Today my grandma would have turned 100 years old. While she didn’t quite get to 100 (she passed six days prior to her 95th birthday), she lived a life worth sharing. While there are so many things I’d love to tell you about her, I will have to save some of those for a future blog, or two, or maybe a book. So what I’ll share below are five lessons I learned from her in the 24 short years I spent with her:
1. The only limit you have is the one you set for yourself.
Ethel, or Meemo as she was lovingly called, was a woman before her time. She was born on February 21, 1920 and after attending high school, attended Ursinus College. This was a time that women didn’t go to school but Meemo wanted to learn and make an impact, so she did.
After college, she went to work as the first female chemist for what was previously known as the Armstrong Cork Company. She worked there from 1941- 1951 and during that time, she became supervisor of the Asphalt Tile Division.
She took time off after 1951 to raise her two children, and then started her second career. She switched from applying the sciences she had learned, to teaching those principles in an elementary way to her Kindergarten class at Fairland Elementary. She taught Kindergarten for 23 years until 1983 and during those years had the unique opportunity to each both her son and daughter in that class since it was a small school with only one teacher. She told me, they couldn’t call her mom, but had to call her Mrs. Stephan.
This incredible lady absorbed opportunities for learning through education, she then pursued a career, took time away from that first career for 9 years to be intentional with her family, and then showed inspired little minds through making learning fun, especially science, for the next 23 years.
2. Even when life sucks, be grateful and spread joy.
Meemo was always active. Up through her 94th year of life, she was still going to the gym twice a week to do her workouts. She wouldn’t let you help her into the car, and wanted to show you that her arm workouts were paying off, so she would hoist herself up into the SUV all by herself and then remind you that it was due to her arm days.
I think her dedication to her healthy lifestyle may have been in part due to seeing her father pass when she was 15, and then seeing her husband pass at age 64. After Grandpa Stan’s passing, my grandma began to travel. She went everywhere – new states, countries and continents. She had albums and albums of photos and a spoon collection – with a spoon hanging in our dining room from every place she went including Alaska, China, Russia, Argentina, and Hawaii. It was impressive to look at that collection and realize that she’d done all that traveling in her last third of her life.
Meemo didn’t let the losses she’d experienced prevent her from enjoying the time she had on earth. She lived fully and with gratitude. Then, unexpectedly her son passed, and within two years, her daughter (my mom) passed as well. I cannot begin to fathom how you deal with loss like that. But she did it.
I remember coming home from school one day about a year after my mom’s death, and about two years after my Uncle Bob’s and she was talking to someone from church. They were in the sunroom and I unintentionally overheard her talking about loss and grief and how she had to keep pressing on. I walked away, eyes full of my own tears and I just remember thinking that I don’t know how she does it and stays so positive. That I hope I never have to face what she has, but if I do, I want to handle it with the grace, gratitude, and grit that she does.
Even when her own health was beginning to fail at age 94, she still wore her smile and shared words of encouragement. She was having a harder time walking which hadn’t ever been an issue before, she so she had this red collapsible walker she wheeled around. She thought this thing was grand because you could use it as a chair, as a shopping cart with the storage under the seat, and as a way to spread joy to others. She tied this little tweety bird to her walker and would smile and wave and talk with people in the halls at the retirement community and she’d make sure Tweety said her hellos to them as well. She, at 94, wanted to spread joy to others in the retirement home even when she knew in her bones she didn’t have much time left.
3. Enjoy the little things.
During some of her last weeks, she had told us stories about growing up and about marriage while at Hospice which I got on video. One of my favorite videos is her advice on marriage:
She shares, “[Grandpa Stan] liked that and if we were in church, his hand would sneak over and take my hand. And you know, okay, I like that!”
While I never got to meet my Grandpa Stan, since he passed before my parents even got married, the stories I heard about him I always appreciated. Especially those about him and my grandma together. Even 25 years after his death, her face would still light up while telling them.
Later in the video she said, “See we had the “take off point” at the farm. Between the Kitchen and the Mudroom. It had a step between it. He would stand down there and I’d stand up and we’d be on the same level.” Meemo was a shorter lady and Grandpa was tall. So in order to give her a kiss before leaving, they would stand at the “take off point” as she calls it. Even if she was busy, he would go stand there until she noticed him waiting for her before leaving.
At the end of the video she says, “It’s just little things but the little things sometimes are nice.”
4. Hold on.
Meemo held on far longer than we anticipated. I remember the ups and downs of her last 2-3 months of life. There were a few nights I slept at the retirement home so I could help her overnight in whatever she needed. I’m not really sure if that was allowed but I remember thinking how hard it was to see this woman who had helped raise me after my mom passed begin to decline. Meemo was always invincible to me. She had experienced so much loss of loved ones as well as physical pain – a broken hip, a triple bypass surgery, and an awful car accident. But she didn’t stop.
I was at a bible study in Manheim when I got a call from my dad. He said the retirement community was calling him and that she kept asking for me to come visit. I had planned to visit her later that evening since I had seen her the day before, but there was an urgency from both the nurses and my dad this time. My dad said I should go over right away so I left and drove 15 minutes to see her.
When I got there, my mom’s best friend was already there, and both she and Meemo were already chatting about Downton Abbey (the show) and it was a conversation I couldn’t take much part in because I’d never seen it. Meemo seemed in good spirits and grateful to see both of us. We all talked for about 30 minutes or so spanning various topics before it was time for her breathing treatment. The nurse showed me what to do for the treatment and then left. Within minutes I could literally see the life leaving her body. I stopped the treatment and got the nurse. The nurse told me to stay there and hold her hand. So I did.
We had gone from talking about Downton Abbey and England in the 1800s to her last breaths in under an hour. How did this happen? How?
Because she held on. Over the last month or so, our family had constant visits with her when she was in hospice. She had been able to share her stories and say her goodbyes. And that day was her final goodbye. I should have realized when my Dad called me that this would be it. That she held on as long as she could. But couldn’t any more and needed to say a final goodbye. So I sat with her, and cried and prayed and let her know how much I loved her. Then she moved from her temporary home on earth to her permanent home in Heaven.
5. Live a life worth being written down.
Meemo was a woman before her time. She was the matriarch of the family, loved traveling the word, was a ambassador of peace with the Friendship Force, loved playing bridge, doing crosswords, gardening, hosting family and friends, and volunteered at the North Museum. She was creative, patient, generous, grateful, compassionate, independent and humble.
In the photos below, you will see a card she wrote to me for my birthday. My birthday is February 12th. She passed on the 15th. She was in her hospital bed and hadn’t left it the days prior. I got my card in the mail about two days after she passed. What an incredible woman that would think of a birthday card for me saying “thank you for all you have done for me” when she knew she was likely not going to be on this earth much longer. She must have had a nurse help her address and stamp it from her bed. That is the kind of woman she was – worrying more about others than herself.
Meemo lived a life that’s worth sharing. She lived a life worth writing about.
So this is my encouragement from Grandma Meemo to you –
Lead a life worth being written down. This is your legacy. Make it a legacy of a century.