and she laid in bed calmly agreeing with me whenever I needed to rant about something parent or high school related. I took her to the craft store, and she did my laundry. She told me I would “start an argument with a brick wall,” and I mocked her relentlessly. She was a fixture in my life, and—as is the case with most fixtures—I took her for granted. And then suddenly she was gone, and for the first time in my life I found myself besieged by grief.
I was besieged, but my grandmother had long ago been broken. Granny moved in with us shortly after the death of one of her three daughters, and was never the same. By that time she was also dealing with the early stages of dementia and other medical problems that limited her in ways I am only now able to understand. She had an incredibly difficult life, and given my age, I couldn’t really appreciate the gravity of her physical and psychological challenges.
In fairness—both to myself and to my grandmother’s memory—she was also totally cuckoo bananas. She was quite possibly the world’s worst driver: from a hit and run at the public library to the time she ran into our local Wachovia, every trip with her was a hair-raising adventure. She was a truly heinous cook who gave herself E. coli at least once. She got jelly on the newspaper every single morning. She had a cat named “Cooter.” She routinely told my brother and I to “bugger off, dear,” and taught me turns of phrase that to this day make me sound like I come from another era. I always described her to my friends as the eccentric old lady who lived in my basement, and to this day I stand by that description. What I didn’t fully appreciate then, and wish I could tell her now, is that she was so much more than that.
My grandmother was basically the coolest person ever. This is a blog post, and Granny deserves a book, so to those of you who knew her, please excuse my brevity. For the rest of you, strap in. I’m about to list all the reasons that my granny was cooler than your granny:
- Both of my grandmother’s parents were artists, and she used to talk to me about coming home from school—in the 1930’s and 1940’s—to nude models posing in the living room. Growing up with a bunch of artists, she never tried to compete in that arena, but as she got older she started to indulge her creative side. By the time she lived with me, she was remarkably crafty. Knitting, needlepoint, drawing, painting… you name it, she probably did it, and made sure to expose me to it. She made beautiful things, and by the end of her life was especially into quilting; I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that she occasionally sewed pieces of fabric to her pants legs. Nobody’s perfect.
- Granny dedicated herself to her studies and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English. She remains one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met, the type who’d re-read War and Peace over the course of two or three days, just because. She studied Elizabethan England and the Civil War in her free time, and introduced me to many of the best books I’ve ever read.
- While in college, my Granny—an Irish Catholic girl from a suburb of Philadelphia—fell in love with an Indian man. My great grandparents told her they would never approve of a mixed marriage, but that they wouldn’t actively prevent the wedding from happening if she went to India and lived with his family for several months… their logic being that she’d never be able to stand living in such a dirty and barbarous country. Long story short, my grandfather had to drag her back to the United States, as she would have gladly spent the rest of her life in India if given the choice. She married my (brown) grandfather in Pennsylvania in the 1950’s, and she did it in a sari. Because she was a total badass.
- Approximately a decade later, Granny ran off to Mexico to divorce my grandfather. She returned to the US a newly single woman determined to raise her three small (and half brown) children on her own. Imagine for a moment the kind of courage it would have taken to become a single mother of three biracial children in the early 1960’s. Granny had some serious ovaries.
- During the “Mad Men” era, my grandmother started working in corporate/commercial real estate. She bought properties that companies used as tax shelters, which… doesn’t happen anymore. She was very good at her job, but as is so often the case, found herself making a lot of money for other people. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of a very complex industry, and managed to stay alive through decades of swimming with the sharks. Just as she rose to the top of the totem pole, tax shelters were eliminated and the industry in which she made her name disappeared.
- In the days when she did have cash, my grandmother made good use of it. She and her best friend—also a successful, single business woman—took trips to faraway places like China, unaccompanied by men. Because why not? She was utterly unafraid of the unknown, because she’d kicked the unknown’s ass so many times already.
- When my aunt became ill with a very rare disease, my grandmother became her caretaker. My aunt—who will have a blog post of her own someday soon, as she was a pretty cool lady too—had a fierce advocate in my grandmother. When my aunt was in chemotherapy so bad that it was almost worse than the disease she was battling, my grandmother did what it took to get her hands on some marijuana. She’d bake up pot brownies, and bring them to the hospital. Because she was amazing.
So yeah, basically, Granny was the world’s coolest grandmother. She only spent seventy three years in this life, but what a life she had. Hell, she even died the way she wanted to… if that isn’t a mic drop I don’t know what is. The last conversation we had was about a summer internship I’d received; she told me she was proud of me. I’m proud of her too, and I really hope she knows it. Happy Birthday Granny.
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.