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