What We Are Worth

My grandmother was never one for group activities, but when my daughter was born, she started playing Bingo every week. This was a surprise to all of us, but soon her plan became clear. When my daughter, Gillian, was just a few months old, my grandmother presented me with several rolls of quarters, each labeled in her tiny print with the exact amount.

“It’s for Gillian’s college fund,” she said, beaming with pride.

My grandmother is a strong, independent woman, who’s been self-sufficient most of her life. She worked her way through college, earned a Master’s Degree in engineering from Vanderbilt during World War II, then spent the rest of her life as a high school teacher and administrator. She retired comfortably on her pension with no debts.  

But when my daughter was born, my grandmother struggled. She didn’t have the income she had when I was young, and she couldn’t babysit as she did every Wednesday night during my childhood. But she was determined to find a way to contribute. To feel useful. To prove that she still had worth.

Before I became a parent, my grandmother and I spent every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoon together. It was an enormous commitment, but after my mother died, it was one I was more than willing to make. I am the only child of an only child: all we had was each other. We needed one another in ways we hadn’t before: she still needed someone to parent and I still needed to be mothered. However, after my daughter was born, the dynamic changed. I had to find ways to cater to the needs of two bookends of the lifecycle.

The effort has been worthwhile. As a parent, our goal is to teach our children kindness and compassion. Not only has my daughter built a meaningful relationship with a wonderful role model, she has also learned how to be patient and gentle. She doesn’t fear the elderly or the dying.  

As my daughter gets older and my grandmother grows increasingly frail, it has been a challenge to find ways to spend quality time together. Gillian wants to do everything by herself, while my grandmother must accept that she must now accept help.  Now, our outings rarely exceed the time it takes to visit our favorite local ice cream parlor. The effort it requires to get them both in the car, then safely navigate the parking lot can be exhausting. One moves very fast, while the other moves painfully slow. But I know that she looks forward to our outings, for an escape from the monotony of life in a retirement home.

My grandmother never thought of herself as an ordinary resident of the home. She led their daily exercise class and for 20 years she appeared as the court jester in the senior citizen Mardi Gras Court. But eventually, she couldn’t do it anymore. The one job that my grandmother still maintains is delivering the mail to the residents on her hall.  

When my daughter and I come to visit, she and my grandmother travel the halls together, handing out the mail.  For a woman now approaching 102, it’s a small act that makes her feel needed. It is in being needed that we often find our worth.

While my grandmother mourns the loss of her independence, Gillian has begun to embrace her own. She has found ways to be useful, to prove her worth. When we return from an outing, my daughter volunteers to escort my grandmother to her room. She carefully walks her through the halls of the home, asking questions I know my grandmother probably can’t hear and is rewarded with a peppermint when they arrive in the room my grandmother now calls home. Then she walks back to the car where I am waiting, beaming with pride. And she too, at age six, feels like she has purpose.

Guest post written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Her plays include Gee's BendThe Flagmaker of Market StreetWhite Lightning, and the upcoming Everything That's Beautiful.  She is currently documenting her 40th birthday by taking 40 people out to lunch.  You can follow along at www.40lunches.com.

Photo by Emily Gnetz

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