William Shakespeare often ingrained in his plays two concepts regarding life after death: you can either write something well enough that people continue to read your words after you die, or you can have children. Either way, you live on.
I’ve mentioned before that I come from a rather large Polish Catholic family. Last Thursday, we lost the matriarch of that family; my grandmother Josephine passed away at the age of 89. To say she’s left a legacy is quite the understatement. She is survived by 11 children (8 girls, 3 boys); 33 grandchildren; 55 great grandchildren; and 3 great great grandchildren: 102 people of direct bloodline have been brought into the world thanks to her. She was the definition of motherhood. Shakespeare would have been proud.
We talk so much of motherhood here because it’s the journey we are all facing or about to face. We spend our time sharing advice with one another, telling each other what products to try to make parenting easier, and always searching for motivation and inspiration to make us better mothers. We click on articles like “10 Ways to Entertain A Toddler” or “How to Be the Best Mom” hoping to figure out the secrets to fulfilling our roles well, to raising the best kids, to feeling accomplished. But if I learned anything from my grandmother, it’s that the secret to life is to live and love simply.
Eulogy for Josephine
My grandmother taught me that life is not about having all the things you’ve ever wanted or going to all the places you wanted to go, but how many times you’ve laughed until you’ve cried and about loving people so much that it hurts beyond measure when you have to say goodbye.
My grandmother taught me that gathering with family is the most important thing we do in life. We all are busy. We all have lives of our own, but putting life on hold and gathering in droves up north is what has shaped me most in life.
Going and spending time at grandma’s house was never about what toys she had around because there weren’t many. We had the outside and the trees and the flowers. We had sticks to draw in the dirt, a pack of playing cards, a couple of board games, and an old blue metal tin full of broken and paperless crayons that smelled so strongly of Kindergarten when you opened it. We had magazines for making paper dolls and magazines for creating storyboards of our dream houses, and a few dollar store coloring books. We also had old clothes for dress up, fashion shows, make shift Halloween costumes, and lots of toilet paper for making veils and wedding dresses. Creativity reigned supreme and the sound of voices hummed in every room. My grandma taught me that playing together is love in another form.
We never lacked for things to do, and we learned quickly to not complain of boredom. We learned how to wash dishes and help make dinner. We learned how to make bread dough and knead it with our fingers when hers were too sore to do it herself. Her specialty was fried bread dough rolled in melted butter and dipped in sugar- it was as rich and as sweet as her laughter. I’m gaining ten pounds just thinking about it. It didn’t matter what chore we had to do, we didn’t do it alone. My grandma taught me that tedious tasks go faster when you work together.
We learned that patience and quietness is it’s own reward when we sat out on the enclosed porch with her snuggled up under a crocheted afghan. If we were quiet enough and still long enough, the hummingbirds would come to feed from the feeders. My grandmother taught me that stillness and silence have value.
Grandma was round and so soft and squishy, and her hair was always curled just so in that beautiful shade of gray that she didn’t bother to cover up. My grandma taught me to not be afraid of being who I was and to never apologize for it.
She always took care of others first, especially my grandfather until he died. She woke up when he woke up. He would sit at the table, and she would make him coffee and breakfast (which usually involved bread and butter in some capacity) and they would sit at the table together until the meal was done, when she would clean up, and he would start the day’s work, which with grandpa usually meant supervising everyone else and telling them how to do things. My grandmother taught me there is no shame in serving others.
Her cupboards were always full of simple things that we enjoyed when we were there: a bowl of cereal for dinner, cookies on the table, or homemade chicken noodle soup for lunch, pancakes for breakfast, biscuits and gravy. My grandma taught me that the simplest recipes are often the most delicious.
It’s the simple things that meant most. She has more grandchildren than most teachers have students, and even though it sometimes took her a few to get it right, (“Uh, Karin, Cath-, Cryst- Christine- Kristen!”) she did know all of our names. We always received birthday cards and also presents at Christmas. My favorite gifts from her are my sock monkey doll and my quilt. These are treasures I will hold tight to for the rest of my life, treasures worth passing down. My grandmother taught me about the value of family heirlooms and that recognizing others as individuals shows how much you love them.
Most of all, Josie taught me about being a good mother. She married young and became a mother young, but she was good at both: the best. Being a good mother is not about buying your children everything they want or always correcting their behavior; it’s about rocking them in your arms as often as you can, making them feel safe, and keeping them giggling. Even at the end of her life when she didn’t understand much, her favorite thing was to see babies and hear them laughing, whether it was through FaceTime with her great-grandchildren or even on YouTube. When nothing else made her speak or smile, seeing babies did.
She always said that her job in heaven would be to rock the babies, and I can still hear her- the way that her soft warbling voice would yodel or speak Polish, foreign words dribbling from her mouth faster than her lips seemed to allow. When I would bring Lucas to see her, she would yodel for him or simply hum as she gently rocked and swayed with my baby in her arms, even when her hands were rigid with painful arthritis- it never kept her from wanting to hold my baby when we visited with her. My grandmother taught me to value the passing of time.
Her love of her children is something to marvel at. I’m often scared that if I do have another baby that somehow I won’t be able to love the second one as much as the first, but she had 11 children and I’m pretty sure she loved them all. My grandmother gives me confidence that love is not limited and not limiting.
Everything about Josie was simple, but it was beautiful because she was bursting with love. I know how important it is to be present in the moment and to love and cherish the simple things: a joke, the thrumming of a hummingbird’s wings, the taste of heavy sweetness, the sound of raucous laughter after 10 PM around a heavy wooden table filled with familiar faces. It is the simple things in life that we must embrace the most because they are what make us happiest.
My grandma taught me that.