Saturday, April 4, 2009


I spent the afternoon and evening going through my grandmother's journals again, this time focusing on the ones she kept in the nursing home, beginning four years after her stroke. The first steno pad, which was all her journals were by then, started with her personal history. Three pages in, I decided I couldn't keep these to myself. So I've started typing them up and will give bound copies to my mother, my siblings, and my cousins for Christmas.

Then about 40 pages in, I called my mother to share a few stories with her. Mom adored my grandmother, her mother-in-law, in a way I don't believe most mother-in-laws are adored. Several times during our conversation, Mom said, "Y'know. I just was so lucky . . ."

I thought I was 7 when Grandma had her stroke. But I found out today I was just a few weeks away from turning 6. The difference for me isn't that significant, but it was for Grandma. That was another year or so of being confined to a wheelchair. A woman who thrived on physical labor and on taking care of others spent the last 12 years of her life having to ask other people to help her to bed, help her get dressed, help her to the bathroom. How did she do it?

I want to share a story about her that wasn't in her journal. Mom shared it with me tonight.

When Grandma was the matron for a women's retirement home I mentioned in an earlier post, one of her many responsibilities was to prepare every meal. She received an allowance for the meals, would walk to the local grocery store, do her shopping, and then take a cab back to the home. After 7 years, she retired at age 67. The staff threw a farewell dinner for her, after which my grandmother stood up and said, looking at the residents, "Ladies, have you ever gone hungry here?" They answered no. "Have you been happy with your meals? Always felt like you were well fed?" They answered yes. She then handed over a $1200 check and said, "Here is the money I saved you over the last 7 years here."

Can you imagine how much better a state we would be living in today if people could just, for crying outloud, care a little about integrity again? Grandma was an amazing woman. But I suspect she wasn't so unusual for her time. Her brothers fought in WWI, two of her sons in WWII. She knew about putting your life and liberty on the line for correct principles, about standing for something--for ANYthing--and about sacrificing. Her neighbors who planted Victory gardens knew. Her friends who lost "sweethearts" in the war knew. Her mother, a widower whose husband had died 4 months before Grandma was born and who spent WWI volunteering in every way she could, knew. When Grandma handed over that check, she didn't think she was going above and beyond. She didn't think at all. She just did it.

And, yes, it was just a check. It wasn't her life. It wasn't "her" anything. It was theirs. It was the home's the women's. And she knew that.

There are three definitions for integrity. One is an adherence to moral and ethical principles, of doing what's right when no one is looking. The second is the state of being whole, complete. The third is the state of being perfect, unimpaired.

Until today, I didn't fully understand how the first definition was related to the second and third. The first describes a human action for good or bad. The second and third describe "things": governments, a crime scene, a scientific experiment.

But the second and third also describe my grandmother because she possessed the first. She wasn't perfect. I know that. She knew that. But she had integrity and showed it in so many ways throughout her life. So when the time came that she, from the world's perspective, was no longer whole and was impaired, she still believed she was complete. Therefore, having others help her wasn't demeaning. It wasn't humiliating. It wasn't life crushing. It was simply another stage of her life that she would--and did--find a way through.

That's how she did it: with integrity.

This, to me, is the true blessing of living a life of moral character. We get to be whole.

1 comment:

Maryanne said...

This is great, Bobbie. Thanks for sharing.