Hurricane Florence had descended on us overnight. The wind was gusting, and the rain had just begun. The lights were flickering as I stood in the kitchen. My mom had been worried about us, so I assumed when she called around noon she was just checking in on the weather. But her voice was shaky, which meant she had bad news. My heart sank. As she told me my grandma, Jane Connors, had passed away that morning, the power went out.
Darkness. Silence—except for the three kids buzzing around me, wondering why I was crying.
As I hung up, the fabric sheers on the table caught my eye in the dim kitchen—a gift from Grandma. I had been using them to cut yarn for a weaving I was working on when my mom called.
My eyes tracked around the room. Next to the sink sat my favorite spatula, used that morning to fry eggs—a thrifted gift from Grandma for my first apartment. Next to the spatula, a mixing bowl—my favorite and another thrifted find from Grandma.
I thought of all the items tucked inside the cabinets from Grandma: cake pans; sauce pans; plates; bowls; serving spoons; a wooden recipe box overflowing with recipes in Grandma’s handwriting, crucial parts underlined in red; illustrated instructions on how to properly cut onion and pepper; oven mitts; and on and on. I was literally surrounded by Grandma.
We knew Grandma was living on borrowed time after a series of terrifying medical episodes that began five years ago, which we expected to end her life. Perhaps because she kept on living and sewing and cooking and defying expectations and prognoses, her passing seemed almost surprising. And because she was my last living grandparent, her death feels compounded, as if the other three have left us all over again. (How long does it take to process the passing of a generation?)
It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I began to understood what Grandma taught me over the years, and only now am I starting to stitch those gifts together into a few discernable lessons.
Grandma was born in 1931, a child of the Great Depression. Her sense of frugality and practicality shaped her, how she functioned in the world, and how she raised her family. She was a mother, a thrifter, a seamstress, a cook, a baker, a painter. And she was meticulous in each and every endeavor.
One year, my friend and I decided we wanted to learn how to sew dresses for ourselves. So Grandma spent several summer days teaching us to make sheath dresses, despite the fact that my friend and I were rather helpless behind the sewing machine. (“Measure twice, cut once!”) Later she helped me make a lavender silk wrap to accessorize an outfit for a school dance. I’m no master seamstress and can’t usually remember where to find the power switch on my sewing machine, but every once in a while, I whip up a little something (usually a Halloween costume for the girls) using the skills Grandma taught me.
Another summer, Grandma offered my sisters and me cake-decorating lessons and then outfitted us with industrial-level decorating supplies for Christmas. I don’t make a huge hoopla over my girls’ birthdays, but because of the lessons Grandma gave me, I’ve made a tradition of decorating an intricate cake for each celebration. It’s something special and unique I can do for them without going over the top.
Yet another summer, I came home from a trip to India with piles of fabric and ribbon. Despite her horror at how impractical and slippery the silken fabric was (only cotton is practical, people!), Grandma helped me make a duvet with matching pillow cases that I still treasure today. And I have grown as a person enough by now to admit she was right; if you make a duvet out of slippery fabric, it will always be slipping off the bed.
Through these projects and others, I witnessed Grandma’s astute attention to detail, her single-minded focus when working on a project, and her unwillingness to pay for something she knew she could do better herself with hard work and a bit of elbow grease. Either through her genes or her influence, she shared these traits with me, much to my luck.
In addition to being deeply practical, Grandma was deeply empathetic. It was the way she mixed these two characteristics that had, perhaps, the greatest influence on me.
I didn’t think of Grandma as an emotional person in the sense that she wasn’t the kind of person whose lap I’d climb into for snuggling. I remember noting that at Grandpa’s funeral 20 years ago, when the rest of us had devolved into tears, Grandma sat dry eyed, then bustled home and cooked a meal for all the attendees, because that’s how she knew to honor someone; that’s how she knew to comfort the rest of us.
She felt deeply the pain of others—sometimes on a nearly frantic level—and her aid for them came not in emotional ways but in practical ones, often through food or in items she could sew to make them more comfortable.
She had a particular heart for women and children, for the poor and the sick. She knew how hard parenting was. She knew how devastating it was to lose a baby. She knew what it meant to struggle financially. She could sympathize in these ways.
But perhaps even more impressively, Grandma could empathize. She didn’t have to have a spouse walk out on her to imagine how difficult life would be raising kids without a partner. She didn’t have to have a child gunned down to imagine the pain and trauma experienced by the families of Sandy Hook. In a world that feels increasingly and disturbingly devoid of empathy, Grandma had this skill in droves.
You could find her in the kitchen testing recipes, which, once perfected, she would copy onto notecards and pass out to family and friends. She was a newshound, forever cutting out and sending New York Times articles to interested parties. She sewed indestructible oven mitts to protect us from burns and—famous in our family lore—neon orange fleece hoods to protect us from hypothermia should our cars break down on a winter day in Minnesota. She prayed for her family and for strangers throughout daily life and disaster. She identified, collected, or made all the crucial baby items we needed to make the tough transition to parenthood that much smoother.
Grandma devoted her life to the thankless task of caring for others in the ways she knew how. You wouldn’t find her on the volunteer roster of a nonprofit. She didn’t have a college degree or a lengthy professional resume. But she was relentless in her own methods of caring.
Grandma showed me that two of the most important things we can do in this life are to empathize with other people—to feel their pain as our own whether we’ve shared their experiences or not—and to use our own unique gifts to try to make their lives a little better.
During the hurricane, we had pulled a mattress into the living room, so the girls could sleep on the first floor in case a tree fell on the roof. The wind and rain had been so loud the night after Grandma died that we slept fitfully. At one point Nora woke up, scared because she thought it sounded like there was someone walking on the roof.
The next morning, Cricket and Nora were snuggling on the mattress and from the kitchen I overhead Cricket say, “Nora, remember how you said you heard someone walking on the roof last night?” Well I think it was Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa coming down to say goodbye.”
Nora thought a moment and responded happily, “Yeah, me too.”
(Photo credits unknown. The last photo might be deceiving; Grandma went on to raise six children.)
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.