My grandmother was always moving. It was in this way, and in others, that she wasn’t (and never pretended to be) a “sweet old lady.” At her wake almost a year ago, someone I didn’t know very well came up to me, patted me on the shoulder and told me that my grandmother was “such a sweet old lady.” As I maintained the same sad smile I had worn for the past three hours or so, I knew that this depiction, though well intentioned, simply wasn’t accurate. Yes, she played bridge regularly, didn’t really know how to work e-mail and always had candy out in Waterford crystal bowls in her condo’s living room. But once you got to know her, she was far from demure, meek and unassuming — nothing like the “sweet old lady” some people remembered her to be.
My grandmother was surely kindhearted and sensitive to her core. However, she was also bold, unapologetic and infectiously enthusiastic about practically everything she devoted time to. To her, one of the worst things in life was to be stagnant. She regularly volunteered as a docent at the Nation American Museum of History, which is a Smithsonian institution, and on weekend visits with my mother and sisters, she nurtured my love for history by telling me stories of how she felt when JFK was shot and what it was like to live during the Cold War, all while briskly strolling through exhibits. We had a lunch reservation to catch, of course.
She also worked relentlessly to continue broadening her horizons through books, magazines, newspapers and movies. Although she’d sometimes call me and my cousins for help on a particularly “millennial” New York Times crossword puzzle clue, she always seemed to know more about current events and pop culture than I did. I vividly remember when she broke the news to me that Justin Bieber was arrested for drunk driving.
She was always moving, whether it was voraciously through books or quite literally across the globe. All while over the age of 60, she careened through Old Delhi in the back of a rickshaw, climbed nearly 500 feet above ground across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, tossed water off a hotel balcony onto unsuspecting tourists in Florence, observed lions while on safari in Botswana, attempted to push the Leaning Tower of Pisa back in place for a goofy photo and, while sitting firmly next to me, sped through Denali National Park in the back of an off-road Jeep driven by my uncle. She was both excited and exciting, and being close to her meant having the privilege to listen to her adventures, stories and advice, all of which I eagerly consumed over regular lunch and dinner dates.
On top of all this, my grandmother was one of the most beautiful, elegant and glamorous women I knew. She lived and breathed “look good, feel good” and refused to succumb to most, if not all, old-lady expectations. She favored her Stuart Weitzmans and Ferragamos over more practical orthotics, and always smelled subtly of Chanel No. 5. Going grey was simply not an option, and so she visited Andre Chreky, once the hairdresser to First Lady Laura Bush, for a regular cut and dye. Anyone other than her grandchildren simply could not, and did not, call her “Grandma,” and rest assured, she’d kindly (but curtly) correct you if you did. And even when she eventually became so sick to the point where she couldn’t walk more than five feet without feeling weak, she refused to be seen in public in a wheelchair. End of story.
But this glamorous and unapologetic outer shell did not signal a self-centered and cold core. My grandmother was, in fact, endlessly warm and passionate — about her family, her friends and generally life itself. And this was despite the sudden and utterly unexpected loss of her husband, my grandfather, at 54. Although I hadn’t been born yet, I knew that she’d never even fathomed being widow in her 50s, and that this cruel reality turned her world upside-down. By the time I was old enough to fully grasp what had happened, my grandmother seemed to once again possess the world’s most positive outlook on life, even when hers had been so abruptly interrupted by tragedy.
She constantly reminded me to keep everything in perspective and to remember that this too shall pass; her personal story stood as a testament to this. She was genuinely and truly invested in my pursuits, my happiness, my health, and when she held my hand and asked, “How are you doing, dolly?” I knew she wanted the real answer — even when it wasn’t the easiest thing to hear. She seemed to be enthusiastic and engaged in nearly everything my cousins and I did, and her affinity for white wine and board games was only rivaled by her love of smiling, laughing and rejoicing in the warmth of family.
Although this past year without my grandmother hasn’t been the easiest, I take solace in the fact that every day she stays with me, deeply embedded in my own sense of self. As I pause to remember her one year later, I can almost feel her tapping on my shoulder, reminding me not to dwell too long. She wants me to keep moving through life, just like she did, and to never, ever sit still.
Anne Katz can be reached at email@example.com.