Forty years ago, I saw a side of my grandmother I’d never seen before when my younger brother and I were invited to spend a day with her at work. I was five at the time and she was nearly 10 times my age. I hadn’t imagined that she had a real job beyond simply being our grandmother, but she did. She was the beloved Grade 1 teacher to a room full of children who called her Mrs. White rather than Gammy, as my brother and I did.
I remember at one point during that day looking over at Jeremie who was watching her play the piano, leading her class in a fun Disney classic. He looked exactly how I felt: in awe and in love.
Fast forward four decades and that’s how we’re still looking at her.
“Is Gammy going to zipline?” my nine-year-old daughter asked earlier this year, when my dad treated us all to a day at Grouse Mountain to celebrate his 65th birthday.
“Probably,” my 20-year-old cousin replied. “She was just quadding at Jaime and Jennifer’s wedding.”
The thought of my little ladylike grandmother riding around on a muddy all-terrain vehicle at my other cousin’s wedding was surprising at first, and then I thought of her motive: to make her family smile.
As our large group got suited up in harnesses and helmets, I asked my nervous-looking grandmother how she was feeling.
“I’ll be okay,” she laughed. “If the little ones can do it, I can do it, too.”
And do it she did.
It was a thrilling day for many reasons and my grandmother’s act of courage made the festivities even more memorable. The amazing vision of her zipping down the mountain was only a small example of the bravery she’s displayed most of her life.
Suddenly faced with raising two young sons all by herself, she had to be strong, even if she didn’t always feel it.
“Is Gammy your hero, Mom?” my 12-year-old son asked recently.
“Yes, ” I said. “She’s endured a lot of pain in her life, but she’s never let it get the best of her. She’s risen to every challenge and has decidedly come out stronger than she was before.”
I used to think that I learned how to be an optimist from my father, but I now know that I also learned it from my grandmother. Despite her grave concerns for the state of modern civilization and her habit of worrying about others, I have only ever seen her full of hope and gratitude for her life and the lives of her loved ones.
Refusing to play the victim and taking charge of her destiny is one of the many valuable examples she set for me, and I thank her for that as often as I can.
“I could have done things better,” she will always say when receiving any kind of praise. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things better.”
Of course, she would have. We all would. But she was always brave in the moment, and she always did her best.
No longer 10 times my age, Gammy turned 89 this week. Less than twice my age now, it feels like she’s getting younger as I’m getting older, and we’re eventually going to meet somewhere in the middle and be the best of friends. In actuality, we reached that point years ago. And I, along with the rest of my family, remain in awe.