My grandmother never told me how to live.
But we hung out all the time, so she didn’t have to.
I grew up in Washington, D.C., and Mia lived in Boston, but I visited her every few months. When I ended up in Boston for college, I got to see her every couple of weeks.
She died in 1997, shortly after I graduated, but I’ve never stopped missing her, and I’ve never stopped thinking about what she taught me.
Here are a few lessons that stuck.
Go ahead and break some rules
When my sister and I were little, our dad, a lawyer, took a lot of business trips to Boston. He often brought us with him to spend time with his mom, who’d been widowed in 1978.
She lived in a concrete apartment tower for low-income seniors. It was next to a shiny Holiday Inn with an outdoor pool.
On hot summer days, she’d sneak us in nonchalantly for a swim.
It wasn’t hard to get past the front desk: Mia had a good poker face, and since she never told us we weren’t supposed to be there, we looked as innocent as we were.
Eventually, of course, we figured it out ourselves, but by then, we felt we belonged.
Maybe the stunt was harmless; maybe it wasn’t. I wouldn’t do something like that now.
But I hope some of my grandmother’s pluck rubbed off on me. She was small and she was sweet, but authority didn’t cow her.
Fancy people are no better than regular ones
Mia’s parents were immigrants from Italy who didn’t have a cent to spare. Right after high school, she got a factory job; no one said a word about college.
But it was always clear to me that she knew stuff, and she kept learning her whole life.
She knew how to make a lasagna. She knew how to win at cards. She knew how to hack her way through Filene’s Basement until she found a pink Guess sweater I’d love.
She read biographies, novels, the Herald, and the Globe and railed perceptively against whoever was President.
Not long before I was born, when she was in her 60s, she got her first office job, as a tax examiner for the state. She was one of a bunch of workers who decided which returns looked fishy. By the time she retired when I was a teen, she’d passed two civil service exams and gotten two promotions.
I went to private school and was headed for college. But I never thought I was smarter than my grandma.
Be strong for people who aren’t
In her 30s, Mia took in her father and cared for him alongside her son.
She had a niece who was being neglected, so she took her in and raised her, too.
In middle age Mia cared for her husband as cancer wracked his lungs, neck, and brain.
And in her final years she took care of me.
I got to Harvard thinking I’d thrive there. Instead, I got really sick.
I worried all the time about things that made no sense. Some days, the fears were just in my head; other days they swept through my whole body. My heart raced. My stomach ached. I sweated so much I got hives.
I was assigned to a psychoanalyst on campus, but he wasn’t really any help.
Thank God my grandma was three subway stops away.
I’d come over and collapse on the couch while she chopped and stirred in the kitchen. An hour later, we’d eat pasta and meatballs with gravy she’d made from scratch. For dessert, we’d have ice cream or cannoli.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with OCD and got the treatment I badly needed.
But in the meantime, I had her.