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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

What I Learned from my Grandmother

Patricia Jane Patton Lawhon died a year ago today. She was a force of life to be reckoned with, by anyone's description. She left a legacy worth reflecting on.

My grandmother taught me to never go barefoot in the house.

My grandmother taught me hospitality and to eat meals at the table and use real dishes and serving bowls and invite friends to dinner.

She taught me to play scrabble and that the game is more fun when you use the dictionary to look up and learn new words, an approach I was later surprised to find not everyone took. She taught me her special way of playing “Switchie Scrabble” where you can swap out high point letters for others, as long as it always makes a word – making the game even more competitive.

My grandmother taught me that you can learn anything from a book and to always carry one with you wherever you go in case you have to wait around. And to bring a sweater – with pockets.

She taught me to work hard and play hard and clean hard, the benefits of organized chores for children, and that (almost) everything you need can be found at the Salvation Army.

My grandmother taught me to be colorful and creative and make things from scratch. She taught me to decorate with mirrors and bookshelves and plaid blankets, and that you probably need more pictures on the walls than you think. She taught me that a hand-written note is always the right choice.

She taught me that mothers are smart and hard-working and fierce and that grandmothers can be professors and authors and still make time to volunteer.

She had a signature dish (gumbo and turkey soup … I know, that’s two), a signature scent (Tabu), and a signature color (Memo-green).

My grandmother taught me that a marriage is for life and that grit and determination and forgiveness are essential.

She taught me to be adventurous and laugh, that anyone can become a friend, and to seek the shape and beauty of words.

She taught me that the best days end with Jeopardy and a sunset over the lake, your beloved at your side, and a glass of red wine in your hand.

She taught me that anything is possible.

I also learned the lessons she might not have meant to teach. Sometimes people get ugly after too much to drink. Parents can have favorite children or grandchildren and that hurts. She taught me that that she expected girls to work harder than boys, although she would never have admitted that. She taught me that grudges can live longer than they were ever meant to and that vulnerability or self-reflection do not come easily to some people. She taught me that people can be open-minded about some things and close-minded about others.

But those lessons are an afterthought. I force myself to admit them because I know they are true. Mostly I just miss her. She died a year ago today, in the arms of her ninth child as they slept in her nursing home bed together.

I miss her light and the sparkle in her eyes when she smiled up at me, even in the years when I had to remind her of my name. She was a brilliant, charismatic, complicated woman who embodied the largeness of her generation. She had self-confidence in spades. She had no horizon, other than the limits of her body and her mind.

Her imperfections remind me that love covers a multitude of sins. I can let myself be loved in my flawed humanity as she did. I can love her fiercely and also not want to be just like her. I can learn from her strengths and her failings alike and resolve to be more present, more hospitable, more forgiving and understanding and generous than I think is possible.

Her legacy inspires me to recommit to my own mission: To live with my heart wide-open. To do whatever it takes to fight the fear and claim the truth and love radically. To embrace and savor the adventure of life, all for the glory of God.

Will you join me in claiming your own legacy? Living your own passion and mission? May you know deeply how loved and known you are in your wisdom and in your failings.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

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