Last year at about this time, I wrote about why Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me and about my gratitude for my high-school librarian’s influence on my life. With Thanksgiving just around the corner again, I decided that I’d like to make it a Thanksgiving tradition to remember or honor an inspiring woman who’s been a part of my life.
This year, my grandmother is at the top of my mind and heart. It’s hard to describe the shock and loss I felt when she died 15 years ago. It was like losing anchor and drifting off into a squall. Even after my family had moved 2,000 miles away from her, she had been a fixture in my life–my biggest cheerleader, a source of ceaseless encouragement and validation. I still tend to cry when I tell people about her.
Grandma was a voracious learner all her life. When the Depression short-circuited her formal education, she continued it on her own by reading–and she never stopped. She read everything, from trashy romance novels to science and homemaking magazines to history books. She was an incredibly smart woman and could speak intelligently about anything she’d read.
When I fell in love with reading and learning, she noticed. She started telling me her story, how she had never had the chance to complete her education, but had learned so much by reading. Education, she said, was a privilege, something to be deeply thankful for, and reading was a lifelong avenue to basically anything I wanted to learn.
Now, here’s the thing: she could have done all this in a way that was pushy, whiny, demanding. An I-didn’t-have-this-so-you-better-appreciate-it sort of way. But she didn’t. Instead, she did it in an encouraging and validating way. An I-am-so-excited-you-have-this-amazing-opportunity sort of way.
She made me feel like the education and the books I loved were precious to her, too, and worth any amount of effort or time. When she caught me reading, she smiled and patted my hand–and, even better, was careful not to interrupt me. When I visited her church, she introduced me proudly to her friends as “my amazing reader” or “my smart girl.” In later years, when I became frustrated by the lack of challenge or opportunity in school, she sympathized with me and encouraged me to fight for the education I wanted.
In short, everything she said or did told me, “It’s good that you love to read and learn. I’m proud of you for it, and you should be proud of yourself.” Her pride in me carried me through a lot of periods when I didn’t feel very good about myself, when jaded teachers or teasing classmates left me feeling discouraged and isolated. Her validation was the constant counterpoint to every doubting or mocking or apathetic word I heard.
Some girls want their grandmothers to be at their weddings–I just wanted mine to see me graduate from college. She died about 6 months too early. But not long before she died, she told me how very proud she was of me for all I’d accomplished in my educational career. And her voice was the one I heard in my head when I crossed the stage to receive my degree.