My grandmother had the strongest and most accurate arm in the history of the world. When I was 10 years old, I saw its fury and precision up close. At 10 years old, living with your grandparents for a summer wasn’t the coolest thing in the world. But when your grandparents lived on an island in the West Indies, well, that changed things a little. It was summer camp on steroids. My grandfather had been in the Caribbean for years because of his work in international development, and my parents threw me on an airplane and sent me south for the summer. They lived in a house where the windows were always open, the breeze was constant, and the tropical air provided its share of 8-legged house guests. Walking through the kitchen one morning, I noticed there was a mosquito on the wall, oblivious to its fate. But that poor mosquito, he was oblivious to the fact my grandmother had seen him. In one fluid motion, my grandmother removed her shoe, fired it across the room, and brought the mosquito’s life to a swift and violent end. I, and seemingly life, stopped and stood still for a second. She picked up her shoe, put it back on her foot, and went back to making breakfast. I was stunned. Grandmothers weren’t supposed to be able to do that. But mine was and mine did. You should have known her.
My grandmother was superhuman. I don’t say that as a cheap attempt at hyperbole, either. She did things grandmothers weren’t wired to do. She played football in the front yard with my friends, running circles around all of us. She spent thousands of spring Saturdays on the riding mower, and tending to her flowers. She openly defied the concept of aging. When age caught up with her, and she couldn’t cut the grass, she stewed watching it grow long. Grammy had one of those two finger whistles-my god, that whistle-that could roust a bear from hibernation. She’d stand on those Barbados beaches, and unleash the shrill on me and everyone around her, signaling the time to get out of the water had arrived.
What made my grandmother different wasn’t necessarily her physical traits, the whistle, or her arm. That was the peripheral stuff. My grandmother taught me. And she taught my brother and sister. And she taught everyone around her. Be it her 30 years as a Girl Scout leader, her time teaching sewing, literacy and financial management to women in developing countries, establishing resource programs for women all over the Caribbean, my grandmother was a teacher. She had knowledge, and keeping it to herself would have been of no service to anyone. Grammy identified needs, and Grammy addressed them. She got things done.
There were the countless afternoons playing Scrabble with my grandmother. I loved it. And she loved it. It was those games, those afternoons that she taught me the importance of the letter S. I’d spelled out a word on the board, only to have her counter by attaching an S and starting an entirely new word, burying me under the crushing weight of her vocabulary. She’d had a 50-year head start on me, after all. 60 points later, she’d turned one word into two. She wasn’t softened by the fact she was playing against her 11 year-old grandson. She never resisted the opportunity to teach me. Why settle for one, when you can make two? There isn’t a letter S I’ve played in Scrabble that hasn’t reminded me of that day. We’d spend hours around her dining room table dropping those letter tiles. I’m certain she beat me. Every. Single. Time. Letting me win wouldn’t have taught me anything, of course.
My grandmother had an uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. Not in the metaphorical way, but literally, could make a prom dress out of newspaper and scotch tape. I told you she was superhuman. She had the same Swiss Army Knife for 30 years. I’m pretty sure she built a house with it once. Her purse was a toolbox. Utility knives, sewing needles, maybe even a circular saw if you looked deep enough. It’s no wonder then, that a lot of my memories of my grandparent’s house meant Friday nights watching McGyver. She could change a tire with a rolling pin.
For years, there was a framed note on the wall in my grandparents’ house, which I’d never stopped long enough to examine. And when I finally slowed down long enough to look, I noticed Jackie Kennedy’s signature at the bottom. I’d never heard the story until I asked, but my grandmother had volunteered in the days and weeks following the assassination of John F. Kennedy writing thank you notes to those who had sent condolences to the First Lady. She must have written thousands of those notes. There were needs at the time, and she addressed them. She got things done.
On Christmas Eve Grammy looked me directly in the eye and smiled for the last time. There hadn’t been a lot of that lately. But this time, she looked me right in the eyes, and her smile, which didn’t exactly have the brightness I was used to, said everything. She opened her mouth to speak, but somewhere on the path between her mouth and her brain, the words had decided to go in a different direction. So she stopped, she paused. No point in speaking if it’s not going to be right. Always teaching. T-E-A-C-H-E-R. That’s a 12-point word. But tack an S on the end-that opens up all kinds of possibilities.