Every year around Thanksgiving, I share a post about an inspiring woman I’m grateful to have known.
This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m particularly grateful to have known “Nan.” She was my husband’s grandmother, and she died earlier this year at the age of 90, leaving behind her a remarkable and influential legacy.
I first met her when I was just 19, almost 20 years ago. My husband and I were recently engaged, and she and “Gramps” were in the U.S. on one of their many extended visits from England.
She was a bit fearsome, to be honest.
I was very young, still very unsure of myself, and she seemed stern and somewhat stand-offish. I wanted very much for her to like me, but I came away not at all certain whether she did.
Over time, she seemed to warm up to me–or maybe I just became less insecure. She was always polite, always remembered where I was in my college studies, who my family were and what they were doing. Her memory, in fact, was incredible. She seemed to know everyone and everything about them. And she was full of stories.
The stories were what helped me feel less intimidated by her. She was an amazing storyteller, always animated and engaging. Some of her stories were funny, others dramatic, others very sad. But she told each one in a way that made everyone around her want to drop whatever they were doing and just listen.
Through her stories (sometimes directly, sometimes reading between the lines) I learned something about her life.
She was an only child but close to her cousins, one of whom I knew quite well. He was a generation younger than her and remembered that she took very good care of him when he was small.
She met her husband when both were in their early teens, and they became engaged while he was away in Burma during WWII. Through her stories, I first became really aware of the fact that Britain’s war had been very different from America’s. She talked about air raids, the extreme rationing, and the sheer length and loss and intensity of the war.
After the war, she married her beloved Gramps, then cared alone for their two young children while he served on the Berlin Airlift. Later, she went to work at a local school for special needs children. She was a tireless supporter of those children, advocating for new facilities, classes, and anything else they might need. As their swimming teacher, she co-developed a curriculum that is still used around the world in water-therapy classes for disabled individuals.
When I met her, she was semi-retired: still teaching her swimming classes occasionally but also volunteering with the local cathedral and traveling extensively with Gramps. They went to Thailand, India, Burma, France, Italy, and more.
Gramps died about 8 1/2 years ago, when my daughter was just four months old. After that, Nan slowed down a little, but she continued to visit the U.S., volunteer at her beloved cathedral, attend adult-education classes at the local university, and travel around England to attend plays with her best friend.
She was never, ever not busy, and you simply could not tell her that a thing couldn’t or shouldn’t be done.
In short, she was a remarkable woman.
People who live to the age of 90 often have small funerals, usually because they’ve outlived most of their friends and become increasingly inactive and isolated in the last years of their lives. Not Nan. Her funeral service and reception were packed with friends and family of all ages, and so many people were eager to find some way they could help to honor her.
Truth be told, I always felt a bit on the outside with Nan. Part of it had to do with being an in-law rather than a blood relative, part of it had to do with her temperament, part of it had to do with my own baggage.
But I know she cared about me. And I feel deeply honored to have been part of her family, to have heard her stories, to have been inspired by her energy and courage and strength.
When I think of her, I think of someone who was full of life to the very end. If my own grandchildren say the same about me after I’m gone, it will have been a life well-lived.