The Best Lesson My Grandmother Taught Me

She taught me the secret to living a full life is knowing that you fill the lives of those you love.

My kids like Dr. Suess’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go! not for the message but for the illustrations. They like to follow the protagonist through the windy paths and up the rickety steps. They linger on the pages with the marching elephants and speed through the scary waters where the Hakken-Kraks howl. They especially love The Waiting Place. I love the way the words string together and spill out almost as if the words themselves have drawn the pictures.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come or a plane to go or the mail to come or the rain to go or the phone to ring or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No.

“That’s not for us!” My kids laugh and scrunch up their faces in agreement. No one likes waiting.

Waiting can make us feel anxious with unnerving anticipation for the Next Thing to begin. Waiting feels like an open field for our minds to wander and race. Our heads fill with hopes and fears and conditions. If this is the outcome, then that; if that is the outcome, then this. As it grows, the waiting moves into our chests, making us feel heavy and thick. A fog of emotion that swallows and envelops.

Then, in a moment, a simple Yes or No, washes away the waiting. Our view clears.

We’re conditioned, very early, to not like waiting. It has the tendency to make us feel both paralyzed and somewhat frenetic—like running along a hamster wheel—consuming us but getting us nowhere. But there is always the silver lining:

Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.

Recently, I’ve found myself stuck in The Waiting Place. Waiting for emails to come for news to share, waiting to see if my son needed emergency care. Waiting for others to decide, the courage to try, waiting for a call to say my nana died.

If you treat life like a Dr. Seuss book, it somehow seems easier.

My grandmother was 100 years old. For the past five years, when it was time to say goodbye, we both wondered if it would be the last. Years of hellos and goodbyes, waiting and wondering.

She was healthy up to the very end. She loved a good crossword puzzle, a glass of Zinfandel, and oddly, Judge Judy. She was stubborn and somewhat feisty but in the most polite and refined way possible. She never went on about the siblings she lost as a child, the one she never knew, or her resulting devotion to her parents. But she was devoted. She wouldn’t tell you how she felt on the worst days of her life or the most profound lessons she learned in 100 years. Instead, she would tell you she was lucky. She would tell you how good her life had been and how much love surrounded her.

You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

It always seemed to me Nana spent an inordinate amount of time in The Waiting Place. She was a worrier—constantly tossing around scenarios out of her control. The best part in going anywhere was always getting back home. “Thank God that’s over.” (The “that” could be something as pleasant as a trip to Disney World.) Her large yellow and brown home, with the small front porch, was her Waiting Place. Waiting for the sun to set, the news to watch, for the perfect time to pour her husband a Scotch.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

My nana lived through the Great Depression, World Wars, and the dawn of refrigeration, telegrams, phones, and cellular devices, radio, television and the Internet, space shuttle launches and automobiles. And yet, through a lifetime of change, her only blatant piece of advice: Family is everything. The Waiting Place must have brought her comfort.

At 100, people say, “At least she had a long, full life.” But these past few months, knowing how much she worried, how little she shared, and how often she avoided difficult topics, did she? Does a long life automatically become full?

Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.

I wasn’t there when she died. I didn’t get to go to her funeral. I am thousands of miles from home, fulfilling a desire to see the world; a desire she never had. She looked at my life and wondered what on earth I could find so far away. I looked at hers and wondered how she could live 100 years without wanting to see the Hakken Kraks, hear the Boom Bands play, or get mixed up with strange birds.

And yet, she never once said I shouldn’t go. She supported my decision to move her great grandkids half a world away. Even when she disagreed, she treated me as she always had with love, respect, and like I was one of the most important people in her life. She listened to my stories, and got a kick out of Skyping. Will I ever be a real writer? Or course, she said, but you must keep on typing.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the [gal] who’ll decide where to go.

My nana didn’t leave me with 100 lessons she learned by 100. She didn’t pen a telling autobiography. She didn’t pass on secrets to raising great kids. I guess she always knew she didn’t really need to. Her story is told again and again: When I use way too many dishes to cook a simple meal, pour over photo albums and read the paper aloud; in the smell of fresh cut flowers, finding the perfect-sized bag and the importance of writing yourself notes. She knew the best lessons aren’t the ones bestowed upon you but those you’re given the freedom to learn yourself.

She taught me the secret to living a full life is knowing that you fill the lives of those you love.

You’re off and away.

Kathleen Siddell is a writer living in Singapore with her husband and two boys. You can find her onThe Washington PostHuffington Post, Scary Mommy and elsewhere or laugh at her lack of social media savvy on Twitter.

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