The Patron Saint of Yes
If you follow me on social media than you know that my Grandma passed away in December. My grandmother and I haven’t lived in the same city since I was 2 years old but the day she died, I was a 20 minute cab ride away from her trying to reach her to see if she was up for a visit that afternoon. No one answered the phone and 2 hours later, I got the call that she had transitioned.
Many times over the last 3 months, when friends or colleagues or a Delta ticket agent hears that my grandmother passed they give that sometimes sincere and sometimes obligatory, “Oh no, I’m sorry for your loss”, but I have had trouble accepting their condolences. I am learning to be more gracious and just say, “Thank you”, but when I hear those words my heart won’t accept them.
Yes, when the call came after she died I had moments where I had a visceral experience of loss; that feeling you have when you know you won’t see someone ever again and the knowing that anything left undone or unsaid is going to stay that way, but most of what I felt was pride and joy.
See my grandmother was less than 2 months away from her 98th birthday and she experienced more in her life than most people I know experience would if they lived to be 500. My clearest memory of the moments after I heard the news of her passing was saying to over and over again, “You did that, Grandma!!! You lived that life”, and a smile or chuckle would follow. I think I even clapped at one point. I was so happy and so proud to belong to a woman that had been so much for so long. I felt like I had been a witness to something magnificent and unique and in her passing I felt much more present to the feeling of the honor of having been a witness to her life than I did the feeling of losing her.
I have a picture of us, she and I when I was fresh out of the womb. We look amazing together. She’s looking at the camera full of maternal love and I have more hair than any newborn should ever have. As I got older and became aware of who this woman was, she confused me. I was learning from the world what it meant to be a grandmother and my grandma didn’t match what I was saw on TV in the commercials. There was no cooking, no baking, no knitting, crocheting or needlepoint, no talks where she imparted wisdom and life lessons, nothing like that.
Instead, there was me going to her college graduation when she was 60, spending the day with my grandmother at her office, hearing stories of her travels around the world after she retired, her tennis trophies, her stage performances and hearing my family joke about how you’d better schedule time with her way in advance because an attempt at a last minute visit will inevitably result in an, “I’m sorry, you should have let me know ahead of time. I have a very busy schedule”.
Most of my memories of my relationship with her are of me being in total awe of my grandmother’s life. Her stories and her millions of pictures of VHS and audio tapes of her adventures, her shows, her tournaments triumphs, her friends, and especially her travels left me dreaming of a world outside of my small life and a life bigger than I thought that my unusually shy demeanor would ever allow.
While there were many times that my grandmother was around and I was basking in her glow, most of the time, she wasn’t there. Most of the time she wasn’t in my living room telling stories and showing video of her singing on stage in a leotard and bow tie at the senior center. The truth is that most of the time, I felt like I had an absentee grandmother, like she wasn’t around as much as I would have like her to be. The truth is that there were many times when my admiration for her turned in feelings that she was selfish and too independent. For most of my childhood, I thought that I wanted her to be someone else. I wanted the baking cookies grandmother, the one who gifted me with hand knitted sweaters proving that even when we weren’t together she was thinking of me and working to keep me warm.
During the planning of her funeral, I was told I needed to prepare to address the congregation on behalf of my cousins and their families. In the days between her death and her service thought about her constantly. I was on tour at the time so I had many, many hours in hotels, in airports and backstage that I spent pouring over our life together and our life apart, willing the memories to teach me sum up her 97 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 6 days into 5 minutes in front of the church that my great-grandparents help found and where she was a member from her first day to her last.
After spending so much time with my memories of her I realized that of all of the people in my family, my life looks most like hers. I am SO much like her now. Her sense of adventure, her curiosity about the world, her love of music and the arts, her involvement in the music business, her absolute love of the community that she created with her friends and the commitment she had to always come back to us, her family, her courage to keep trying at life and even, some would say especially, her commitment to her own life, growth and joy over all others. That describes me to a tee.
I can see now that in those days as a child, when I thought I wanted more of her, what I really wanted was to be her. I was a very shy kid. Like, hide behind furniture or your parents whichever is closer, shy. I was awkward and uncomfortable all the time. I was very sensitive, I cared about what everyone thought about me and the older I got the worse it was.
When my grandmother came around she was a bright shining glittery ball of no (insert expletive here) left to give and she did it not with edge or bitterness but with FULL love, joy and fantastic accessories. She offered me a glimpse of what it looked like to be free of everything except your own will and your own opinion of yourself.
When we were apart, and I longed for her, I thought I wanted homemade pies and scarves. But it wasn’t the things that she didn’t do that I really wanted it was the things the she did all the time.
I wanted was to see the world and get on stage and have close friends that I played, and shared my secrets with. I wanted to be open. I wanted to be unencumbered, uninhibited, I wanted to FEEL (my grandmother was notorious for crying tears of joy anywhere, anytime at the drop of a diem). I wanted to be free. I wanted joy. I waned to LIVE.
That’s the thing about my grandmother. When she was alive, she REALLY lived. She was one of those people that died with no regrets because she did everything she could when she had the chance and when life didn’t work or when life hurt her, she sat for a moment to feel the pain, then got up and kept going. So many of the odds were stacked against her and she kept going. So many stories that could have ended with her giving up and she kept going. So many times she could have stopped but she died having had a glorious life, full of love and accomplishment and adventure and tennis skirts and kisses and trophies and trips and songs and dances and friends and laughs and cries and yeses.
My grandmother, Edna Louise Johnson, lived a life of yes and her biggest, loudest yes was to herself. Yes her dreams. Yes her passions. Yes to her whims. Yes to her body. Yes to her tears. Yes to HER life. Yes. Yes. Yes, a thousand times yes.
This is what I got from Grandma.
I got yes.
Yes to my dreams, my passions, my tears, and my joys. YES TO ME.
I had to renew my passport a few years ago and I keep the expired one on my coffee table to remind me of what I have seen and encourage me to go and see more. My grandmother’s passport is now sitting on that coffee table, right next to mine. When I look at them, equally worn and stamped I feel that sense of awe and wonder creeping up in my heart from when I would listen to her stories about Japan and China and Zambia and Disney World and I am proud that I have learned to free myself and live the kind of life where I have mesmerizing stories of my own.
My grandmother gave that to me. She gave me the world, literally and figuratively. My grandmother taught me how to live my way by living her way. She gave me the yes that I give to myself every day.
I’ve decided to work on a few new yeses and I am so thankful that I now have my very own personal patron saint of YES to help guide and encourage me for as long as I need her, which I expect will be until the day the news comes that I too have passed.
Saint Edna, the patron saint of yes. She lives. She lives in me, in my every adventure, in my every song, in my every love in my every laugh and in my every joyful tear.
So when you hear about my Grandma Edna, instead of saying “Sorry for your loss”, say, “YES to her life!!!” May her life help you say yes to yours.
Author’s note: I have so much more to say about my grandmother’s life and death. I suspect that this will not be the last time she shows up here in this blog so stay tuned. Love you Grandma.