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.

keyboard
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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s