The other day I was in my spring-cleaning groove, jamming along to the new Taylor Swift album when suddenly, I found myself completely moved, crying over the Clorox…
“And if I didn’t know better
I’d think you were talking to me now
If I didn’t know better
I’d think you were still around”
These lyrics are about Taylor’s grandma, Marjorie, and they resonated with me so deeply. My grandmothers both left this earth over a decade ago, yet that mark of time still feels strange. For those of you who have experienced grief and loss of loved ones, you probably can relate to how the moment of loss can feel like just yesterday or a lifetime ago all in the same minute. Remembering them can bring waves of joy and gut-wrenching sadness, all in the same breath. Yet, through all the mysteries found in loss and grief, one thing has been certain for me. Even though my missing them will never cease, my most consistent comfort comes from feeling like it’s as if they were still around.
As I was having my moment with Taylor on the floor of my bathroom, I was able to glance over at a wall in my hallway where old, precious pictures of my grandparents are hung. Looking at them always reminds me of their presence, but at this particular moment I was flooded with their words, the feel of their homes, and the memories of all the other moments I’ve glanced at in that hallway before, pulling on their reminders to give me strength.
They used their words, their time with me so intentionally. Though I’m carrying on without them physically here on earth, I have certainly carried on with them for my entire life. Their impact, their messages are ingrained in me. They spoke into me, making sure I knew their stories and the history of my ancestors before. Those accounts help define me, and when I am filled with doubt, it has been their stories that keep me going. In fact, when experiencing some of my biggest life hurdles, having to call on every ounce of strength and resiliency, those have been the times I have felt them the most.
Grandma B Taught Me to Work Hard and That Strong Women Find Strength Through Prayer
I struck gold in the grandma department. I had two of the best and most balanced versions of role models. My Grandma B (abbreviated for my mouthful of a maiden name) was a second-generation American whose parents immigrated from Poland. Marrying young, having eight kids, and still navigating how to make it here, she was the epitome of taking joy in her work, understanding her hardships were for a worthy cause, her family. Oh, and did she ever work hard!
My most vivid memories are of Grandma B joyfully singing and dancing around the kitchen, cooking something up for her many visitors. Yet, she always saved time to sit at the table with me, and that kitchen table will always remain one of my favorite places in the world. I will never forget the grain of the wood or the ’70s-style yellow and orange floral tablecloth covered with sturdy plastic. At that table, she would hold my hand and tell me about her life and the many times she had to call on her faith to give her courage. I watched her carefully record her prayers in a massive prayer journal that was thicker than her Bible.
We’d sing old folk songs together and some Polish lullabies that I still sing to my children each night. You’d better bet my children know all of the songs she sang (they do). We’d cook soup and bake cookies for whatever event was going on, and at the end of each recipe, my sister and I were required to “throw in two handfuls of love and extra for the sick or children under three.” Seriously, you can find that exact phrase written on her recipes. I’m so grateful my aunts, uncles, and cousins copied some for me for my recipe box and recorded a CD of her voice, singing all of her songs before she passed. Those are some of my greatest treasures.
Looking back, I realize her conversations were not random. They were indeed an intentional time of telling me what she thought I needed to know. She knew family was powerful and how important it was that we knew what our family stood for.
Another favorite trait about Grandma B is how she would find great joy in counting all the members of our family, including those who married into the family. She always knew the current count, and up until her last days, she would still beam brightly when adding up the tally. Her legacy now expands to about 100 people and counting, including her kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, and even a great-great-grandchild. I guarantee each person knows her stories, and oh, how I wish I could hear her count each one by name today. She would love to see the beautiful Bazylak legacy she started and that her words and actions have impacted generations to come.
During these kitchen table talks, she taught me to pray. We’d pray for the people on her list, she’d share her favorite prayers with me and remind me to pray, no matter what. To this day, in moments when I’m filled with doubt and uncertainty, I’m reminded to pray, no matter what. It feels like I’m right there at that kitchen table, and I’m filled with courage.
She knew family was powerful and how important it was that we knew what our family stood for.
Grandma Honey Taught Me That Women Can Be Both Strong and Beautiful
My other grandma, Grandma Honey as we called her, was my “fancy grandma.” She was classy, and she knew it! A lover of all things fun, fine, and beautiful, she knew how to get some zest out of life, and she’d always remind you to “never forget to accessorize!” Yet, she realized the importance of being a strong woman, and she was truly relentless in reminding me of that. When we were little, she would raise her slightly frail arm in a Rosie the Riveter pose and say, “Your grandma is strong, and don’t you forget it.” That image of her in that pose is sealed in my mind and would prove to be a significant message for the rest of her (and my) life.
I remember being older and looking at her wedding picture, thinking it was strange she was wearing a plain dress suit at her wedding. I would have guessed she would choose the grandest gown with the greatest fanfare. When asking her about this, she said, “That’s my favorite picture, I was so proud of us.” My grandma got married during World War 2 while my Pa was an active officer. They had no choice at that time but to have a very official military wedding on base, with Pa in his dress suit and she in matching professional attire. Only their parents were permitted to attend. I remember reacting and saying, “Oh, that’s so sad!” And she said, “No, it was wonderful. Even in war, our love was important, we didn’t need a fancy wedding to prove that.”
Having My Sick Grandma Around During High School Was the Best Medicine for Both of Us
My dear Grandma B passed (along with my beloved grandpas) when I was in middle school, and not long after, Grandma Honey was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was grieving the loss of her husband and dealing with some serious treatment options. During my freshman year of high school, we decided Honey should move from Florida to Georgia so we could help her with treatments. I overheard my parents discussing their concerns that watching her undergo chemo would be a lot for me as a freshman.
It turned out to be the absolute best medicine for me and probably Grandma, too. I had my own therapist and comedian to come home to during my high school years! I’d arrive home each day, drop my bags, and spill all the drama to her. She’d roll her eyes, laugh, make some slightly inappropriate jokes, and then she’d put it all into perspective for me. But she would always be sure to tie up those moments with some affirmations, insisting I knew how “smart, strong, and capable” I was.
I’ll never forget the homecoming football game that year. I was on the homecoming court (a truly terrifying experience for my introverted self), and that night when walking across the football field, my dad pointed out Honey in the stands. The whole time I just stared at Grandma hooting and hollering, and the nerves disappeared. Afterward, she was sure to point out all the boys she thought were cute, and her comments made me and my friends roll with laughter. She was the perfect distraction, the best thing to focus on.
I know some of those high school years were weathered better because of her. I knew who I was and where I came from; she modeled it for me. I didn’t go to her chemo treatments often, but each time I did, she’d look back as they were wheeling her away, flash her smirky smile and her Rosie the Riveter pose. I knew she was going to be okay, and somehow that helped me know I was too.
She later moved back to Florida, and I found myself transferring colleges and living in Florida, just a couple of hours away. The ability to visit her whenever I could was a huge factor in my college choice. She remained my confidant and personal comedian. During this time, my boyfriend and I were talking about engagement. He too loved visiting her. And though she knew my now-husband for years at that point, each time she saw him, she’d pull me aside and whisper “He’s cute! And tall!” and proceed to pretend to pinch his rear. She loved talking to him, she loved him, and that meant everything to me.
Her cancer came back twice, the last time was the year of my wedding. It was our great wish for her to be there. Although I know the trip was exhausting for her, she showed up to my big day with her great, characteristic zest. Just like I did when I was younger, I couldn’t help but find her in the crowd and focus on her great, authentic smile. We danced together, she told me I was the most beautiful bride, inside and out, and of course, she marveled the whole night how handsome (“And tall!”) my husband was.
She would always be sure to tie up those moments with some affirmations, insisting I knew how “smart, strong, and capable” I was.
Even at the End, My Grandma Focused on What Made Her Proud
Her health declined pretty quickly during my first year of marriage. I had moved to California and started grad school, but I knew I had to go see her. I took a couple of trips to sit with her at the nursing home. I’d bring my books, tell her stories, and listen to her stories, which now were on a pretty repetitive loop that went something like this…
“You know, when I was younger, I was the queen of the lake, we had the most marvelous parties, and everyone loved my husband, and my kids…they were just the greatest, both champions.” She’d be sure each nurse knew my uncle graduated from Penn and went on to be “the best lawyer in Pennsylvania” and how her daughter was a national-champion water skier, beating all the boys. Of course, I knew all these facts and had heard the stories all before, but I loved hearing that at the end, her brain was stuck on pride—pride in her family, in her life. I was grateful that is what she was focusing on. Gosh, she’d be so proud of everyone still today.
One day, she seemed particularly quiet, so I tried to fill the space by talking. I talked about my fears, the ups and downs of my new life, and in what seemed like a rare moment of lucidity, she put her hand in mine and said, “You have done the right thing. Never forget, we are always closer than you think.” Before leaving, she raised her arm, in her symbol of strength, as I collected my things and flew back across the country. Grandma Honey passed a month later. Those last moments and words together have put wind in my sails ever since. I am determined to live with as much zest, faith, and bravery as she showed me.
I know now with complete assurance that my grandmothers’ words instilled in me a self-concept that has helped me persist through some of the hardest times in my life. Because of them, I know how deep my roots are, and I know what I am capable of.
I look at my son and daughter now and watch as their grandmas speak words and create joy during their time with them. Their grandparents are often on their minds, and it already seems as if they remember every time they spend together. When I see my girl look adoringly at my mom just the same way I did at hers, truly, it’s as if Honey is right there in front of my eyes.
I yearn for the day that I can thank them and make sure they knew how deeply they formed me. It’s easy to wonder and ask myself if they realized how much I cherished them. Did they realize how much they meant to me? Did they realize how impactful their words would be for the rest of my life? Truly, I think they did. I think they had a keen awareness of the impact their words would make, on generations to come.
As women, I think we all know our words carry weight. There is great power when we use them with intention. Yet, it is hard to live with such a presence and focus on others. I want to be like them, using my words to build up and bring out the strength in others. So I suppose my moment of lyrical weakness reminded me of this and compelled me to share their stories, hoping their memories might inspire me and truly all women who read this to remember how powerful your influence is. All of us women, and especially the grandmas in the room, need to know how impactful or, rather, magical your words are. The words we speak have the opportunity to change generations to come…let us use them well.
Let us use our words to build up and bring out the strength in others.
Want to know more about what truly makes a woman strong? Watch this…