Pandemic Lessons from my Grandmother

My grandmother
My grandmother in her WWI nurse’s uniform

When my girls were small, we had a rule: if I heard them being unkind to themselves, they had to look in the mirror and apologize to the girl looking back at them.  It didn’t erase the words, but I wanted them to understand the power of their words. Far too often I haven’t practiced what I preach, but I’ve made strides over the years. When my older daughter was 9 or 10, she heard me scolding myself over something so mundane I can’t even remember what it was. However, I remember her stopping me and insisting I look in the mirror and apologize to myself. I looked in the mirror and said the words out loud for her to hear, and inside I said, “Lead by example, they are watching you just like mom said they would be.”

Self-compassion can be a tricky dance. I think most of us know the steps in theory, if not in practice. However, when life’s “music” changes tempo, it’s easy to forget the steps and – to really pound out this metaphor- storm off the dance floor.  For me, it seems times of stress exacerbate any feelings of inadequacy lingering just beneath the surface. I’m guessing I’m not alone there.  When I’m stressed, minor missteps are too often blown up into major blunders, and the anger bubbles up and spews like a volcano. However, when I lose my cool I readily apologize to the people I love and have hurt. But when I’ve been careless and hurt another with my words, I’m rarely quick to forgive the person in the mirror for being human. Those apologies take a while because I really hate hurting people, especially those dearest to me.

I think it’s fair to say there are quite a few experiencing a lot more stress than the norm lately. For most of us, these are uncharted waters. My grandmother, a trained nurse, survived the Spanish flu pandemic, but she’s no longer here. I can’t ask her about her pandemic coping or survival strategies. Beyond stay home, read a book, sanitize the house, and wash your hands, I’m guessing she would tell me to be patient, listen to the authorities, and don’t complain. Netflix and smartphones are nothing she could fathom but if she could, she’d probably admonish me for excessive dependence, tell me to work the soil for a summer garden, and as a devout Catholic, advise me to spend more time in prayer. Then, I’d probably hear all about how her generation survived much harder times. And, she’d be right.

Though she had always wanted to be a nurse, her parents insisted she first become a teacher–a respectable job, they thought, one they could tell their friends about. My dad told me her brothers, two were doctors and one a lawyer, negotiated a deal with her parents that helped pave the way for her nursing career; after teaching for a while, she could attend nursing school. A year or two later, one of her brothers escorted her via horseback across several states to nursing school. She was an accomplished horsewoman and, as a young woman, broke ponies for a general. She served as a nurse on the front lines in Rimaucourt, France during WWI and served stateside during WWII. After the Great War, she had prepared to board a boat for a Caribbean plantation to continue her nursing career.  My dad told me she had never planned to marry, but on the day she was to set sail she met my grandfather at the passenger terminal. He invited her to have coffee. She missed her boat. She weathered the Great Depression with her two young children and (sometimes present and often drunk) husband. She saw her only son go off to serve in WWII at a tender age and watched our country go to war two more times after that. She witnessed many political shifts between Democratic and Republican occupants in the White House and survived the sweep of polio across the nation, twice. She had a front-row seat as their first wave of feminism ushered in changes that gained the right to vote when she was 29. She watched the first man walk on the moon on a device that wasn’t even invented until she was 36 years old. She was 32 or 33 when she gave birth to my aunt and 36 when she gave birth to my dad -an old age to start a family by the standards of her day.  And just as she crossed into her seventies, she watched the second-wave of feminism open a new and very different world for her granddaughters to navigate. She was feisty and independent and deeply proud of her Irish roots. She stood only 4’11”, but she could, and often did, command a room.  She didn’t like to be called grandma, preferring her grandkids call her Grandmother. She was old school in the rules of respect, holding high standards of herself and others. But in my memory, that never stopped her from showing some well-placed tenderness. I wonder if she was very good at showing it to herself.

My memories of her are limited. Some were filled in by my dad’s and older siblings’ stories, some by photos, and some from the research prompted by the connection I’ve always felt to her. The older I get, the more I wish I had had more time with her, as well as my own parents. Grandmother didn’t live near us when I was growing up and her visits were infrequent. With dad building his practice and 9 children to tow, traveling across the country to see her made “trips to grandma’s” impractical. She passed right before I finished college. Though my time with her had been relatively limited, I felt profoundly sad when my father told me she had passed. She took with her stories– stories of the Irish traditions she grew up with, of survival and massive societal changes, of independence and of fears. She took with her the lessons of being a female tasked with finding the balance between stoicism and tenderness during some of the most trying times in our history. It would appear she had at least some mastery there. She must have while working the front lines in war and holding the hands of the dying. I wonder if she ever found the key to self-compassion during times of extreme stress or if she struggled with the same demons we all do.

In thinking about my grandmother, I find myself snickering at what it is I’ve stressed over. Yes, I’ve seen and worried about much in my time on this earth. I’m stressed now. I’m guessing she was stressed as she navigated the pandemic of 100 years ago. But, I am blessed to have a roof over my head, stocked cupboards, and modern medicine. And, to what I know would be met with a level of disapproval, I have Netflix, a smartphone, and Candy Crush. Relatively speaking, I’ve had very few struggles that compare to hers or many others who are surviving the pandemic of 2020. I’ve no room to complain.

Reflecting on her journey has left me thinking about the compassion she must have witnessed as well. She was 27 when the Spanish Flu pandemic started its 2-year sweep around the world. I’m guessing she helped care for the sick. Depression-era families helped feed one another. From some of my dad’s stories, I know they received their share of help from family and community and they offered their share of help in return. Grandmother nurtured the sick and dying during two world wars. I imagine she cared for many struck by polio, measles, and various other illnesses that moved across our country. In the tradition of her parents, she was raised to serve, and I’m certain she helped serve the members of her parish and the greater community as long as she was physically able.

She had a hard shell but a tender center. She gave and gave and gave, but you can’t do that if you never give to yourself.

I suppose that’s it -her legacy is the key I’ve been searching for: never let the hardships of this world harden your tender center. Give compassion freely and generously, especially to the person in the mirror.

Thanks, Grandmother. You too led by example, and I’m still watching.

With so much free time, I’ve been cleaning lately.  I feel certain my grandmother would be pleased. A lot. I’ve organized craft supplies, straightened shelves, and purged every drawer in my two office desks. Among the clutter of dried pens and a small stockpile of pushpins, I found these three little reminder cards. Appropriately placed at the top of my keyboard is my reminder to practice tenderness.

Giving Up or Letting Go

Woman, Face, Head, Hand, Write, Glass, Word, Letting Go

I went to bed early last night. Really early. I think it was 6:45. I asked my daughter to tell her dad that I loved him when he got home. I tried to stay up. I grew impatient with my body and that impatience was expressed in snips of angry words and frustration.

Everything seemed loud: the dogs’ scampering paws on the floor; the noise my daughter made as she prepared a snack; the cat’s meows; the nagging inside my head. Especially the nagging inside my head.

That nagging, I know it well. The voice that says, “Push! Just get it done. You haven’t finished this, that, or the other thing. ” The voice that lies and tells me everything is urgent when I know it isn’t. That voice, the one I’ve fought with but given into so many times.

Except, last night. Last night it didn’t win. I did.

I wanted to make a family dinner and sit as a family. I (we) didn’t.

I wanted to get some more work done on our remodeling project. I didn’t.

I wanted to do the laundry and get it all folded. I didn’t.

I wanted to get an hour of reading (at least) done. I didn’t.

I wanted to share some quiet time with my husband. I didn’t.

I wanted to write last night. I didn’t.

I wanted to…. (fill in the blank.) I didn’t.

In fact, the only thing I did get done was the one thing I deemed important, and that was giving the old cat his subcutaneous fluids. Yep, after I sifted through my long, and incomplete, to-do list, I decided the cat would be granted the only additional check-mark on that list.

I crawled up to bed. My body was achy. I was running a small fever. I needed to sleep. Despite the disapproving voice inside my head, I gave up.

I gave up on the rest of it, including pushing myself to stay up “just long enough” to say goodnight to my husband.  I gave up on the laundry and the remodel. I gave up on the family dinner and the reading. I gave up on trying to write. Other than the cat’s fluids, I gave up on everything left undone on my to-do list. I gave up on all of it last night.

Except, I didn’t.

At the start of every month, I set out my monthly goals, with the plan that I will have hit my bigger annual goals by meeting my incremental goals along the way. At the end of last year, I said I wanted 2019 to be my year for a health-makeover. In many ways, planned and unplanned (more about that another time), it has been. In keeping with that larger goal, I listed self-care as one of my (broad) goals for November. Self-care means taking time for me to do those things that fill my bucket. I enjoy meditating, but it can (far too often) be deleted off my list of to-dos when my schedule gets busy; same with reading, writing, walking, visits with friends, time with my family, eating healthy, doing my hobbies, etc.  Self-care is far too easily and too often discarded when that voice inside my head gets loud.

Except, last night it wasn’t.

Last night, I went to bed early. I didn’t give up; I let go. I let go of the expectations I had placed on myself and opted, instead, to honor the goal I set almost a year ago. A “health-makeover” isn’t a one-day-and-done goal, but is, instead, an on-going mindset. There are steps forward and, on occasion, steps back. Last night, I stepped forward. I quieted the voice that tells me to push until the work is done and focused on a bigger project; ME.

Last night’s win, however, was met by a bigger challenge this morning. Would I beat myself up when I had to add yesterday’s to-dos to today’s to-do’s? I was rested, very well-rested, and ready to tackle my to-do list. Nonetheless and very out of character, I avoided peeking at my calendar for a long time this morning. I sipped my coffee. I enjoyed the rays of sunshine bouncing off the new living room floor. I indulged in a very, very long hot shower(thanks, tankless water heater!), and even did some training with the dogs before I cracked open my planner. And, perhaps that long delay was just what was needed to let go of any hidden negative self-judgment. Before peeking at my calendar, I first looked at my November goal planning sheet. Last night, I let go and, in doing so, made the best choice possible to meet one of my November and annual goals.

Sometimes, giving up gives us the freedom we need to let go.

Previously known as

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