Be Like the Bird: Lessons from My 107-Year-Old Grandmother
“Girls! Too much sugar!” This was a common refrain from my grandmother during Canasta games in which my sister and I would get sillier and sillier as the game wore on. She taught us to play the game when I was still so young I couldn’t fit all 11 cards in my hand at once; I had to go in the other room to sort them.
I loved those Canasta games with my sister and my grandparents. It was one of the highlights of visiting them at their home in Eastern Washington, along with visits to the cherry farm they used to own, playing croquet in their backyard, and running around their huge basement — a novelty to a California-born girl like me. My sister and I were in awe of the laundry chute, which was a hole in their bathroom cupboard that led to the laundry area below.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, recently passed away, shortly after her 107th birthday. I was unable to visit her in 2020 due to COVID, but I carry a lifetime of memories of her with me.
When my grandmother was 95, she had to move to an assisted living facility. We had visited it together a few years before, and I still remember her voice saying, “over my dead body,” about the chances of her moving there. But after some health issues and a stay in a not-so-great nursing home, she agreed the assisted living facility would be acceptable. It was less than a mile from her old home, and she had a one-bedroom with a corner view of a pretty tree, which was very important to her. She placed her favorite stone owl to keep watch on a stump right outside her window. Over the years she accumulated quite a collection of owl-themed gifts and cards.
Once, she told me she didn’t want me to remember her “like this” — old and unable to be completely independent anymore. But the truth is I liked all the versions of Grandma. Growing up, Grandma was efficient, organized, and always busy. When my sister, Cindy, visited her once with her two young kids, my grandmother drew up an agenda. She had written 10:30: Play a game. NO CANDYLAND! What was the educational value in Candyland, after all?
She adored her great-grandchildren and even in her 80s would get on the floor with them and snuggle in her favorite chair to read books. She was a tireless advocate for literacy and getting kids to read.
She was not big on “please” and “thank you,” and was critical of her daughter, my aunt, always commenting on her weight. For my mom, it was hard to live up to her mother-in-law’s particular and exacting standards. In the early days of my parents’ marriage, Grandma bought them a huge ceramic fruit-salad bowl that looked like a watermelon. It was cute but took up a lot of space, so after 30 years or so, my mom finally gave it away. Of course, my grandmother came for a visit and declared it was a perfect day to use the watermelon bowl, and she was none too pleased when my mom confessed that she no longer had it.
My grandparents lived on a cherry farm from 1939 until 1974, when my Grandpa Jack had a heart attack and they had to stop farming. My grandmother loved living on the farm, and when they moved into a house in town, she funneled that farming passion into cultivating an incredible rose garden. She would place a fresh rose in a vase on the table by the front door as often as possible.
Once, when my grandmother was in her 80s, a friend sent her flowers. My grandmother, the flower snob, sent them back to the florist. No one dared send her flowers ever again.
But as my grandmother grew older, she softened. Any time we visited her in her assisted living home, we would pick up roses from Safeway and she would ooh and ahh over them as if they had won first place at the Chelsea Flower Show. She became much more emotional, and was free with her ‘I love you’s — something that was not part of my childhood. She cried when we had to leave, which always broke my heart into tiny pieces.
During her final years, her short-term memory suffered and she struggled to remember details like which day we were flying back home. Nonetheless, she was always cheerful and pleasant to be around and we always found things to talk about. I’d sit by her side for hours and show her photos, or ask her to share memories of when she was a teacher and a librarian. Sometimes she’d ask me to clarify something she read in the paper, like wanting to know what exactly “nanotechnology” was.
I work in the field of voice assistants, and on one visit I brought an Amazon Echo. At first she was astonished that it was a computer and there wasn’t a human on the other end. I encouraged her to ask it anything she wanted, figuring she’d ask a historical question or maybe to hear a favorite song. Instead, she said “Alexa, what are we gonna have for dinner tonight?” and Alexa replied “I suggest this lasagna recipe. It will take about three hours.” She did not find that answer satisfactory: “That wasn’t the question,” she reprimanded.
Shortly before she moved into assisted living, my sister and I came for a visit and my grandmother bemoaned the state of the many loose photographs she had stuffed in various drawers and cupboards. She kept asking if we wanted them, but neither of us wanted to take those memories away from her. Finally I said “Ok, I’m going to bring them home with me, but I’m going to make you a scrapbook and give them back,” which she happily agreed to.
That scrapbook was a labor of love! I found one with cherries on the cover, and filled it not only with photos but also with newspaper clippings. Being from a small town, everyone in her family had appeared in the local paper multiple times. My grandmother loved that scrapbook, and we’d pore over it together whenever I visited.
My grandmother was a devoted reader of both books and newspapers. She read the local paper every day and kept up with The Wall Street Journal until her last days. She was always interested in what we were reading, and we’d trade book recommendations. Her house was filled with books, and when I visited as a teenager, I’d curl up with a volume of Mark Twain or whatever caught my fancy. She was so proud when I published a book myself. I brought her a copy and she said “The cover is lovely, Cathy, but you need to tell the publisher to make your name bigger!”
She was born in 1913, before women had the right to vote. We were not on the same team politically, but she instilled in me how voting was our privilege and our absolute civic duty. From a young age, she told me how important a career was and always wanted my latest business card to pin up on her bulletin board.
When she got married, in 1937, she had to hide it, because she was not allowed to teach as a married woman. I think she found her early days on the farm with two young kids difficult and was very happy to go back to work as a sixth-grade teacher and then later as a librarian.
I recall a conversation we had on the phone when I was in college. She was auditing a local college course and mentioned they were studying the Rosetta Stone. I asked what that was and she was appalled. How could I not know such an important piece of history? I certainly won’t forget now!
Once, when we were little kids, Grandma visited us in California. We were out in the backyard and we saw a spider. “We should always be thankful for spiders,” she told me. “Spiders are beneficial!” I learned a new word and an important lesson — all in one fell swoop.
She used to send me handwritten letters with envelopes stuffed full of newspaper clippings. Being curious about the world and learning about new things were important virtues to her, and they’re qualities I try to instill in my son, Jack, as well.
My Grandpa Jack died when I was 12. My grandmother was only 72 and still full of energy. She took a trip to Hong Kong and brought back some beautiful rings for my sister and me. She was active in the PEO, a philanthropic organization whose mission statement is to help women “reach for the stars.” (No matter how many times my sister and I pestered her, she refused to divulge what the PEO stood for!)
Sometimes we’d ask if she wanted to move down to California to be nearer to us, but she insisted she wanted to stay where she was. She loved the landscape, and her friends were all there. And she was not a fan of California.
If we’d known she would live another 35 years, no doubt we would have all felt differently. But none of us wanted to deprive her of the home she loved.
I recall many visits when she’d hand my dad a big to-do list, and I’d settle in for long chats and photo-sharing sessions. My dad was happy to be fixing things and running errands for her, feeling like he was contributing. She sometimes involved my sister and me in house projects as well, such as the failed attempt to find a mythical faucet buried in the backyard or one of a hundred times we’d be sent down to the basement to collect a can of food for dinner, or a plastic-baggie tie. (She grew up without much money, and living through the Great Depression taught her to be thrifty, which we sometimes discovered by accident — such as the time when my brother-in-law, eating some pickles from the fridge he declared to be “the best pickles he’d ever had,” learned the snacks were 20 years old.)
One of my most cherished possessions is a red Art Deco teapot that belonged to her. The first Christmas after she and my grandfather were married, they had very little money. They agreed to not get each other any gifts. My grandmother was astonished to find Grandpa Jack had given her a gift after all — a pretty red ceramic teapot he’d seen her admiring in a shop window. She had not gotten him anything.
She told me she was so mad at herself. (I can still hear the low, gravelly “UGH!” sound she would make when she was frustrated.) She said she should have realized he’d still get her something, and years later, she still felt bad she hadn’t gotten him a gift. But she always treasured it, and now I do too.
On my last visit with her, my grandma, my dad, and I sat outside on the patio and enjoyed the sunshine. She insisted on making me relearn a poem she had taught my sister and me when we were kids and I had since forgotten: “Be Like the Bird” by Victor Hugo. She had me say it over and over until I got it right, still a teacher after all these years.
Be like the bird, who
Pausing in his flight
On limb too slight
Feels it give way beneath him
Knowing he has wings.
Cathy Pearl lives in California with her husband, 12-year-old son, a 16-year-old cat, and six voice assistant devices. She’s the author of the O’Reilly book Designing Voice User Interfaces. She does remember another poem her grandmother taught her as a child: I am His Highness’ dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you? (Alexander Pope)