A Grandmother’s Legacy


A Grandmother's Legacy

If you had asked me when I was a child to define what a “grandmother” is, I would have given you all of the stereotypical attributes. I would have described a little old lady with white curly hair, generally wearing a sweater and a floral print dress, and probably needing bifocals. I would have imagined her as being super sweet, innocent and shocked by the evil ways of the world, and ready to hand out sweets and toys to her grandchildren. 

Many of us probably picture some of those qualities when we imagine a generic grandmother. However, the older I get, the more I realize how inaccurate that portrait is. A grandmother is a complete person with a rich backstory and complicated past just like the rest of us. 

My mema recently passed away after being hit from every side with a variety of medical ailments. As I sat in her funeral service and watched a slideshow of images from her life flicker by on a screen, it started to dawn on me that I only knew a small part of who she was. The problem is that we tend to think of grandmothers in relation to ourselves. In our own lives, they have always been elderly. They have always had medical problems. They have always seemed a bit old-fashioned. But the obvious truth is that my mema had a whole life before I ever came along as her granddaughter. It’s a life that I never got to witness, but I’ve heard about second-hand, and it sounds pretty amazing. But it also hit me, as I sat there, that there is still so much that I don’t know about her. 

She raised three kids during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. My mom and uncle were fewer than two years apart. That meant nothing to me before I became a mother, but now it means everything. She didn’t have the added benefit of DVD players, iPads, or Netflix. Seven years later, she decided to add my aunt to the mix. She raised them while holding down a job that required her to work the night shift. I know what she did, but how did she do that? My boys are 26 months apart, and I’m barely staying afloat! Wasn’t she exhausted all the time? 

She lived out a love story for the ages, the likes of which is only portrayed in movies anymore. She met my grandfather when they were only ten-years-old and attending the same school. They were married at age seventeen. I don’t know how she managed to stay happily married for almost 65 years, still looking at her husband with stars in her eyes well into her 70s and 80s. I have only been married for twelve years, and so far it has already been much more challenging than I thought it would be. What was her secret? 

She took in her father, father-in-law, and her mother-in-law when they were too old and unwell to care for themselves. I remember watching her administer medications, become a kitchen-counter hairstylist for my great-grandmother, and even install a hospital bed with a railing in the guest room for her father-in-law. She spent time driving to doctors’ appointments and doing daily cooking and cleaning for extra people in the house. I know what she did, but how did she do it? Wasn’t it emotionally draining to live with the in-laws from day to day? To care for your parent the same way you would a child? My husband and I are just beginning to be faced with some of these long-term care decisions for one of our family members, and it feels like a very grown-up, adultish, overwhelming kind of responsibility. 

At my mema’s funeral service, I watched two different speakers attempt to summarize her life in a meaningful way. But how do you quantify a grandmother’s legacy? Does it involve a list of her accomplishments? Do you count up the days she lived, the children she had, and the years she was married and compute it with some complex algorithm? 

The short answer is that you can’t quantify it.

Her legacy is a living, breathing thing because it resides in her children, grandchildren, and even friends whom she considered family. Her legacy is alive in the things that we say, and the mannerisms with which we say them, and the glimmers of her physical appearance reflected on our faces. There are so many things that she has taught me directly, and even more things that she has passed on to me indirectly by teaching my mother (who in turn taught me). 

She has taught me that church is so much more than just a place that you go on Sunday. It’s a lifestyle that you live and a community that you take part in and serve on a daily basis. 

She has taught me that getting your hair done (I’m thinking about those kitchen perms again!) and putting on a little makeup and wearing some pink can really make a girl feel good, even if you’re just going to run some errands. 

She has passed on to me a love for travel by showing me pictures, sharing old stories, and living it out in her retirement years. She and my papa purchased an RV and traveled out west, settling out on a ranch like a scene from a cowboy movie. It was years ago, before her health started failing, but I’m still dying to rent an RV with my husband and drive across the country (one day we will!). 

She has taught me that life is hard and life is good, and those truths can exist simultaneously in the most complicated and beautiful way. 

She and my grandfather have passed on their love for music and the idea that getting out instruments and singing in the living room is just a normal way to pass the time. In the most ironic way, I ended up marrying a guy who (like my papa) will hear a song playing on the TV or on Spotify and just grab a guitar and start picking at strings until he is playing along. It is not uncommon for my five-year-old to then grab a drum and start tapping out a beat, and my three-year-old has taken quite a shine to the harmonica. Before we know it, we’re having a good old-fashioned music jam in the living room, and I have to pause and wonder how much of that is mine and how much of that is her legacy living on through me. 

She has passed on less desirable qualities as well, like her inability to fake a smile for the camera. Now, thanks to her, there are several people in our family who grit their teeth in an uncomfortable grimace when they are told to say “cheese.” My five-year-old is one of them, and now every time I see him give a pained expression for the camera, I immediately think, “There she is!” and I laugh. 

There she is. My grandmother is gone, I know…but I also know that she’s still here in so many ways. Our own little corner of the world won’t just snap back to the way it was before. We’re different now that we’ve known her — we’re changed. And some of us, myself included, are living out her legacy and passing it onto others in ways that we haven’t even begun to recognize. 

A sweet, passive, little old lady? Oh, no. She was always so much more than that. 


  1. Thank you so much Rachel, these words are so precious to me right now. I loved her so much and I hope to have the strength she did in the next phase of my life!💕

  2. Rachel,

    This is AWESOME!!! You captured in words, things I never gave much thought to. Thank you for putting your feelings into words.

    Love you,

  3. You have left a wanting to know more about your grandma and I’m her daughter in law. I have my own stories but I also loved reading yours. Thank you again Rachel you wrote a wonderful tribute.


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