She had it all...

My grandmother passed away last Tuesday. She was my role model.   If any working mother ever did, she "had it all."

Anne was born in 1921, the third child to an immigrant mother.  My great grandmother spoke no English. My great grandfather passed away when Anne was nine, and by the age of twelve she was working to bring in income. Anne's mother worked sporadically, plucking chickens to bring in some extra dollars to pay rent for their tiny apartment. As soon as they could, Anne's older brothers moved out to California and to serve in the army leaving her to care for her mother alone. Anne graduated high school at 15 to support herself and her mom full time.

Anne's career began started as a receptionist at McCall's magazine. She later left for a job at Jonathan Logan, an apparel company, and ended her career as a VP of a commercial real estate company. She was known for her unique ability to make difficult male bosses seem kind. She was a skilled business woman who didn't miss a thing. She inspected every roof and financial statement.

She supported her mother for 25 years until she died when Anne was 37.  Anne and my grandfather Steve, a UPS driver, supported two kids, both of whom went on to get graduate degrees. My grandparents bought a modest apartment in a Queens housing development and a small summer bungalow in a community in Mohegan Lake NY.  She commuted an hour to work every weekday, ate dinner with her family, cleaned and helped her kids at home. On weekends, she and Steve took her family on trips around the city or on vacation to nearby states. She retired at 65 and spent time with her beloved husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

Here is an excerpt of the speech I gave at her funeral this week: 

When I try to think back on her life for a story that summed her up, none of them resonated with me. Anne’s life was made up of details.

She loved clipping moments of her life and weaving them together. After my grandfather passed last year we started to go through her things. She kept everything— pictures, notes and letters and had marked every one. She kept my father’s letters from college, my aunt’s certificates of cooperation from nursery school, her job reference letters,  the valentine I sent when I was four, clippings about my brother’s basketball team, receipts from her wedding. At the start of one of my baby albums I found a letter that my my dad wrote to her:  Mother dear, Rachael is truly a delightful baby. We can’t wait for her to get to know her grandmother. 

The tiny details she treasured made her life and ours so much richer.  Her photo albums were not just pictures of significant milestone events, she would also make intricate collages from an ordinary afternoon.

She loved saving things that had meaning for her. She clipped articles from magazines and newspapers that made a strong impression.

Last summer I found an Erma Bombeck article in their kitchen at her summer bungalow. “We are known as the women who ‘have it all’…” it began. 

“We have our own houses to clean, quality time with our very own children, husbands to attend to, and meals to plan cook and serve. We have our very own little gas tanks to fill, our very own ironing boards that we use while everyone is in bed, and our own personal oven to clean. We have a second career and whole weekends to shop, run errands, take the dog to the vet and do all the things we didn’t finish during the week…

We’ve been so busy impressing everyone with how we are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap small buildings in a single bound, we have set a standard for future generations that is frightening.”

She DID set a high standard. I have no idea how she did what she did all those years. She had tremendous energy and talent that I try to channel in my own life.  It has been an honor to learn from her. 

Anne taught me to see possibilities. Life was hard for Anne at times, but she never got stuck. She took it one day at a time, one step at a time. She taught me to find happiness everywhere. Whether it was clipping coupons, caring for her plants or driving to the mall, my grandmother found ways to take pleasure in all of it. 

She taught me that life is about appreciating strengths and capitalizing on them. Every summer when I went to visit Anne at her cottage, I would find a handwritten menu on my pillow. Somehow it made the “daily special” (always bagels and grapes, or spaghetti with a vegetable) seem more exciting. My grandmother was no cook, but she made dinner every night, providing non-fancy meals and focusing on engaging conversation. She was creative, she knew how to provide structure, discipline, love and learning opportunities. Instead of comparing herself to others, she focused on her specialities and she was cherished for them. She saw the best in all of us, too. 

Anne was a mobilizer and a community builder. At work, at her summer community or in her apartment complex, Anne knew how to get a group together and move them to action. Whether action was building improvements or organizing a show where her husband and his friends dressed up in drag for a community talent show.  I learned from her ability to create momentum. 

Nana Anne, I will miss you so much. I will miss: 

  • your contagious laugh 
  • your red lipstick
  • The sounds of your CBS AM station playing at the break of dawn from your shower radio. 
  • The way your flip flops clicked along as you headed to do your next project in your summer community. 
  • The way you called us "darling" at the end of a phrase in a conversation. 
  • The many silly songs you sang to us. 

Many of those details became less vivid over the past few years. And as you remembered less, I couldn’t help but wish I had written down every detail of your life the way you documented ours. 

I still learn so much from your example every day. I love you Anne. Thank you for sharing your many gifts with us.