Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When You're 101 You Can Eat Ice Cream For Lunch

Shortly before my mother died, my grandmother called to tell me about a dream she had.  In the dream the three of us were waiting at the gates of heaven.  When Saint Peter approached he allowed my mother and my grandmother to enter, but told me that it wasn't my time; I had things to do. It was her way of telling me that when they were both gone, I must soldier on.

She has helped shape my first forty years by teaching me about honor, loyalty, determination and respect.  These lessons were taught not by words, but by example. Her standards are high.  My grandmother is a person who believes in expectations.  She sets the bar high for herself and for those around her.  She often has expectations of us that exceed our own expectations of ourselves. The gift is that in our quest to live up to those expectations we often end up being better versions of our own selves.

When my grandmother was born in 1915, the United States was still embattled in World War I, Henry Ford was perfecting the assembly line, and women couldn’t vote.

She was the eldest of five children who grew up following her father, a safety inspector, into the coal mines of north Alabama.  She was one of the last Eagle Girl Scouts, and used the skills she learned there to work her way through college as a swimming and diving coach.  During World War II, she earned her Master’s Degree in Industrial Engineering from Vanderbilt.  Determination helped her excel in the male dominated field.  “I knew I could do anything a boy could do, but the heavy lifting,” she said.  When the war ended, she was sent home to be a mother and a wife.  She went on to teach drafting and physical education before moving into school administration.

My grandmother is a testament to a life lived in moderation.  Until she was in her 80’s she smoked two cigarettes a day and had one cocktail before dinner.  She ate well and exercised.  At 101, she has never had a heart attack, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or a broken hip.

But she didn't intend to live this long.  Every year that passed she would say, “I guess I’m going to live to be 100.  Isn’t that terrible?”  Now 100 has come and gone. I asked her why she thought she lasted all these years.  She rattled off a list, as if she had been waiting for someone to ask. “I smoked very little.  I’ve taken a lot of exercise.  I’ve always been active mentally and physically.  I’ve always had a lot of varied interests and I’ve always been willing to trying anything new.  And I’ve always had a good sense of humor.”

When I invited her out to lunch she told me she’d rather have ice cream.  When you’re 101 you can do that.  We went to our usual haunt, Old Dutch, which has been dishing up ice cream since 1956.  I think they still have the original wallpaper.  When we have a chance to be alone together, our time seems sacred, holy even.  We can talk without interruption, but more importantly, we can enjoy the company of one another in complete silence.  We both know that there is always a chance it will be our last visit.  As she worked her way through a bowl of her favorite ice cream I asked her what advice she would give to young women today.  She said, “Get a good education, always be honest and fair, and trust in God to take care of you.”  Words of wisdom. 

Her face still lights up every time we enter her room, but I know that she's worn out.  She tells me that every night when she goes to bed she hopes she won't wake up.  "I'm tired of this life," she says with a sigh.  Everything she does takes so much more effort than it should.  She has had to sacrifice her independence and her privacy.  There is nothing wrong with her other than she is living in a body that wasn't meant to live this long.  When I return her to her room she is out of breath.  I ask if she would like me to see if the nurse will bring oxygen.  She looks at me and says, "Elyzabeth, I am trying to die!"  We both laugh and are grateful that even though her body is worn out, her mind is still sharp.

The dream she had did not come true entirely.  She was turned away from heaven as well.  She had ten more years of life to live.  She had to be here to watch me establish a career, to see me fall in love, buy a house, and have a child.  She didn't plan to live this long, but she, too, had things to do.


  1. Two totally groovy chicks and fellow iscreamaholics!

  2. Sounds like you and your grandmother have a lot in common: active mentally and physically, varied interests, willing to try something new, a good sense of humor. I'm so glad she's gotten to share more of your journey with you. Happy 40th birthday - and may these traits follow you through the next 40 (and even longer!).

  3. Oh wow. This is amazing. I miss my grandmother so much, and you just reminded me how spunky she really was. I love this project.

  4. Grandmothers are special people. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. Grandmothers are special people. Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Thank you for the story. My biological grandmothers are both gone, but I have a surrogate grandmother who will be 107 on August 10. This story reminds me of her.

  7. What a beautiful tribute to your equally beautiful and inspiring Grandmother--such an amazing spirit!