Tag Archives: compassion

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.

Banana slug lessons (Wednesday’s Wisdom)

This is not "the" banana slug mentioned below. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Banana_slug_at_UCSC.jpg

In response to a “lessons” post last month on Renée Schuls-Jacobson’s blog, I wrote about the wisdom I learned on a field trip:

I was in fourth grade, on a field trip in the mountains with our class. My mom was one of the parent chaperones. I didn’t want her there–only the “dorks” had their parents there. It was an embarrassing day made worse when the “popular boy” intentionally stepped on a banana slug in front of my mom. She had a strict “no kill unless you are going to eat it” policy in life. (Whenever possible (which was most of the time), she trapped the mice/bugs/snakes/etc. in the house and released them in the field out back.) I was standing next to my mom when the conversation went down…

Mom: Why did you just do that?

Boy: I don’t know.

Mom: You don’t know, but you did it anyway? Would you like me to come into your home and squash you?

Boy: No, I suppose not.

Mom: I didn’t think so. That was senseless and unkind. We are in their home and the creatures that live here have every right to be left alone to live as they choose, don’t you think? Since they can’t speak for themselves, I’m doing it for them. I assume I won’t see anything like that again today.

Boy: (eyes downward cast, but mocking me, I was certain!) Yes, mam.

I never heard a peep from the other kids about it, but I felt humiliated by my mom’s scolding of this boy–the boy who I dreamed about. My future as Mrs. Popular was lost, but the lesson I learned that day wasn’t: Speak up for those that can’t speak up for themselves.

(Anyone who would squash a bug just for fun probably wasn’t who I wanted to spend my life with anyways.)

via Thanks For Reaming Me Out: A #LessonLearned by Ermine Cunningham « Lessons From Teachers and Twits.

I’ve written often about the lessons I’ve learned from my mom, but it wasn’t until I read this guest post on Renée’s blog that I thought about the day I learned, really learned, to speak up for those that can’t speak for themselves. I was grateful for the chance to revisit this memory, not just for the trip down memory lane, but for the “gut check” it offered.

Though not perfect (because no one is), my mom was an amazingly compassionate soul and particularly protective of the weak. She was a stay-at-home mom with a kitchen window that provided her the perfect vantage point to see almost all the way down the block. If there was “bullying” or unkindness of any kind going on, she knew about it and she stepped in, whether or not her kid was the perpetrator. And, the part about rescuing and releasing critters above–gospel truth. Over the years, I watched her quietly and humbly give of herself and her money, and all the while teach by example.

I’d like to hope I’ve done the same with my kids, and I’m well aware I have kids that were blessed with huge hearts that have nothing to do with me or my teaching. I think about my older daughter, C, who, at the age of 4, would immediately stop her play and greet any child that entered the McDonald’s play area to invite them to join her “so they didn’t feel left out.” Or the time when A, at the ripe age of 10, stood up alone to a table full of kids who had been teasing another group of kids in front of her. I think of the courage it took to offer those gestures, to the be the hand that reached out to help someone else and I fill with pride for my girls and am humbled by their examples of compassion.

Since the day I wrote my comment on Renée’s blog, I’ve been searching the corners of my soul, asking, “Am I helping those that have no voice when presented with the opportunity? Am I continuing to teach by example? Or, do I stand silent, grateful it’s not my problem?” I’ve noticed more often the acts of others, of my children and husband as they help those in need. I’ve pondered the actions I’ve taken to help others and wondered if there was more I could/should do. I reminded myself to always be on the look out to “practice random acts of kindness.”

My mother taught me compassion with her words and her example (with the help of a banana slug.) She was ever grateful for the life she had, and she inspired me to be a better person. I have been blessed often and inspired by the generosity and  kindness of family, friends, and strangers who have helped me up more than once with an outstretched hand. I’ve been inspired by my children who have stood in defense of the bullied and the lonely. I’ve been motivated to do more by the writers I have come to know through this blog. And, I’ve been blessed by the opportunities I’ve had to help others. It feels good to help, to speak up for those that can’t speak up for themselves, to be the light in someone’s darkness. Acts of compassion truly offer their own rewards.

There are many opportunities to help those that are in need and either can’t or won’t speak up for themselves. One need only look at the headline news to read the stories of child mercenaries in Uganda or of the unemployed in our own backyards. Perhaps, there is a friend who needs groceries but can’t get out to the store, or a stranger whose path you cross on social media in need of encouragement and hope, or an in-law you lovingly welcome into your home, in spite of “the history”. Reaching out, speaking up, offering hope, are all ways we can be the voice for another in need.

Tomorrow, I will share the story of 3 fellow bloggers and their selfless gift to those with the smallest voices. In light of so much negativity on the news, it is good to be reminded of the goodness of others. I hope you’ll read.

Until then, what or who has inspired you to be a better person?