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Living Out Her Legacy: Five Life Lessons My Grandma Taught Me

I’m cuddled up under one of my grandma’s blankets. A Mendoza painting of hers is now hanging in my entryway, a statement piece I’d overlooked countless times when it hung on her own walls. There’s a small trunk of her belongings that I have yet to look through, of handmade wooden bowls, southwestern pottery, and saved photos of her great grandchildren sent to her over the years. My grandma was the stuff of fairy tales and legends combined, all wrapped up into a tiny frame and impeccably coiffed white hair. 

She passed away not long ago, and the world feels like it has an empty spot now where she had been. It even feels empty to type those words. Hollow, like my fingers can’t compute it. I want to hit the backspace button and delete the words out of existence, but that wouldn’t be fair to her, either. She was a shining light and the only thing I can think to do to fill the hole is to fill it full of memories of her and lessons she taught me while she was here.

The Gift of Grandparents

I was a lucky girl. I lived my whole life with two sets of grandparents nearby. My mom’s parents lived in the foothills of Colorado and we visited them often. My dad’s parents lived farther south, in Pueblo, CO. And while a three-hour car ride feels eternal to a little girl, as an adult, I realize that proximity was in our favor there, too. Visiting my Pueblo grandparents was always a novelty. At their house, there was never any shortage of Little Debbie snack cakes, attention, laughter, or love. There they would be, waiting in the driveway, sweeping us into their arms as soon as we were out of the car. 

Our visits with them were moments preserved in time. And even as they aged, their mental clarity beginning to escape them, they’d made sure to leave us all with the assurance that we were loved well. The legacy they’ve left behind, of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and now one new great-great-granddaughter, is one built upon unconditional love. A love story that began between the two of them. So while the void feels deep and wide without them here, I am content in what they’ve left to us to carry on.

I wish everyone could have known my grandma. But at the very least, here are some of the lessons that blossomed out of who she was and how she chose to live her life.

Life Lesson #1: Everything can always come up roses.

My grandma’s bathroom may have been my favorite room in her house. I know, that sounds weird. But my grandma’s bathroom was every shade of pink you could imagine. To a little girl, it was pure magic. Powder pink bath mats, baby pink hand towels, creamy pink boxes of tissues, and a pink toilet seat cover to top it off. But the best thing of all about her bathroom were the delicate rose-shaped soaps she had in her soap dishes. It was a perfectly pink haven. In hindsight, maybe it was her daily reminder to stop and smell the roses. Or maybe that’s reading too much into things. Either way, when I think about my grandma’s pink bathroom, I think of the fact that even in the most peculiar of places, life can still be rose-colored if you choose to make it that way.

Life Lesson #2: Dance your heart out.

My grandparents had a hidden (or maybe not-so-hidden) talent. They were square dancing pros. Right after the end of World War II, while settling into their post-war careers and family lives, my grandma and her twin sister convinced their husbands to join a square-dancing club called the Prairie Dusters. They travelled across state and country, dancing their hearts out. My dad says some of his favorite memories took place at The Slab, an outdoor venue where his parents would perform while all the kids joyously ran amuck.

I used to peer into my grandma’s closet as a child, trailing my fingers over the skirts and petticoats she’d worn in her dancing days. Out of their 20-year run as Prairie Dusters was born lifelong friendship, adventure, and shared happiness. They didn’t dance for fame or for wealth, they danced because they loved it. What a gift to do something you love. 

Life Lesson #3: There’s always time for a game of cards.

Whenever we visited, my grandparents would devote countless hours to playing cards with my sister and me. We played Spoons, War, and Go Fish. As we got older, they taught us the art of “Hand and Foot,” a complex card game that required multiple decks of cards and lots of concentration. My sister was dubbed “the card shark” because she always seemed to win every round we played. We took turns sending the cards through the automatic card shuffler, which I still think is one of the coolest contraptions around.

Tirelessly we played, gathered around a card table that took up temporary residence in their living room. We soaked up our time together. No matter what else weighed them down or preoccupied their thoughts, my grandparents never failed to show us that they valued our presence and appreciated our company. As long as we were there, they always had time for a game of cards.

Life Lesson #4: Not all that glitters is gold.

My grandma was a fashionista. She was the queen of bling. She rotated through the rings she wore on her fingers, matched her outfits to her oversized squash blossom necklaces, and owned dozens of shoes. Several months ago, my dad snapped a picture of her wearing a pair of red pants. He knew immediately that the pants had been the casualty of a laundry mix-up within the memory care unit of her nursing home. So, he sent a picture to his sisters as evidence, and horrified, they agreed; there was no way she was their rightful owner. My grandma would never have been caught dead in red pants!

But her clothes and jewelry weren’t the only things that glittered about my grandma. Each Christmas, she put up a beautiful, white tree in her formal living room. It was decorated to the nines and it was one of the highlights of visiting at Christmastime. My grandma embraced life’s beauty. It radiated out of her and twinkled around her.

These days, her heart-shaped ring dish sits on my bathroom counter, her initials engraved on the top. My daughter loves to lift the lid and pick through the dainty rings, examining the diamonds, the turquoise stones, trying them on her little fingers, and then carefully putting them back. I think she has some of her great-grandma’s sparkle. We should all be so lucky to find our shine and reflect our light for others to enjoy.

Life Lesson #5: Get on the train.

My grandparents grew up in Pueblo, hometown of the Colorado State Fair. They’d known each other as kids, in youth groups together at their Baptist church. Although they went to different high schools, he drove by the tennis courts on the weekends to watch her play. Before long, they were high school sweethearts. After high school, he found himself on a naval destroyer, and she went to the local junior college before moving to Texas to continue her education. In 1943, while he was on leave learning new naval technologies in Washington D.C., they decided to get married.

So, my 19-year-old grandma hopped on a train, alone, and traveled from Texas to D.C. by way of Chicago. As the story goes, she was the lone woman on a train occupied mainly by military men. The porter took notice of her, and announced to the servicemen that if they caused the lady any grief, they’d promptly be kicked off the train.

life lessons

They married mid-war and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. My dad called them the real-life Ozzie and Harriett. In a world where love takes work, would you hop on the train for the ones you love? 

In Her Honor

Five lessons aren’t nearly enough to sum up all that she embodied. She is so much more. But it’s a start. It’s filling in the emptiness, ever so slowly, a few handfuls at a time. In her honor, I’m going to wear my rose-colored lenses with pride. They’ll go well with her rings that sparkle on my fingers, glinting in the sun. Reminding me to live this life with joy. To spread it around as much as I can. To make memories with the people I love and to love them courageously and wholeheartedly.

“To me there are three things everyone should do every day. Number one is laugh. Number two is think — spend some time time in thought. Number three, you should have your emotions move you to tears. If you laugh, think and cry, that’s a heck of a day.”

Jim Valvano

For another powerful perspective, check out this piece by Nikola Reinfelds, “The Magnificent Mundane: Finding Belonging From Your Line of Survivors

Holly Johnson

A native to Northern Colorado and raised by a police officer and a flight attendant, Holly left home for her first year of college but returned to Colorado to receive her degree in elementary education. She met her husband while working at a café owned by his mom! After teaching for a number of years, Holly took a hiatus from education to raise her own kids. She and her husband live in Windsor with their fur baby, tenderhearted seven-year-old son and spunky three-year-old daughter. She values the vibrant community of women she is surrounded by, especially since becoming a mother. You can find Holly wake surfing or paddle boarding in the summer and skiing during the winter. Other hobbies include taking barre classes and catering to her sweet tooth. She hopes to bring some added humor to the day-to-day moments of motherhood and to be a voice for those, like herself, who must manage anxiety and the need for perfection in a demanding and imperfect world.

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