Ten lessons Grandma taught me

For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I created a little book to celebrate. I called all my cousins and sisters and gathered all the important lessons she taught us. Though she is gone now, there is no doubt that Grandma helped shape who I am today and how I feel about others and the world. Here are some of the lessons we learned from her.

  1. Reaching even the tough ones

Grandma had a way of touching even the “really tough guys.” She was able to get us to share our emotions because she is our safe harbor who never criticizes or offers the “should” of our parents. Her advice was a commodity more valued than gold since it was grounded in unconditional love. It was always good to go to Grandma’s apartment to clean. We liked to think it took our muscles to move her furniture. The real benefit was the conversation with Grandma while we worked. Tears found a release there that couldn’t anywhere else. We moved the furniture, she moved the burdens from our hearts.

2. Giving the gift of yourself

Christmas was always wonderful. That’s where we opened the simple gifts she had made us with her own hands. When I think of gifts from Grandma, I think of the button-eyed toy monkey made from a gray sock or a Bible with our special verse written in it. These are the things we asked her to duplicate for our own children in order to show them the joy of giving the gift of yourself. The reals gifts we cherish and remember have nothing to do with glitter or dollars spent, but of thought and love and meaning.

3. Home cures for good health

When my boys were little and had ear aches, I heated a spoon of oil over a low heat on the stove and put a drop in their ear to soothe the ache. I’d walk the kitchen floor with the baby in my arms until he was finally asleep. We still use a cut onion to rub on bee stings, and add vinegar to the bath water for sunburns. The one cure we all dreaded the most was Grandma’s rule of thumb: when in doubt, “give them an enema!” That cure was our best motivator for good health!

4. What it means to be a grandmother

Jill Ballard and her sisters and cousins on April 29, 1960: John (5), Cindy (8), Mike (3), Jill (13), Jamie (16 months), Gary (2 ½) and Beth (7).

Grandma was the youngest of five children, and her mother died when she was born. Their father couldn’t care for all of them and according to the custom of the times, the children were separated to be raised by other relatives. Grandma was brought up by her grandmother, called “Grand” – with lots of love and attention from her Aunt Bess and Aunt Flava. The five children grew up scattered and finally spent their first Christmas together when Grandma was 65 years old. When my first grandchild was born I felt such a responsibility. Would I be as good a guide and teacher as Grandma? She was my hero.

5. Grandma on God

All the grandchildren are in agreement that Grandma is the one who shaped our beliefs about God. Grandma taught us to view God and Christ as love, to see their reflection in other people, and to act out of beliefs in our daily lives, not only on special occasions. She taught us prayer is a conversation, not just for crisis. Faith is a lifelong journey. Even when the tears don’t come and there are no words, we know we are not alone. She gave us stories like Noah, Daniel and the fiery furnace. She taught us to have a conscience and to know right from wrong.  She also taught us not to judge but to let God do his job.

6. Make your own quilt pattern

Grandma loved to quilt and often gave a prized quilt to a newborn in the family. She used tiny pieces of cardboard as patterns to cut the material that would later make the design. She always said life was like making our own quilts, because there are no real timeframes for the way things happen in life – the end design can turn out to be anything. Sometimes we need to step back to look at all the patterns in the design of our lives and appreciate our own artfulness and beauty. We are able to control and choose the way we stitch the cloth and our colors. We are responsible for our values and attitudes. We cannot control what happens, but we can choose our response to what has happened.

7. Your body is a house, your spirit is the life

Jill Ballard and her grandmother, Gaynel Wilson.

When I was a young girl, Grandma took me along to a funeral at her church. There weren’t many people at the service. Grandma said the woman was very old and most of her loved ones were waiting to say “hello” in heaven instead of “goodbye” on earth. Afterwards, we walked up to the casket and Grandma had me touch the hand of the deceased woman. Grandma said, “Don’t be afraid; our body is only a house we live in here on earth. It is not you. You are your spirit that lives even when your old house wears out.” This lesson not only shaped my view of death but also of life. All choices should be based on things other than fear.

8. The best revenge is to forgive

Grandma taught a nondenominational Bible study once a week. One woman who attended her class was ninety years old. The woman said that she hated her mother for things she had done to her as a child. She hated her so much she could not bring herself to put her picture out in her apartment. This woman asked Grandma what she thought about forgiveness.  Grandma asked her to remember all the good things that the woman’s mother had done. She also asked her how she could be hurting her mother by holding all this anger in when her mother had already gone ahead. Who was really being hurt by her anger? The woman thought about this and after several months came back to say that she had forgiven her mother and now had taken her picture out again. It is never too late.

9. A little guilt is healthy

When I was about eight years old, I belonged to 4-H. We had to make a project that later was displayed at the local junior high. While attending the event, I picked up another person’s entry – a carved horse. The sign warned “Do Not Handle.” In my admiration, I wanted to feel the carving of the beautiful horse. To my horror, the tail fell off. I quickly replaced it on the judging table and walked away. Later that weekend I asked to stay at Grandma’s house. I could not sleep, and finally confessed to Grandma what I had done. Grandma helped me make the phone call to the school the next day telling them that I had broken the horse and I was sorry. This dark secret could only be shared with Grandma because she would understand my deepest guilt and not minimize what I had done, but help me deal with it in a serious manner.

10. It doesn’t matter what you do, but how you do it

Grandma always said, “The world will always need a ditch digger.” We didn’t all rush out to become ditch diggers, but we all internalized that the honesty of work was more important than the job title. We learned that work is a part of who we are and not just what we do.  Work is more than a means to earn money – it is a way of expressing who we are and what we believe.

Jill Ballard was a caregiver for her late husband Bob, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010 and passed away in October of 2015. Jill was named Caregiver of the Year by AARP in 2015. She lives in Cannon Falls, a town of about 4,000 people in southeast Minnesota.

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