Losing an anchor, remembering my grandmother

in Adventure Travel / Dominican Republic
33 Comments
Florida - 1981 - elsie and tasha hacker

Photo: Me with my grandmother in 1981, hanging out on a beach in Florida.

post-line-divide

Sitting aboard Hideaway at Ocean World Marina in the Dominican Republic, I stared across the water at a lavish pool and octopus-shaped bar with little interest. I was lost in a reverie, imagining myself as a six-year-old girl standing inside the door of my grandparents’ bulbous Frigidaire, stuffing candy-red maraschino cherries into my mouth before my grandmother could catch me and shut the fridge. Though I knew she’d let me grab just one more cherry.

I’d just gotten off the phone with my dad, who’d told me my grandmother had just passed away, following a stroke. And I was sitting in stunned silence, alone with my thoughts, feeling a mix of sadness and guilt that I was here in a land far away while my family was there, in the place that still held my roots.

I wasn’t ready just yet to deal with the logistics of flying home to New York from a small town in the Dominican Republic. But I knew in two day’s time, I would be attending the funeral for my grandmother, the woman who’d held my family together for generations with the glue of hard work, selflessness, criticism, love and, above all, the belief that family comes before all else in this world. Unquestionably.

But rather than take action and search for flights, for a little while I just sat still and watched a series of non sequitur vignettes from my grandmother’s life play out from a reel in my mind made up of childhood memories, old photos and stories my relatives told me about the mark my grandmother had left on each of them.

And I thought about the mark she left on me.

Growing up, I didn’t know much about my grandmother’s early life; that her parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Denmark. Or that her parents had traveled and given birth to each of their children in a different South American country until they ended up in the U.S., where my grandmother was born. I also didn’t know both my grandmother’s parents had died before she even reached adolescence, leaving her and her siblings to fend for themselves from a young age.

I just knew my grandmother lived her life like a determined force, organizing, controlling and tirelessly working to make sure the people in her life were taken care of and had learned the skills necessary to take care of themselves.

Knickerbocker Lake, where my grandparents lived, had been the center of activity in my family for as long as I could remember, and for generations before me. My father and his brother and sister grew up there, helping to maintain the expanse of land by mowing the lawn in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn, shoveling snow off the driveway in winter and pulling seaweed out of the swimming area in spring to prepare for The Lake’s annual summer opening to the public. And my grandfather and his siblings did the same for his parents at Knickerbocker Lake.

So, following family tradition, I spent my childhood summers swimming at The Lake, helping Grandpa sell (or, rather, eat) ice cream from the concession stand, raking the beach and picking up trash every day when The Lake closed for business.

But it was my grandmother’s get-it-done-and-quit-yer-whining attitude that organized us all through every family gathering from Fourth of July to Christmas. She was always at the organizational heart of any event, ordering us to paint fences, mow lawns, cut down trees, patch up holes in rowboats, cook food, and how, when and where to do whatever needed doing. And to do it with no complaints. Grandma was a doer, not a talker. And she expected the rest of us to follow suit.

And it was that same get-it-done attitude that also helped my family survive tragedy, like the sudden death of my uncle Walter, my grandparents’ oldest son and my father’s brother. Walter had suffered a head trauma from an accidental fall, which put him in a coma he never woke up from just a few months before his sister Lynda’s wedding at The Lake. And with the family in mourning, everyone doubted whether going ahead with a wedding was really a good idea. But my grandmother drove the family through their grief and out the other side, doling out commands and jobs and nudging anyone who slacked off or wallowed a little too long. Crying wasn’t going to make a wedding happen and, goddamnit, there was work to be done.

Even when Walter’s two sons, Greg and Walter Jr., were suddenly left behind without a father or a home, my grandmother didn’t flinch at the thought of taking the boys in and raising them as her own. It was something that had to be done. Simple as that.

And when one of those kids, Walter Jr., was accidentally shot and killed by a friend messing around with a shotgun, my grandmother cried for the first and only time in front of me. I was seven years old and didn’t fully understand death, but I understood that my family, the pillars around me, were stricken with grief. But the family had the next Fourth of July to gather for, the next Thanksgiving, the next Christmas and the next birthday. Life went on at the lake. It had to.

So, as I sat on my boat in the Dominican Republic, remembering all my grandmother did to hold my family together over the years, I realized what had allowed me to live my life so freely, traveling the world with a backpack and now with a boat.

Without knowing it, my grandmother had been the anchor that secured my family ship to a harbor so safe that we could all take flight in our own way, knowing we always had somewhere safe to return. And she passed on her steel strength and iron-clad self-reliance to her children, urging them to pass those qualities on to their children.

Even towards the end of my grandmother’s life, if ever we tried to worry about her or fuss over her, she would vehemently reject it. Her job was to worry about each of us and support us, even when that support didn’t always come in forms we expected. She believed in tough love, generous actions and thick skin. And she loved us too much to let us worry about her.

So, in a way, as I sit here on my boat, in the midst of the unforgettable journey that is my life, I acknowledge that my life is a gift from my grandmother, passed down to my father and mother, and bestowed upon me.

And I remember how lucky I am to have that gift.

Florida - 1981 - 006

My dad, Grandma and me, building castles in the sand in Florida (1981)

honeymoon in us 056

Me, introducing Ryan to Knickerbocker Lake for the first time after tying the knot (2005)

Party at lake - Carlos 099

Three generations of Hackers, walking together at Knickerbocker Lake (2005)

elsie and walter hacker tasha's wedding

Grandma and Grandpa, dancing at our wedding reception at Knickerbocker Lake (2005)

33 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Sarah April 20, 2013, 9:46 pm

    A beautiful post, am so sorry for your loss.

    • Tasha April 20, 2013, 9:50 pm

      Thanks, Sarah. xx

  • bobtaylor380272126 April 20, 2013, 10:10 pm

    Sorry

    • Tasha April 20, 2013, 10:13 pm

      Thanks, Bob. I was lucky to know her.

  • Windtraveler April 20, 2013, 10:26 pm

    A beautiful testament to your grandmother and her legacy. Sounds like you were both lucky to have each other. She sounds like a woman I would have loved to have known, and what a gift to have been able to learn from her stories and example first hand. xo

    • Tasha April 20, 2013, 10:38 pm

      Thanks, Brittany. I’m so sad, but I do feel very lucky to have had her in my life for so long. xx

  • Kate April 21, 2013, 8:16 am

    Tasha those are beautiful memories of your
    Grandmother and family. I do believe her strength and grit allows you to experience
    The journay that you are on. Enjoy it.

    • Tasha April 21, 2013, 12:49 pm

      Thanks, Kate. I don’t know if I could have endured what she did without crumbling, but if I inherited even a shred of her strength, I’ll be okay 🙂 xx

  • Mid-Life Cruising! April 21, 2013, 9:19 am

    What a beautiful post in memory of your grandmother. Our condolences.

    • Tasha April 21, 2013, 9:40 am

      Thank you. I appreciate it 🙂

  • Bob baker (visiting Normans Cay) where daughter lives) April 21, 2013, 12:34 pm

    Sorry for your loss, I had a grandma just like that and it hurts when they go. Keep the faith !!

    • Tasha April 21, 2013, 12:43 pm

      Thanks, Bob. It always hurts to lose a loved one. It’s a little easier when they lived a long life, though…I hurt even more for those in Boston who lost young loved ones 🙁

  • Marie Goode April 21, 2013, 3:18 pm

    Tasha, She was an amazing woman, and quite an influence on my life through the years. I noticed that the picture you posted as “three generations of Hackers” has my parents in it! I think my oldest brother, Ralph, may also be walking beside your dad. I have such great “Lake” memories from growing up. I have a picture that your cousin Walter drew for me – it’s in a frame in one of my closets. I will have to find it and scan a copy for you. I “babysat” for Walter quite a bit when he was very little, Gloria used to let me hang out with them a lot. She was a special lady and will be missed.

    • Tasha April 21, 2013, 3:21 pm

      Hi Marie,
      Elsie was quite an influential woman…she’ll be very hard to forget and we’ll miss her a lot. And yes, it does have your parents in it! That was taken at the weekend of my U.S. wedding reception (post the Spanish one!). I would love a scan of that picture Walter made… he was quite an artist. Thanks for the note…I’d love to hear your stories about my grandma one day…
      xx
      Tasha

  • Marilyn April 21, 2013, 3:21 pm

    What a wonderful post to commemorate your grandmother’s role in your lives! She is smiling down on you for sure. Thank you for sharing that glimpse into her personality. I am touched. My sincerest condolences on your and your whole family’s loss.

    • Tasha April 21, 2013, 3:58 pm

      Thanks, Marilyn. She was quite a lady. I know everyone says that about their loved ones, but my grandmother’s personality was bigger than all of us, I feel!
      xx
      Tasha

  • Leigh April 22, 2013, 1:10 pm

    Tasha, what a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. It had me walking down my own memory lane of memories of my own grandparents. I feel like, in my own life, by the time I could truly appreciate the older generations in my family, they were already gone. I am so glad that you have your grandmother’s strength, character, and love to muse on. She lives on in you, to be sure!

    • Tasha April 22, 2013, 4:19 pm

      I hope so! 🙂

  • somanybeaches April 22, 2013, 5:47 pm

    What a beautiful tribute. My Grandmother is 93, her parents immigrated from Denmark, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be close with her – she’s even been aboard S/V Mother Jones (she prefers napping at anchor). I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s a reminder to be grateful for every gift I’ve had from her – and you from your own. peace be with you both

    • Tasha April 22, 2013, 5:59 pm

      Thank you… wow, what a coincidence, your grandmother’s parents emigrating from Denmark, as well! My grandmother’s last name was originally Von Berner, which got change to Barner when her parents came through Ellis Island. Her life was pretty amazing, and I’ll miss her 🙂
      Tasha

  • Julie April 24, 2013, 12:21 am

    Such a lovely tribute….sounds to me like you will celebrate her memory very well. I was just back in NY visiting my family and my parents told me about your grandmother. They send along their hugs to you….as do I.

    • Tasha April 24, 2013, 12:22 am

      Thanks Julie! And thanks for your email clarifying the fish we caught in Inagua…I haven’t had a chance to write back, but I appreciated the correct IDs! And I went back and edited the post.
      And thanks for your condolences… say hi to your family for me!
      Tasha

  • Jesse K on s/v Smitty April 24, 2013, 12:35 pm

    I am very sorry for your loss. I know how special Grandmothers can be. Our boat Smitty is named after mine.

    • Tasha April 24, 2013, 12:37 pm

      Awww, that’s sweet. Maybe we’ll have a future boat called Elsie 🙂

  • Melody April 24, 2013, 9:10 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this post before, but I’m glad I saw it now. What a beautiful tribute to an undoubtedly strong, loving and wonderful woman. xo

    • Tasha April 30, 2013, 11:54 am

      Aw, thanks, Mel 🙂
      Tasha

  • Katharine Craig s/v MAJIKS April 30, 2013, 7:08 am

    Hi Tasha, so sorry for your loss. My grandmother “Amma” was of similar stock and I miss her so (she passed in 1987). She got to meet my first born, and her great-granddaughter, who I gave her name. My one and only 4 generation photo is precious. I still draw on the strength and sense of independence my Amma instilled in me, starting back when I was very young. We keep in our memories, those who we can no longer see; and we carry them in our hearts where those seeds of love grew big and strong. XO Kath

    • Tasha April 30, 2013, 12:50 pm

      Hi Katharine,
      Thanks so much for the sweet message. I can imagine naming my future daughter “Elsie,” after my grandmother (though she might possibly get picked on for such a grandmotherly name…). My grandmother had a presence that was bigger than the whole family together. She’s missed and remembered 🙂
      Thanks again for the kind words,
      Tasha

  • Laura S. Sitges October 27, 2013, 12:56 am

    What a pillar of granite it sounds like your grandmother was, and through some real tragedies. Mine was and wasn’t; she was a saucy little Cajun country minx who married a well-to-do New Orleans creole and became a southern belle, fragile and helpless, because she knew that’s what he wanted her to be. He worshipped her til the day she died, never realizing the strength of soul that she had. She didn’t learn how to balance a checkbook until he died, and never said a harsh thing in her life. So in ways, our grandmothers were very different, but the result, us, were the same, grandchildren who had their rock-solid love behind us always, allowing us to become strong, brave, adventurous women.
    I’m starting a blog, much of which revolving around my grandmother, about making found art from things found in the attics and basements and closets and drawers of our loved ones when we have to clean out their houses and say goodbye to the era that took place in them, and part of my research is to read people who talk about their grandmothers. I would have never run across you otherwise. Tonight, when my day’s ‘homework’ is done, I’m gonna read about the rest of your life; I have a feeling it’s gonna be quite a read.
    Thanks, Tasha
    Laura in New Orleans

    • Tasha Hacker October 29, 2013, 8:58 pm

      Wow, Laura. Thanks so much for reading – your grandmother sounds fascinating; you’ve got a real story to unravel and tell there. Your blog and research project sounds fascinating… I’d love to read more. What is the blog link?

      Good luck digging up all the stories on your grandmother… it’s both heart-breaking and fun to learn more about those who had a part in forming who we are.

      xx

  • Joe DeSeve October 29, 2013, 11:08 pm

    Tasha, I read your grandfather’s obituary today in
    the Time Union (NY) paper. Upon reading it my
    memories raced back to 1972 when I first met your grandmother and spoke to Walter on the telephone.
    At that time I was looking for a home in the suburbs and
    Elsie Hacker was my agent. When we first met she told
    me that I must be related to her husband because his
    mother was Marie DeSeve and there weren’t many DeSeve’s around so there had to be a relation. She called
    Walter and I introduced myself. He was excited to hear
    from a “cousin” and it wasn’t long before it was determined that his grandfather Arthur DeSeve and my
    grandfather Charles were brothers making Walter and
    me second cousins. Your grandmother seemed pleased
    to have been the conduit that brought this connection together. I remember telling Walter that we’d get together
    and bring pictures and stories so that we could share in our family lineage but as the saying goes, ” with all best
    intentions” it never took place, I guess life got in the way.
    Today after reading about Walter I showed my son a picture of his great grandfather (my grandfather) Charles
    and then I showed him your grandfathers picture, he was
    amazed as to the strong resemblance as was I. There is
    no mistaking a relationship that’s for sure! My curiosity acted up after seeing Walters obit so I googled some
    family research and found your web site and felt compelled
    to share this bit of information with you. My condolences
    on the passing of your grandfather and grandmother.

  • Rob Bucklin August 8, 2015, 10:54 am

    Tasha, I am having fun reading your blog from the beginning. Just got to this wonderful description of your grandmother and all she did for your family. It brought me to tears in remembrance of my grandparents and my parents. Wonderful memories came flooding back. Having her meet my son before she died, meant so much to me. I guess it was my proof to her that I had grown up and I was going to make it. Or maybe it was just that I wanted to see her smile down on my son as she had done so many times on me. She taught me so much about a kitchen and how to help others. The matriarch of our clan who instilled so many wonderful ideals to all her children and theirs. Much like yours. We will all be back together some day. Thank you for your blog and giving me this opportunity to remember such an important part of my past!

    • Tasha August 8, 2015, 8:56 pm

      Awww, thank you so much for that message, Rob. My grandmother means so much to me and I miss her so much. I was just in a “home” store today buying things for the boat, and I came across a cookie jar. I said to Ryan, “I’ve never known anyone in my life to have a cookie jar but my grandmother. Hers was a ceramic one shaped like Elsie the Cow. (her name was Elsie).” Ryan’s response was, “Only grandmothers have cookie jars.”

      I aspire to have a cookie jar one day on the boat — I want children to be on board and to love being around me as much as I loved being around my grandmother. I am starting to learn that what we are in life is so much informed by the people we are exposed to as children. My grandmother was a gem. I miss her greatly, and I teared up a little when I read your reminiscines. It is sad to lose someone but it is so wonderful to remember what a person really means to you in life. Much love to you and your grandmother. xx

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