What My Grandmother Taught Me About Love, Writing and Skinny-Dipping

At her 90th birthday party, my Grandma Rhoda stayed up later than anyone else. My dad and I crept off to bed sometime after midnight while she launched into another story, surrounded by friends on the balcony of a Florida condominium. Ten months later, she died from a fast-moving mouth cancer that still, in her mind, didn't kill her quickly enough. When she realized she had a few months left to live, she asked me, my brother, and my cousin if we thought she'd be able to befriend Satan. Probably, we answered. She could make most anyone love her.

Less than a year after her death, I can recall her face in vivid detail, but I know that it will soon begin to disappear, like the pieces of furniture that various relatives keep claiming from her house. Time is an eraser, turning precise pencil marks into a faint smudge. I like to think that, even if this ruthless eraser rubs away her laugh and her walk, it will leave the things she taught me crisp and clear. Still, it can't hurt to keep a record. After all, Grandma Rhoda packed a whole lot of wisdom into a 4-foot-10 body, and I want to remember as much of it as I can.

Let love surprise you.
My grandma and grandpa were happily married for over 60 years. After he died, a male friend of hers kept coming around, asking her to go to movies with him. We all teased her -- was she going to fall in love with Fred? "No," she'd say. "I loved your Grandpa, and that's it for me."

And then one day, around the time of her 88th birthday, she called me. "Laura," she said. "I met a man on the train." He sat next to her on her journey from Washington, D.C. to New Haven. She initially wrote him off because he had far too much nose hair, but still, it never took much effort to engage my grandma in conversation. As they talked, the Northeast Corridor whizzing by outside their window, she forgot his nose hair and realized that he was the most interesting man she had ever met (besides my grandfather, of course). Their love, she explained to me over the phone, could never be. He was a Republican and, at 84, too young for her. Also, she added as an afterthought, he was married. Still, it was a reminder. Even after heartbreak, the door to your heart doesn't have to stay locked forever. The most unexpected (and hairiest) person may hold the key.

Swim naked whenever possible.
My grandma was a huge advocate of skinny-dipping, and luckily enough, she had a pool in her secluded backyard. In her later years, when she'd mostly stopped swimming herself, she'd give me a long lecture on pool safety ("Stay near the side so you can grab the wall if you need it!" she'd say, even though I'd been swimming for over 20 years) and then, to preserve my modesty, go inside the house so I could doff my bathing suit. I felt a little silly at first, but quickly realized she was brilliant. Skinny-dipping is so freeing, and so fun. Why wouldn't you do it when you have an opportunity?

Tell stories filled with characters that fascinate you, and you'll find an audience.
When I was little, Grandma Rhoda would sit me down in the kitchen and regale me with stories for hours. She told me about her mother, a Polish immigrant, finding her way in America. She described the farm she and my grandfather started, and the evil ram who tried to attack her whenever she stepped outside to collect eggs from the chicken coop. I got to know her sisters, both of whom had died when I was too young to remember much about them, and realized how they, together with my grandma, were badass feminists who used their business savvy and intelligence to work their way out of Great Depression poverty. I learned how my parents fell in love, and exactly how many times my father proposed to my mother before she said yes.

When I began writing my novel, The Summertime Girls, I thought of Grandma Rhoda, and why exactly I couldn't get enough of her stories. Interesting things happened in them, sure, but more than that, she cared so deeply about the people in them. I realized that if I didn't care for my characters like that, no one else would. (Perhaps I cheated a bit by thinking of Grandma Rhoda when creating the grandmother character in The Summertime Girls. Once I did that, it was impossible for me not to love her.)

Talk to strangers.
By strangers, I don't mean the offering-you-candy-from-their-big-white-van kind. But the waiter bringing you your pizza. The woman sitting next to you on the subway. The family walking by in the park. (One time my dad and I left Grandma Rhoda alone on a bench at the National Arboretum for five minutes, and when we came back she was surrounded by little children, like a benevolent Pied Piper.) Wherever she went, she remained curious about the people around her, always cognizant that everyone had dreams and problems and stories, and life was more fun if you found out about them. It made her an amazing saleswoman at the uniform store she and my grandpa ran together, but it was more than that.

It gave her an outsized empathy muscle. One day, a man came into her store, pulled out a gun, and demanded money. Instead of freaking out, she stayed calm and talked to him like he was an actual human being. Somehow she convinced him to hand her the gun, which turned out to be fake, made him promise not to do it again, and gave him some money to buy food. She felt sorry for him, she later told my aunt, because she could see how sad he was. While I doubt she'd want the people she loved to go around confronting armed robbers, I think she'd hope for us to try to be more understanding -- to remember that as much as our problems may grow overwhelming inside our own heads, we are not alone.

Be brave.
Let your heart go out there and get bruised instead of trying to protect it all the time. If you love someone, tell them. My grandma got her heart broken over and over again as her parents, sisters, husband and friends died, and yet she kept on loving people one hundred percent. She was fully aware that living like that could hurt, but she did it anyway. I admire her for this, because it terrifies me. But I'm working on it.

If you're an 89-year-old woman looking to buy pot in Florida with your 94-year-old friend, consider the 7/11 parking lot, but weigh the risks.

I highly doubt my grandma ended up befriending Satan. I don't believe in heaven and hell, but if I'm wrong about their existence, she must be in heaven, reunited with my grandpa, chatting incessantly with all the angels. Perhaps she looks down occasionally to make sure that I'm allowing myself to love, and staying close to the pool wall.

Though I could've written an article 10 times this length on what I learned from Grandma Rhoda, she didn't corner the market on wisdom. I'd love to hear what your grandmother taught you in the comments section!

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