Dear Grandma Helen

Dear Grandma Helen,

I’ve been thinking of writing you a letter for some time. I knew if Icalled, you would answer excitedly, we would share pleasantries, a few quick updates and then you would let me go, saying “well I know this is costing you money, so thank you so much for calling.” And that would be it. You don’t know what skype is and I’ve never made the effort to explain it. So, I decided to write you a letter—as your granddaughter of course, but also as a young woman, on the brink of life and in need of guidance.

There was a time when I didn’t fully get you. I knew you were my grandma. The person the school would call if I was sick and my parents were unreachable. You were my ride to certain places and baseball games. You were the giver of sentimental birthday cards with ten-dollars stuffed inside. You were the supplier of new socks and a fifty-dollar bill at Christmas. I was fifteen when I first realized how much money fifty dollars was to you. My dad told me that you saved all year long to be able to give each of your grandkids that. Getting that money from you felt like inheriting a small fortune. I treasured it.

I also knew that you loved Sears, watching hockey and discussing politics. Those things were obvious. But there are other things I want to know about you, but it seemed rude to ask or awkward to bring up.
For example, grandpa died at the age of thirty-four and you raised four kids on your own, at a time when children without fathers and women without husbands were the subjects of hurtful neighborhood
discussions. How did you do that? You’ve lived for forty-four years on your own. Why didn’t you remarry? Did you ever want to? I’ve always thought of you as such a strong, independent woman. Were you always
like that or was that something you had to learn because of life circumstances? When did you stop sleeping? Was it after your youngest son died suddenly of a heart attack? Do you still cry? Are you angry?

Do you believe in God?

The skin on your hands is soft and thin. It’s decorated with sun and age spots, deep lines and raised curvy blue veins. I used to be freaked out by the sight of them. Now, when I’m holding your hands or when I look at them resting on your lap, I daydream about a future
when the skin on my hands will be see-through and fragile like yours.

Mostly, I think about a time when your hands looked like mine. I wonder how many men held your hands tenderly, perhaps along evening strolls or at high school dances. I  imagine you as a teenager, holding hands with your first crush. I imagine it would have been somewhat scandalous to be walking hand-in-hand with a boy, so you would have stayed well out of your mother’s sight. What was your first kiss like? Did you even have a boyfriend before grandpa?

There are specific things I want to know about your hands, things that you probably could never tell me. How many items did your hands scan during the twenty-four years you worked as a cashier at the local
grocery store? How many floors did your hands scrub during the years you worked a second job as a housekeeper to make ends meet? It would be funny to see an iphone in your hands. It’s amazing to me that your fingers have never typed an email.

At first, I wanted to write you a letter because I was sure that you weren’t a typical grandma. But then I had this profound realization: maybe you are typical. Maybe every grandma is like you—a treasure chest of hidden stories, joy, pain, lessons, regrets, fears, proud
moments, quiet triumphs. This country was built on the backs of women and men like you—people who held down two and three jobs just to hold
up their children.

I called and asked you what you want people to know about your life. You replied quickly, “Not a thing. There’s nothing exciting about my life. Nothing people would want to hear about. I was just average. My life was nothing spectacular... But I always felt that I was the
luckiest mother in the world and I still feel that way today. I had the best mother and the best husband. I was happy.”

Grandma, you live a generous and honest life. You are a woman of true integrity. What could be more spectacular than that?

With love and gratitude,