Walking In My Grandmother’s Shoes

My grandmother had a hard life. There’s no question about it. But it’s what she managed to do with this hard life that ended up making her one of the happiest people I've ever come to know and love.

The First Act

Born in 1912, she lost her mother to the Spanish flu at eight years of age and was placed in a Catholic convent by her father who could not care for his children. She remained under the care of the nuns until she married at a relatively young age, following a short courtship with my grandfather. 

During her time in the nuns' care, she learned to embroider and sew, working long hours at the loom to earn her keep. When reminiscing, she would speak more about her work than about anything else, which I always took to mean the work was the only thing she wanted to remember about her childhood after her mother’s passing. 

The Second Act

Her marriage was not a good one. Mother to eight children, there was never enough money to cover the necessities, despite my grandfather’s decent wage and tips working for the railway. He preferred a diet of the liquid sort, smoking and drinking much of his wages away. He was miserable and, by his actions, ensured his family was as well. (Contempt for one’s lot in life can easily spread to others. One might even classify it as a disease of the contagious sort.)

In order to have a more predictable income, my grandmother decided to seek out a job in the local hospital’s laundry services department. This job afforded her a number of benefits: money she could depend on to feed and clothe her family, a chance for camaraderie and escape, and a feeling that she had skills that were of use outside the home—the all-important feeling that she was “enough”.

During these difficult times, my grandmother used many tools to make the impossible happen. That is, to “get to the end of the month before getting to the end of the money”:

  • She immediately paid the rent on their very small home when she got money from her husband.
  • She never used debt to pay for items, only lay away for larger purchases to ensure they would eventually make it into the family home.
  • She made older children contribute to the household with chores, money from work, babysitting and other such support.
  • She used her skills as an embroiderer to make additional money on the side, over an above her part-time job.
  • She walked everywhere, never having owned a vehicle.
  • She converted a large part of the backyard into a productive garden.
  • She fixed and mended clothing and reused and repurposed anything she could.
  • She learned how to feed ten mouths three squares a day (hint: there were a lot of potatoes and oatmeal involved).

My grandmother witnessing my first Hallowe'en.

My grandmother's loom, which she commissioned in the 1934.

The Third Act

Though life changed steadily as each child left home, her reality changed significantly in 1974. That’s the year my grandfather passed away. She was now largely free from obligation and from the dependence of others for what little money and resources she had available.

Her life became vastly different as a result of these changes.

Having been born in 1975, this is the only version of my grandmother I have ever known.

Here’s the grandmother I grew up to know and love:

Grandmother's sewing machine, which I just received last week. I'm grateful to have it.

  • She bought her first home - it could likely have been classified as a “tiny home” but it was hers. She made a point of planting cedars in the front, a feature she associated with success.
  • She lived on her government pension and never complained about the glass being half empty. If anything, she was generous with her resources and managed to save up tens of thousands over the years.
  • She was an avid gardener, out of a want to be self-sufficient, not out of necessity. Aside from fruits and vegetables, she planted geraniums and marigolds—a real treat in her eyes.
  • She saved up for each of her “extra” purchases, focusing on quality items that would last for years. I'll never forget how proud she was of a beautiful coat she bought. She cherished it and wore it often.
  • She knitted and sewed for family members and friends.
  • She looked out for her children, wanting them to marry spouses who would give them a good life.
  • She walked everywhere, enjoying the fresh air and exercise—one could hardly keep up with her at times. She made going to the store or for a coffee downtown an experience.
  • She regularly came to the aid of “old folks” in her neighbourhood (we’d often come to find out the people she was helping were up to 10 years younger than she was).
  • She loved nothing more than to have friends and family over for any reason at all.
  • She delighted in hosting family gatherings to celebrate a birthday, Christmas, Easter, or any other occasion.
  • She loved spending time with her grandchildren. Every outing with her was an adventure. 
  • She enjoyed travel, accompanying family to various Canadian cities and hot spots in the winter.

She was a woman who lived the good life. She was the most genuinely happy person I knew.

The Final Act

After decades of living what I’m sure she considered a life she could only dream of, my grandmother passed away in 2007 at the age of 94. She left behind years of happy memories for generations of her own family and for the many friends she had over the years. Never would we think of her in her later years as living as a victim of circumstance, nor would we consider that she wanted for anything. She was a great example of a woman living life on her terms.

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately,
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,
To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die
Discover that I had not lived.
— Walden by Henry David Thoreau

As a child who wanted for nothing growing up, I never understood the strong qualities personified in her—the grit, self-reliance and determination she exhibited to make her life all that it could be. She was the ultimate happiness maximizer. Thoreau would definitely have approved.

I also wouldn’t have believed she would turn out to be such a strong influence in my life. I realize now that she knew far more about the elusive states of what it is to be happy and successful than I ever gave her credit for as a young person. The way she lived her life is in dire need of revival in our society.

It’s now clear to me that she has had a strong influence on the woman I am today. It just took me a few decades to realize it and, more importantly, to appreciate it. 

Every time I walk to my destination, every time I delay gratification, every time I use her loom, every time I host family and friends, every time I garden, every time I give, I’m thankful to be living by her example. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be as content as she managed to be.

Merci grand-maman.