Eleanor and her siblings attended Catholic school, while she loved learning she hated school and vowed never to send her future children to a Catholic school. She recalls the nuns being unreasonably strict and generous with ruler slaps on the hands. With difficulties at home and at school Eleanor had one place she would turn to for unconditional love. Her grandma spoke only Polish, she was a terrific cook and provided all of the individual attention Eleanor craved. Each of the nine children were given days they would be allowed to spend at their grandma’s. Eleanor discovered early on how valuable this time was to her and used her pennies of chore money to pay her sibling’s for their time with her grandma.
Into her teen years Eleanor felt jealous of her sisters naively believing they were more talented, more outgoing and more beautiful than she. Her twin Adaline seemed to get all of the from boys. Despite comparing herself to her sisters, Eleanor wasn’t about to settle for any man to become her husband. She had been turning to love and knew how important it was above anything else. Her brother Stan introduced her to his friend Mitch at a baseball field. He was tall, handsome, one of seven hilarious brothers and exactly the match to be able to give and receive the love Eleanor had been preparing for. They were married on September 2, 1939.
Before their vows Eleanor didn’t know how to cook or clean, she threw herself into being a housewife and tried to hide her lack of skills at first. Eleanor and Mitch loved each other with fairy tale affection and admiration for each other. “I even loved ironing his clothes,” she recalled “Because it was for him.” They were married three years before their daughter was born, then Eleanor stressed for three years when Mitch was drafted into World War II. Finally reunited with his return they had another two children, both boys. Mitch’s job at an insurance agency afforded Eleanor to be able to dedicate herself to motherhood in a way she never got to experience from her own mom. And the practice of turning to love made her an excellent mom. She sewed dresses for her daughter and took her to dance classes. She adored her sons and worried when each of them found love in their early teens.
“They are too young,” she would recall believing. For the years of life she had lived she had come to have beliefs about age and developed fears about what was appropriate. And as her apprehension proved to be wrong, Eleanor turned to love, she embraced the two young women and accepted the error in her perception. Eventually all three of her children had moved out of the home, their daughter and first son married and their youngest son was away at college. Eleanor and Mitch became grandparents, “I hope I could be at least a quarter how wonderful my grandma was to me,” she would say.
Only a few years into being a single couple in love, Mitch died unexpectidly from a heart attack. She turned to the love of family to share in their grief. And in the love she had for him and for her own life she found strength to begin again. Eleanor and her daughter started a business and opened a gift shop called Two’s Company in South Minneapolis. The shop’s patrons returned to the store as much for the warmth in their presence as they would to buy beautiful things. Eleanor exuded love for living through her passion for her family, business, travel and laughter.
She adored being Grammy and had four grandchildren already before her younger son added another three, including me. Grammy was always thrilled to greet us at the door and require a buzi (Polish for kiss). She shared her affection for flowers and birds, she demonstrated how to engage in conversation with people in a genuine way and she modeled incredible sales skills when we tagged along at the shop. We drank old fashion malted milkshakes, searched through her hard boiled eggs for shells and charged her quarters when we caught her swearing. She loved politics and sports. Proudly cheering on the Minnesota Twins and Vikings, she would anxiously call in from another room to check on the score if the game was too intense to watch.
Grammy was an honest cheerleader. You are so beautiful. You are so talented. You are so smart. Even though I know she said the same thing to everyone, I knew she truly meant it every time the words escaped her.
As I grew into a young adult I became more aware of her amazing life and her gift at finding happiness. She continued to work, travel the world, drive her car, live in her own home and maintain a garden into her 90’s. She attended some of her grandchildren’s weddings and began having great grandchildren. Her love of life and for those around her grew, and in turn she stayed youthful.
When I was in college Grammy asked me, and my friends I brought over, about dating. “You’re so beautiful Holly, I bet you have so many suitors,” she would tell me. My friends chimed in telling her I have been too picky. So when I was finally in a relationship worth telling her about I became nervous. I introduced my boyfriend by photograph and tried to communicate my feelings for him. As my nerves had predicted, she was honest and fearful of me being in an inter-racial relationship. My heart deflated when I heard her response, “I didn’t marry the first man I fell in love with.”
Her approval was important to me and I was disappointed, yet I couldn’t be mad at her. For the 90 years of life she had lived she had come to have beliefs about race and developed fears about what was appropriate. When she met my boyfriend for the first time the initial apprehension she showed by the sight of his picture was gone and she turned to love. Her perception of what was correct had never been challenged this way before and she accepted she didn’t have to fear.
She has inspired me with her acceptance, her unconditional love and her willingness to change. A few years later she shocked me again when she questioned me about gay marriage. “Can you believe they want to get married?” She asked me. We talked about rights and why it is important for people beyond what is acceptable in a church. “I never thought of it like that,” she said. And in that moment she turned a page on almost a century of beliefs for a powerful demonstration of turning to love.
Grammy celebrated her 99th birthday this past year. She continued to live at home, the home she shared with her husband, raised her kids and created memories for generations more. She maintained her memory, her humor and her youthful spirit, though her energy faded. Knowing her time on earth was drawing to an end she had been surrounded by family; children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all voicing their love for her and appreciation for the wisdom she has provided. She passed this afternoon fully alert to her loved ones surrounding her and to where she was going.
Grammy turned to love for 99 years, she gave unconditionally, she accepted when she was wrong and practiced forgiveness to others who wronged her. I am blessed to have had her in my life and to witness how she lived and loved. I imagine a world with infinite possibilities if everyone were able to turn to love and seek happiness the way she did. And someday, if I am a grandma, I hope to be at least a quarter of how wonderful my Grammy was to me.