My maternal grandmother was born the year when Black Friday didn’t mean getting up early for half off sweaters and televisions. In a time when family was paramount, she was raised by a feisty single mother.
They didn’t have it easy. My grandmother didn’t spend her childhood playing video games. She carried coal up dozens of steep steps into their South Hills home.
But it wasn’t all bad—she was pretty, and made time to go dancing. She loved to dance.
By 1963, she was married to my grandfather and a full-time working mother with four children. No staying at home to raise the kids like a quintessential fifties housewife. She didn’t have podcasts or magazines or stacks of parenting books to teach her how to balance motherhood and self-care, and I don’t think she agonized all that much about how the kids would turn out. She got on with the business of life and work and did it all in nylons and heels.
When I was a kid, she tried hypnosis to stop smoking. We thought she was nuts—nobody did anything like that—but she hasn’t smoked in decades.
When they retired, my grandfather had this crazy idea to sell the house and travel the country in an R.V. This was before the internet, which made it exponentially harder. There weren’t a million blogs about how to live in a Tiny House or travel the world. There was no on-line banking, no e-mail, no GPS, no cell phones.
And yet they made it work with paper maps, post cards, and a sense of adventure. It was more my grandfather’s thing than hers, but he wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t gotten on board.
She’s ninety-two now, and the most computer savvy nonagenarian you’re likely to meet. She checks e-mail on her desktop computer, reads novels on her iPad.
When most people were wondering why anyone would possibly need a dial-up modem and this thing called “AOL,” she met an Australian woman in a chat room. Over the years they became e-mail pen pals and such good friends that the Australian woman and her husband flew to America and spent a week at my grandparent’s house.
This was way before people were meeting on Match.com and Tinder.
That was the one and only time they met in person, and yet they’ve maintained their weekly e-mail friendship for twenty-five years now.
I know most of these stories. But I didn’t know about the coal carrying and the dancing.
She told me about it on Friday, the first time I had seen her in a year. We were taking an unintentional trip down memory lane as we drove through the South Hills, passing a house like the one she grew up in (and carried coal in), one she actually lived in for a time with my grandfather, and the hall where she used to dance in high school.
The trip ended at the Castle Shannon Fire Department, where my grandmother received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
While getting an appointment was nearly impossible (I had to give grandma an assist with the computer work here), once we had it the process couldn’t have gone smoother. The folks at the Castle Shannon Fire Department were prepared, organized, and treated us with care and respect. From door to door, the process took twenty minutes, and that included fifteen minutes of mandatory waiting after the vaccine.
On the drive home, I pulled up the New York Times vaccine statistics on my phone.
“Grandma,” I told her. “You’re one of only fifteen percent of people in the country who’ve received the first dose. You’re a trailblazer.”
She was grateful for the vaccine, but mostly matter-of-fact about the whole thing. It was my mom and I caught up the history of the moment.
But my grandma has lived through a lot of history, and being one of the first is nothing new.
She might not have a Facebook account, but my grandma is a trailblazer in every way.