Monday, September 12, 2016

It Turns Out My Grandmother was a Total Badass

I feel like you don't really know a person until they die. Before then, the only view you have of them is your own. Maybe you hear stories of them from one or two others, but it's not until they're gone that we make an effort to collect all the memories from all the people who saw all the various aspects of their life and create a complete picture of who this person actually was. It's not fair.

There are things I want to say to Grandma now, having learned so much more about her after her passing. Things that I will never have a chance to tell her. Things like, "Holy Shit, Grandma, you were total fox. Like, Bond Girl levels of smoking hot. Jesus." But she's gone, and so I'm left writing a blog post with a vague sense of disappointment in myself for having spent the entirety of my life related to this amazing person without ever having asked her how she managed to be such a badass.

So much of my childhood can be summed up in the gleeful screeches of the grandchildren, the smell of chlorine, and the woman who never chose to drown us.

As a child, I knew her as the woman who would hold me in the pool and sing, "Ba-dumpty-dump, ba-duptity-dump" while slowly spinning in circles. She had a freezer full of Popsicles. She would let me wear her jewelry to church. As I got older I learned more about her, but never enough. I learned, for example, that she helped out with YWCA, and that one day, in an attempt to explain that the programs needed more initiative, she mixed up two metaphors, announcing to the board of directors that they needed to grab the bull by the balls and run with it. (It's one of my favorite phrases to this day, and I almost said it at work a couple weeks ago.) I did not learn, until her passing, that my grandmother was the YWCA Athletic Director at the time, or that, in addition to offering what can only be described as extremely poor bovine management advice to a room full of men and women who had the collective sense of humor of a sack of human bones, she also initiated volleyball and basketball leagues, swimming for all ages, and Lynchburg's first gymnastics program. I knew that my grandmother broke her wrist at some point in her forties practicing a back flip from her bed. I did not know that somewhere around that time, she spent a week at circus school, possibly learning how to do back flips in a less disastrous manner. I knew that my grandmother was physically active. I did not know she ran a mile and half every day, even after having five children.

As I've learned more about who my grandmother was, I feel this mix of despair and hope. Despair because, by the time I started following in her footsteps - teaching silks, running a ten-miler, incurring various self-inflicted injuries - her health and her memory were failing her, and I never got a chance to sit down and listen to the wealth of advice and hilarious stories she probably had to offer.

On the other hand, when I hear about everything she accomplished, I think, my God, there might actually be hope for me yet. Lately I've felt like I've reached the end of the race and I'm not that happy with my time. I've felt like my prime is over, and everything I've left unaccomplished or abandoned is dead and gone. But my grandmother obviously did not reach 30 years of age and decide she was done. She kept pushing, as an athlete and a community activist. She probably endured hundreds of set-backs, from men telling her she was too sexy to be an athletic director (I haven't heard such a story, but by God I know there is one) to bones inconveniently breaking on her when she needed to work on her back flip.

I'm not sure I'll ever be the woman she was, but learning about her life tells me that I have the ability to make more of my own. It's not easy, but nothing in life ever is. I just need to grab the bull by the balls and run with it.

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