My Grandmother turned one-hundred in October of 2014. It is a major achievement for someone to live to this milestone, and it is also a wonderful opportunity to appreciate what it takes to live for this long. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and want to share with you why perhaps she has lived well all of these years.
The dear-to-my-heart novel, “Forrest Gump”, by Winston Groom, gifts us a most memorable quote, which always seems to be in the back of my mind since the first time I saw it. I love its optimistic and innocent way of viewing life. It kindly reminds me to stay positive while expecting the unexpected, in a sweet way.
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” could be the theme of my grandmother’s life. This has been true especially the past few years, when it has taken more patience than ever for Memere to stay positive after losing her eyesight. What has gotten her through is mostly chocolate, and lots of it.
My grandmother has been demanding more and more sweets for the past few years, to the point where we worry about her nutrition. It is clear that this is what she really wants though maybe not what she needs. My mother consulted the doctor, who said to let her have the sweets and not worry about it. He said that this is very typical as people get to be older. My mother was surprised, but her guilt was lifted, and so she supplies my grandmother with what she wants (judiciously).
I cannot tell you how many pounds of chocolate she was given with her 100th Birthday celebration, but it was all gone before the holidays.
So, how does she do it you ask? You mean how has she achieved such longevity? From what I have read, it is likely some genetics, but more importantly, neuroscience. This means, it is more about how her brain, through her way of thinking, has created habit of thought, which has translated messages of well being to the very cells of her body for most of her life. I will explain later.
How was she so lucky? Well, as a child of the depression, she grew up going without. She was from a poor family and to help support them, left school after the sixth grade because her family could not afford to buy the pencils and notebooks necessary for school at the time. So, she went to work in a relative’s home to help support her family of nine. She cleaned and helped with the many children in that family. Her father was an alcoholic and worked in the granite manufacturing plants when there was work and her mother worked in the sock factory in the village of Northfield, Vermont.
At seventeen, my grandmother found her way out by marrying my grandfather, (who her older sister, Violet had refused a date), and began the life of a wife and then a mother of four daughters.
Seems like a happy ending? Well, it is just the beginning. My grandfather spoke only French, coming from Québec to work in the granite industry. All of his friends who they spent time with were French as well, so my grandmother had to learn French. She became fluent to her credit, and created a life for herself in the French community as they moved to Barre, Vermont, where they would raise their family and live the rest of their lives.
Once in Barre, they bought a large home where she took care of boarders and cooked three large meals a day. She could be found painting or washing the walls of the many rooms of the home, or sewing for her family when she wasn’t cooking or cleaning. Honestly, she did it all. My grandfather was king of his castle, owning his own business for many years.
My grandparents had a very active social life on the weekends and had friends in until the wee hours of the morning. They would play music on the fiddle and dance and sing the French rounds that everyone joined in on. Memère knew how to have a good time. Often she would serve the friends a very early morning breakfast of steak and eggs before they went home. As an aside, she decided to go to the “after party” after the birthday celebration for her in October. She didn’t want to miss a thing with all the grand and great grandchildren.
At the age of fifty-four, my mother taught my grandmother how to drive a car and that marked the first step of her independence. She had begun working as a professional seamstress for a home decorating store, making drapes out of her basement for people’s homes. This gave her spending money, though all of the grocery money came from her earnings. She no longer had to ask for money. She always managed to save some “cold cash” which she hid in her freezer in Tupperware, for family gifts and emergencies. She was very generous to all of us.
The best part about my grandmother is her ability to be there for all of us. Our family has had its share of disappointments, secrets and heartbreaks, and she was always there, never judging, to give support and understanding. She knew no one was without faults or mistakes and she kept others’ heartaches to herself and nothing shocked her. Besides, she was a very well read woman of her day, with only that sixth-grade education.
She has been a widow for close to twenty years and after my grandfather’s passing, her home was still the gathering place for the extended family. This is until three years ago when she fell because of her failing sight, when my mom decided it was time she didn’t live alone anymore.
So, getting back to neuroscience…
She was not raised with many choices or opportunities, but what choices she was handed allowed her to carve out a life in which she felt SAFETY, SATISFACTION and CONNECTION. According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist and New York Times best-selling author, these three areas give us what we need in order to have well-being.
My grandmother chose to feel each of these elements in her life by the way she saw herself. She felt SAFE in the life she chose, out of poverty.
She felt SATISFACTION from her achievements. She was creative and innovative in what she made.
She felt a strong sense of CONNECTION, between her many friends and large family. Did I mention she also helped to raise a child of her brother, who was in difficult circumstances? She treated him, as all children she has had in her life, like her own.
I would like to add that RESILIENCE is key as well, for if we can roll with what life gives us and not stop to stew about it, we can feel we are Safe, Satisfied and Connected, because it truly is all about what we think and what we think is broadcasted loud and clear to our whole body, at the cellular level, creating wellness, in spite of adversity.
Another point to mention is that my grandmother was not a grudge holder. If she was angry, you knew it. She let it out and then let it go.
Memère has lost all of her peers but creates new friendships that come into her life where she lives. Her body gives her difficulty at times, but at
One-hundred, maybe life is better when it is taken with a box of chocolates. At least it makes the reality of very old age a little sweeter.