How my Grandmother‘s Life Taught Me the Importance of Being an Independent Woman

Karina Lafayette – April 2021

“Did you eat?”

For my grandmother, this question was synonymous with saying, “I love you.” This was how she used to always greet people who came to visit her. Her affection really knew no bounds.

When it comes to my writing, Nanny, as I call her, didn’t always feel too comfortable with me talking about family, due to a lot of complex history, occasionally involving some dark stuff. Luckily, I don’t think it’s possible to honour someone without getting at least a little bit personal. So, Nanny, if I do happen to mention something you don’t like, feel free to play with the lights in my apartment and we’ll call it even. 😉

But really, I can’t help it. As an artist, how can you not be inspired by the people who shape you? Nanny taught me to believe in myself. I still remember her screaming into the telephone when I got accepted into college. She used to put my pastel drawings that I made for her up on the walls of her house, and made me feel valid- like I could become more than that shy little girl who would stutter in front of class. She saw my future self like a clairvoyant and gave me space to grow, even if that meant me living at a distance in a big city. She had a laugh louder than anyone and gave the best hugs ever.

In some ways, our lives mirror each other. My family already lived in Toronto for one year when my mom was 10, due to a job my grandfather had. I moved to Toronto in 2016. My grandparents got married after only knowing each other for a few months, and had a tumulteous marriage. My ex-husband and I got married after knowing each other for six months. At first it was bliss, till it wasn’t. Till it slowly gave me flashbacks of Nanny and how she often put her happiness last in order to keep the home in order, and here I was, about to fall into that trap. So many times she talked about keeping the food warm in the oven till Poppy came home, trying to be a good wife, only to feel unappreciated. Meanwhile, my ex worked till 3am every night, and I used to stay up and wait, so he could come home and sit on the couch and play video games, with no real conversation between us. This wasn’t anyone’s fault either really, but the society we were all raised in that taught women to swallow their tears and make sure everyone at the dinner table ate before we did.

And this is where my grandmother’s legacy comes in.

My great-grandfather, Nicholas, came to Montreal from Campobasso, Italy in the 1920s with no money, and his first job was working as a shoe shiner. By the time my grandmother (born Magdalena, Helena for short), and her brothers were growing up, they still struggled. Nicholas would carve toys out of wood. He used to also be an expert on picking mushrooms and dandelion leaves, that he then brought home, to the chagrin of my great-grandmother, Maria, who had to clean and cook them.

Since Nicholas had epilepsy, Helena was made to stop going to school at around twelve years old, so she could help out around the house, which was a common thing for girls back then. In her late twenties, she met my grandfather and by the time she was 29, they adopted my mom. Despite not being connected by blood, my grandmother and I are bonded by spirit.

Family is a lot more than we think it is. It’s the people who resonate with us along the way, the ones who see the best in you even when you don’t.

So in a way, I get it, I get why she was so excited anytime I reached a milestone. My milestones have really been hers too, and for all the women who came before, as well as the ones who haven’t been born yet. And I’m not saying we should live for other people, but there’s a freedom in knowing that certain struggles won’t have to repeat themselves again, and that her experiences weren’t in vain.

Anytime I talked to Nanny, she often reminded me how happy and free she felt to live on her own. A huge contrast to twenty-five years ago, when just after my grandfather died, she was terrified of that. So my mom and I moved in with her, and for awhile things were back to normal. Till in some strange twist of fate soon after, the landlord said his daughter was moving in upstairs,which meant that we had to move out. For the first time ever at age 60, my grandmother got her first apartment. It’s almost like the universe was waiting for her to finally step into her Matriarchal power and be fine with knowing independence. But it didn’t come easily. She was tested many times along the way.

For a good part of my childhood, I used to live with Nanny during weekdays, while my mom was at work. Staying with her was really the best thing ever. She would prepare dinner while we were watching General Hospital, Coronation Street, and all her favorite soap operas. She often made cookies with lemon or orange zest (delicious). Baking in general was her thing, along with knitting. I grew up fast and used to be happy chipping in with chores without her asking. For years, I often felt unloved, neglected and lonely, but in the past few years I realized that I really have been loved all along. And her more than almost anyone.

And there was always one of these in her bathroom:

Nanny used to like singing to Rod Stewart and Tina Turner. She would always dance with me growing up, especially as a baby, and had an affinity with kids. All my family’s kids loved being around her. Her and I would gossip about celebrities, and spend the rest of the evenings watching sitcoms she used to find “ridiculous” but still for whatever reason, we watched them anyway. One of the most hilarious memories is how before getting her cataracts removed, anytime we used to cross the street, she’d grab my hand and we would run, because she couldn’t see the stop light. Her apartment was always immaculate, well-decorated, and had the most striking colors, which of course I can credit to her Venus in Leo. Of course, the restless Gemini in her couldn’t resist switching up the furniture every other week. So yes, that also meant she was a morning person, which for me, meant I couldn’t really sleep in.

With her, I got to be myself. I spent time between homework to make portraits that she kept on the walls in her den, even though they had no real concept. I was able to share my plans and ideas and like the Fairygodmother in Cinderella, Nanny used to listen as if somehow she would one day wave a magic wand and make them all come true. She never judged me for being quiet or introverted. She didn’t once try to change me into something I wasn’t. She loved me for me.

Despite her bright, loud, extroverted nature, there was still this sadness about her that she didn’t share very much, something I wish more people knew- for she has many friends, aunts, cousins, and neighbors, who would be more familiar with the cheerful side to her personality.

This is probably the one thing we always disagreed on: sharing the hard times. Face it, the women in my family have had to be strong for a long time, but aren’t we all a bit tired of always being strong? Most people are messy, and we rarely even fold the laundry right after taking it out of the dryer, so why pretend? Nanny had to be strong for everyone, but she had to fight for the chance to do that for herself. If there’s one thing the last few years of her life gave her, it’s the opportunity to take a break from taking care of anyone else, and to simply be. Really, as women, it’s kind of our default setting; To put everyone else’s needs first; To look the other way if he’s cheating; To say “yes” when we mean “no”; In a world that has incessantly told me opposite of what I believe in, my grandmother stood by and asserted that faith.

The reason a woman who chooses to be independent gets judged, is because a lot of us confuse independence with selfishness. All independence means is that you ate, showered, got dressed,and did one nice thing for you, before stepping out into the world, and that your in charge of your direction in life. Nanny was anything but selfish. She would open herself to be of service to her community and family, even when she was tired. As much as she probably would argue with me on this one: she didn’t have to do anything when she was tired. When we’re tired, we need to remember, it’s okay to rest. Before my Uncle Sam passed away, she used to take him to doctors appointments so she could repeat everything the doctor said, due to my Uncle being deaf. Of course, the generosity was reciprocated since Uncle Sam was the same way. And boy did they both love shopping after. Nanny would run errands for friends who lived in her building. She would help my uncle with cooking during the time he lived in the same building as us. She let me and my dog stay with her twice while I was experiencing abuse at home. That first night, when I showed up with the police at her place, was one of the most horrible and terrifying times in my life, and yet through it she taught me how to fly. She pretty much saved me. There wasn’t much Nanny wouldn’t do for people, and I only wish I could dial back the years, to remind her the importance of putting herself first a little more often. I wish I could give her the world, because thank you isn’t enough. I’m proud of the fact that later, she had the chance to do more of what makes her happy, even if she mostly found it in the little things, like playing cards with her neighbors, watching soap operas, going to the casino, and having lunch with her aunts.

Life is too short, too scary and too unpredictable, to spend it without grabbing onto every opportunity possible that allows us to feel happiness and freedom.

The closer I get to my thirties, the more I’m reminded of how women become more confident, more attractive, and more vibrant with age, because we start to care less. We put less value on what others think, on relationships, on what the world thinks, and focus more on becoming authentic. That’s also the reason why we’re taught to fear aging; It isn’t because our looks fade, it’s because our powers rise. In spirituality, there’s the idea that womanhood is divided into three stages: the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. In our Crone years, we don’t waste time arguing with people or proving ourselves, or keeping relationships with people who are on different wavelengths, because:

A woman who believes in herself has time for neither. She just does her thing while sitting alone in her living room, watching The Price is Right while everyone else goes mad during a pandemic.

My grandmother was born right after the Great Depression and before World War II, she could handle far more than many of us, trust me. Not that the pandemic doesn’t count as a historical moment, but if we look back, we could learn a thing or two. At some point, she finally put her foot down and let the world know, she has a seat at the table too, and will even long after living on this planet.

But I’m pretty sure she would also like to remind us, that if you don’t have a seat, build your own table instead.

Now, as her granddaughter, I really can’t express the excruciating rawness I’ve felt and am still feeling. I don’t think there are any words to describe it. The easiest thing is to celebrate and remember my grandmother as she would want to, and that’s as the woman who taught me to become my best self.

I love you.

Karina xo

If you’ve recently suffered a loss of a family member or are having mental health issues, please don’t hesitate to share with people. Someone cares about you. ❤

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*This article was originally published on Medium.

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