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Lessons from my 90-year-old grandmother

| Tuesday, April 21, 2020

When I was fourteen, my grandmother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. What we’d thought was pain from working too hard in her garden actually turned out to be a broken pelvis caused by the spread of abnormal cells to her bones. After a month of my mom driving an hour every day to take my grandma to doctors’ appointments, my grandmother moved in with my family to make her treatment easier.

After years of hiding my grandmother’s suitcase so she couldn’t leave at the end of her visits, the omnipresence of Helen G. Anton in my house has been an enormous blessing, albeit one that has changed our house in more ways than one. Our living room was transformed into a bedroom with the introduction of a makeshift curtain and hospital bed. Afternoons spent doing homework with the TV off were replaced with “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless” blasted at full volume. And as Helen G. made her mark on our household, modifying the way we operated in our day-to-day activities, so changed my family’s outlook on the world, too.

With each passing day, she passed on more of her pearls of wisdom. Some pieces of advice were dismissed in jest, like her trick of creating a makeshift telescope out of one’s right hand. Some practices were addressed in concern — for example, her penchant for chugging vinegar to “cure” a cough. But most were noted. Jotted down in the far corners of the mind, where one stores important survival knowledge, like the recipe for chocolate chip cookies or how to change a tire. Here are those lessons.


1. Just because you’ve told a story before, doesn’t mean you can’t tell it again.

A scatterbrained social butterfly, I’ve lived much of my life in fear of repeating a story to the same crowd. More than half the time, I open with a preemptive apology, feeling bad for burdening my audience with a tale told twice. 

Helen Anton has no such qualms. She delivers her dramatic accounts with reckless abandon, often coming to the end of a tale only to circle back to the beginning and start telling it again. If she wants to recount a hilarious phone call again, she will. If she thinks a story is notable, my family will be hearing it for the rest of the week.

We exist as more than mere court jesters. Entertaining the world is not our responsibility. 

2. Sometimes you’ve just got to moo.

This advice likely doesn’t make sense to people who don’t live with her, and, admittedly, it doesn’t always make sense to the people that do.

If Helen G. is having a slow day, she’ll sit in her blue armchair and let out a long, slow “mooooo,” imitating a cow. That’s it. There’s no deeper meaning, no hidden wisdom. I asked her about it once, and she told me it just feels good. 

A gal goes through a lot in 90 years; bottling everything up helps no one. Let it out. Mooooo. 

3. Call the people you love.

I have never seen anyone make more phone calls than my grandmother. The woman spends more time on the phone than a Wall Street broker. As her designated dialer, I‘m instructed to punch in number after number, calling her brother, her childhood best friend, her cousin-in-law, her neighbor and more.

Once, when my grandma felt her calling relationship with a family member was too one-sided, she was furious. I explained that just because someone doesn’t call, doesn’t mean they don’t care.

“When you love someone, you make an effort,” she explained.

Admittedly, my grandmother may have forgotten that her cousin actually had called her the day before, but the underlying lesson prevails: no one is too busy to make time for the people that matter. 

4. Get rid of it.

My grandmother tells me this whenever she learns of any responsibility my sisters and I possess, be it anything from homework to a shower. The woman puts on her pajamas at 5 p.m. so that when she goes to bed at 11 p.m. — she’s a spry 90 — she’ll be “ready to jump into bed.” And though I have long struggled to find the advantage in using five minutes now to save minutes later, this is a point on which my grandma will not budge.

Her philosophy: better to rid yourself of any looming obligations, any nagging chores so that you can fully enjoy the present. Putting things off for later just means prolonging the time stress is entitled to real estate in your brain.

5. A little imagination can make every outing an adventure.

When I was younger, as a treat, my grandmother would babysit my sisters and me, pulling us out of preschool. Terrified of driving on the freeways, she couldn’t take us on extravagant outings. Instead we’d eat lunch in the backyard and she’d whisper, “Imagine we’re in Shangri-La.”  Or we’d walk to get ice cream and along the way we’d collect branches to carry home and use to create fairy worlds.

Seeing the world through new eyes, I learned to appreciate the magic in the world around me. I found opportunities for games as we folded laundry or pretended we were tennis players in the Australian Open, as we hit a beach ball back and forth with badminton rackets.

6. There are no such things as guilty pleasures.

One of my favorite things about Notre Dame is its student body’s appreciation of the nerdy. I always smile to myself when I overhear unabashedly nerdy conversations concerning bulky bases of choice or the merits of a Kantian philosophy versus that outlined in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. At times, though, this level of intellectual expectation can feel performative. How many people’s favorite book is actually Goethe’s “Fasut”

My grandmother has proven time and time again that a person need not be embarrassed of any of their interests. One of the smartest people I’ve met, my grandmother is equally proud of her affinity for classic books and for knock-knock jokes. She is just as likely to turn on a soap opera as she is an Alfred Hitchcock film. If you enjoy something, why should you feel guilty about it? Life is too short to hide in shame. The things that bring us joy should be celebrated.

7. Never be embarrassed by dumb questions.

My grandmother has asked me to clarify the circumstances of the coronavirus on at least six different occasions, and each time, without any sense of shame. If my family is ever frustrated with her forgetfulness, she just shrugs.

“What’s the big deal? Just tell me again.”

Admitting you don’t know something is hard, but enduring a state of constant confusion will be much harder. 

8. “Some days you’re on the mountain and some days you’re in the valley.”

This is what my grandmother tells me on days when she moos more than others. She doesn’t announce her emotional low with pity or scorn, but in a very matter-of-fact way. 

I’ve already written about how the first semester of my sophomore year was tough for me. For much of the beginning of the year, I felt out of sorts, and guilty for feeling so. It took me a long time to realize it, but I’ve been operating under the misconception that every “normal” person feels “normal” all the time.

Helen Anton says, “Forget it!”

Any world traveler knows that if you ever want to venture beyond the plains and plateaus, you’re going to have to travel uphill and downhill. The views on mountains are beautiful, but few would bemoan the existence of the Grand Canyon.

9. “I have to laugh or I’ll cry.”

Though Helen G. is unapologetic about her valley visits, reminding me the blues are just part of a full range of emotions, she is cognizant of emphasizing I have control over my outlook. We rarely get to choose the circumstances of life. We have little power over the events life throws our way, but we have a great deal of say in the manner in which we catch them.

When things go wrong in our house, when plans go awry or flour comes flying from the mixer, my grandmother chuckles. Otherwise, she says, she would cry. And in a world where little follows the plans we set, laughing all day seems quite preferable to the alternative.

Julianna Conley loves cereal, her home state of California and the em dash. A sophomore in Pasquerilla East, if Julianna can’t be found picnicking on North Quad, she can be reached for comment at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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