Lessons in mindfulness from an 87 year old

My grandmother tells me she wants me to read a letter from the electric company, so I follow her into the small room next to her bedroom. This room used to be my great-grandmother’s den many years ago and still has an old lamp of hers and paintings that once hung in her home on Birchwood Avenue.

Every available surface of the den has been taken over with neat stacks of rubberbanded letters and bills and photos my brother and I sent her over the years. There’s my old cat when he was in his prime. There’s my niece when she was in grade school. There three of us stand in our finest suits after my grandfather died.

The letter my grandmother shows me has love letter written on the envelope in her blocky, angular print. The letter has something to do with a penalty charge for refusing mandatory installation of some newfangled meter, and when I tell my grandmother she says “they already told me I don’t have to pay that” and rustles through other stacks and doesn’t find what she’s looking for but doesn’t seem worried.

We both shuffle back to the kitchen to sit at her table and eat cherries and look out onto her beautiful backyard through a big picture window. I can’t remember now if she had this window put in, but I think she did. It would have been the biggest change she’s made since moving from the city 25 years ago. The blood-red carpeting in the living room is still there. The ivory wallpaper with its gold accent still clings to the pillar near the door, and my youngest needs reminding not to pull at its curling edges.

It strikes me during this visit how deliberate and mindful my grandmother is. I used to struggle with even the definition of mindfulness in early sobriety, and here is a living, breathing example before me. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

My grandmother doesn’t do anything quickly or half-heartedly. In fact, in the past when I’ve told her we’re in a hurry – that we have to leave by a certain time and that time happens to have been 15 minutes ago – her entire demeanor changes. Her eyes take on a certain wild flightiness. Her shuffle becomes more pronounced but not faster. Her relaxed smile first straightens at the corners and then disappears. The first lesson in mindfulness that I learn from my grandmother is to ditch the schedule.

Early in our visit, she takes my daughters and I to the back bedroom, the one that I don’t like sleeping in because it feels haunted, even though I don’t believe in such things. We look at a very old picture of relatives hanging on the wall. This photograph and a pair of wooden Siamese cats used to hang in the hall in my great-grandmother’s house and they scared me. It was something about the eyes.

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L-R: great-great-great grandmother (name unknown); great-great grandfather, Antonas; great-great grandmother, Magdalena
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Siamese devils (names unknown)

I notice my own kids have quietly left the room. I get it, kids, but I am older and closer to these relics than I am to youth and need to hear what they have to say. My grandmother tells a story about her great grandmother in the old photograph. This is the second lesson in mindfulness: the key to the past lies in the quiet of the present.

My great-great-great grandmother used to visit the United States regularly. In those days you didn’t need a passport but simply money to travel and something my grandmother called a ship card. When my great-great-great grandmother returned to Lithuania, she brought enough candy for her nine grandchildren in a straw bag that she hung from the ceiling to make sure it lasted. The grandchildren sat below the straw bag transfixed like obedient dogs until it was empty, at which point she traveled into town with her straw bag and filled it with less exotic candies to restore order.

My grandmother tells me other very old stories and I make cryptic notes in my phone and think where did I put that small cassette recorder we had years ago and where does one buy cassette tapes now anyway. Unlike my kids, who begrudgingly pose for too-many pictures, my grandmother is a proud, patient model. I take a picture of her standing next to the photo of our very old relatives with haunting eyes and she lays two pair of tiny shoes she believes belonged to my now adult niece on the green shag carpet and asks me to take a picture. I do because I am the archivist and this is my job.

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Before we leave, I ask my grandmother to tell me her sauerkraut recipe. She is the only one who can make it and, believe me, the rest of my family gets a little panicky when Thanksgiving rolls around and she’s on the fence about coming. Her recipe involves bagged sauerkraut and chopped cabbage, a whole onion removed at the end, some shredded carrot for sweetness, cloves of allspice and some other ingredients I can’t remember but thankfully wrote down on yellow lined paper I brought home along with a container filled with sauerkraut she’d made a few days prior.

Here’s where I confess I left the sauerkraut overnight in the car and briefly considered serving it anyway but ultimately thought how tragic it would be to poison the family with grandmother’s beloved recipe. I dumped it in the trash and then removed the trash from the house because sauerkraut is potent stuff. I feel terrible about it, and I know I have a lot to learn about mindfulness and not getting so far into putting the kids and myself to bed that I forget to unload the car.

Here’s where I thank you, Dear Reader, for making the visit to my grandmother happen. When I wrote the last post about my grandmother, I had a flimsy excuse not to make the longish drive to see her. And whether or not you meant to change my mind, too many of you commented how you missed your own Dear Grandmothers and how lucky I was to still have mine. I can take a hint, though sometimes it takes a gentle knock upside the head. So I want to thank you for your comments and prompting. My grandmother thanks you too.

 

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24 thoughts on “Lessons in mindfulness from an 87 year old

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  1. Hi Kristen,
    I’ve been looking forward to this post ever since you hinted at it last week. You captured her spirit and yours with your words–spoken and unspoken. I can almost smell that back bedroom full of photographs and legacy. You honored her and blessed us by sharing. Thank you! xo

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      1. Well…now, I’m just all teary-eyed and emotional. I haven’t been able to write a thing in the last couple of weeks. Thank goodness I have good stuff and kind comments like yours to read. Hope you’ve had a great week, Kristen!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I always appreciate your comments and kindness. As for not writing, I’m taking the rest of August off, guilt-free. A little rest and recharge or what have you. Join me if you want 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful! Thanks for going back! Oh radio shack still sells the recorders, my dad bought one a lil while back! I can’t wait for your next visit! I would of served the kraut- lol xoxo

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  3. As a grandmother myself to three wee ones I really appreciate this and hope I’ll be around when they are adults and come to visit. ( it’ll be close though as I had my kids in my 30’s LOL)
    Sharon

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  4. I think the next trip to your Grandmother’s should be a field trip with some of your favorite bloggers, especially ones who live in close physical proximity (hint hint). What a delightful read this was… I became more mindful just reading it! I will now agree with the commenters on your last post: I truly miss my grandmother, and wish I could visit, just to catalog her mannerisms as you just have.

    Thanks for sharing this trip with us, and I am also a bit anxious as I stare at the picture of your relatives, so if I take that field trip with you, I will be avoiding the back bedroom 🙂

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  5. BB, you write so confidently and with strong phrasing. Your grandmother seems strong and you too are now exuding that strength with your stories.
    There has been a change in what you write and I must say, it just keeps getting better. Really great read and congratulations – should be Freshly Pressed!B

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m so glad you made the visit happen! I love the way you describe how she becomes when you mention you’re on a schedule. I think that generation views time differently, or maybe it just comes with age. Beautiful post Kristen!

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  7. Hey K – just dropping by a couple of blogs tonight – and so glad I made it here – I love the old photo – and how cool to have so much knowledge of your ancestry. Oh – and earlier my son came out of his room a little bummed out – he had a big ol’ hamburger he brought home – but he forgot to put it int he fridge and after a 18 hours in his room he knew it was a goner – but asked his dad just in case – but it was tossed and well, hearing about your kraut – sounds like you did the wise thing.
    cheers – and here’s to grand mommas – ❤

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  8. I can only read your posts on my phone which his why I go so long between comments. But when I finally sit down to read it’s like unwrapping an exquisitly wrapped present…and I love every minute.

    I’m so happy you went to see your grandma and even more happy that you took the time to write your posts. When you write about her I can smell the powdery mustiness of my grandma’s bedroom coupled with the spicy notes of her favorite perfume, Tabu. And I smile.

    Thank you for that today.

    Sherry

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