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The Lifelong Lessons From My Late Grandmother I'll Never Forget

And where I rediscovered them.

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gif illustration of woman looking through memory box related to grandmother
JR BEE
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The box sat in my basement for years, full of letters from my grandmother. She died when I was 25, and decades later, she remains vivid in my mind: short and plump, in her stretch knits and sensible shoes; an intrepid New Yorker and dedicated patron of the U.S. Postal Service.

Composed on her electric typewriter, signed in an exuberant scrawl, and adorned with bountiful Xs and Os, Grandma’s letters were a constant throughout my youth and young adulthood, crammed with gossip, book recommendations and warm sympathy toward my various woes. I hadn’t opened those letters in decades, but with time to fill during the pandemic lockdowns, I finally organized them.

A lifelong introvert, it was all too easy for me to abandon the outside world during the pandemic, retreating into a cozy, home-based existence. Now, as friends post about social events, it’s disquieting to recognize just how contracted my life has become, and how much effort it takes to plan activities I once enjoyed.

I knew who would tell me to get out there again — my grandmother, Rhoda.

She was born in 1906 into a working-class family in New York City, where her father was a scrap metal peddler. While she loved to read, she was forced to quit school at 15 and work to support her family, eventually becoming a stenographer.

In 1930, at 24, Rhoda went to the bank and asked to borrow $1,500 to travel to Europe. The manager first laughed at her, explaining that no one would loan her money for that. The man added, perhaps taken by my grandmother’s audacity: “Now, if you needed the money for an operation, say …?” he suggested. She took the hint, said an operation was imminent, “and that’s how I went to Europe on the Holland America Line,” Grandma wrote triumphantly.

As I step cautiously into post-pandemic life, I find myself thinking about my grandmother’s adventurous spirit, her stories fresh in my mind from re-reading her letters. Rhoda’s lively, loving voice springs from those typed pages, wisdom that endures.

Enjoy

I’m struck by how often my grandmother used the word “delighted,” and by her infectious enthusiasm for books, travel and, of course, her grandchildren. Re-reading them, it feels as though she’s right beside me again, a humorous, reassuring presence. This was the woman who smuggled forbidden treats to me at summer camp and was not afraid to offer romantic advice to find “an amusing fellow” with whom to enjoy myself before leaving home for the Peace Corps, to be based in Morocco. (The message was: “Relationship, NO, entertainment, YES.”)

If she were here today, Grandma would not want me to sit around at home, especially not when I have a wonderful husband to accompany me out on the town.

Stay involved

My grandmother earned an undergraduate degree in her 50s, eventually earning a master's degree and going on to become a college English instructor. She challenged herself with new literature and ideas, writing detailed accounts of educational trips she took with other seniors. If Grandma could tackle Beowulf in her 70s, I can push past my inclination to stay in and return to singing with a chorale on Tuesday nights, belting out classic pop songs in three-part harmony with a live band.

Reach out to help

As a volunteer during her retirement, teaching English as a second language, Grandma often reported on her young immigrant students, whose energy and determination she admired. As she wrote: “If you are adventurous early on, you will be adventurous for the rest of your life. And that, of course, is the best way to live.”

Before the pandemic, my husband and I volunteered with a refugee resettlement agency, hosting newcomers in our home until permanent housing was available for them. Last year, we began hosting again, most recently immigrants from Afghanistan and Cameroon. Welcoming our guests, I think of my grandmother, herself the daughter of immigrants, and of her empathy for people seeking a better life.

Lean on Georgette

Grandma’s favorite piece of jewelry was the gold Phi Beta Kappa key she earned for academic excellence. But in low moments, she turned to Georgette Heyer, and her witty romance and historical novels from the 1930s and 40s. (“What a boost Georgette was to my sinking morale,” Grandma wrote, describing a difficult job search.)

Grandma introduced me early to Heyer and relished discussing her favorite characters with me (was the suave, omniscient Duke of Avon the more compelling hero, or did I prefer brash, warmhearted Viscount “Sherry” Sheringham?). I have a shelf full of my grandmother’s well-worn Heyer paperbacks, and I turn to them when insomnia strikes or I need a feel-good read.

I fall gratefully into the author’s comforting imagery of spirited heroines, gentle hijinks and copious Regency slang. When I do, I think about Grandma Rhoda. She always understood the need to recharge, or, as one of Georgette’s heroines in Friday’s Child put it, “to withdraw for a time from the gaieties of the Polite World”.

My grandmother had two dreams for me: that I would become a published writer; and that I would marry — and be happy. She would be thrilled to know that both were fulfilled. But perhaps the forever-inspiring Rhoda would be happiest to learn that, decades after writing them, her letters are still a source of solace — and delight.

What did you learn from your OWN grandmother? Let us know in the comments below. 

Follow Article Topics: Fulfillment
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