I am a lucky girl. With the minor exception of once wishing I looked like Julie Christie, I have never wanted to be anyone but me. The best part is that I know why I am this way: I was raised by my Granny Jo.
In 1966, when my own mother was finally declared “mentally unfit to be a parent,” Granny became my legal guardian. It must have been difficult for this shy, rather Victorian woman in her 60s suddenly to be responsible for a teenager. At the time, she was a high school guidance counselor. However, she deftly wove my life into hers and we became the best of friends.
Granny set high standards both for my grades and my behavior, punctuated her sentences with Bible verses, listened to my long-winded stories, met all my boyfriends, insisted that I eat alfalfa sprouts, and even taught me yoga. More important, she encouraged any interest I had, whether it was collecting bugs or banging on the drums.
“You can be many things in life, Dear,” she often said. “You don’t have to pick just one.”
Perhaps that explains why I also have never been bored. Granted, the one time I mentioned that I might be, she quietly replied, “An intelligent person is never bored.” But it just hasn’t happened—not in a classroom, a church, or even at a cocktail party. Put me anywhere, anytime, and I will occupy myself or others with a zest that sometimes surprises even me. I learned it from her.
She did embarrass me a bit during those teenage years, though. The other girls had “cool” moms in swishy dresses and high heels, with hair that flipped, fabulous nails and shiny lipstick. I had a gray-haired grandmother with old-fashioned spectacles who wore solid-color pantsuits and sensible flat shoes. But I knew even then that she was head and heels above the rest. Now, at almost 60 years old, I am even more certain of it.
We could not have been more different. It wasn’t just the half-century gap in our ages. Granny was shy and reserved. I was outgoing and, as she dubbed me early on, “a chatterbox.” My turbulent early years with a mother later diagnosed as schizophrenic made moments with Granny almost sacred. I took her advice to heart because I wanted to be as close to who she was as possible. To me she seemed like heaven itself. So the day she said to me, “Do what you can when you can. You won’t get a second chance,” I began seizing every moment possible.
At first the advice seemed merely practical. I mended that hole in my sweater because if I hadn’t, it would gape far and wide. I helped a classmate with homework because I still had 10 minutes before the bus came. As time went by, though, it became a habit so strong that I began to accomplish things with breakneck speed. I did my homework the same day it was assigned. If I had three weeks to read a book, I’d finish it in three days. The more I did, the more I realized what I could do. I became that principle in physics: A body in motion stays in motion.
Not only did I stay in motion, but the motion itself brought people and opportunities into my life that otherwise never would have happened. After graduating from Stanford University at 20, I taught high school English, took up the guitar, began writing songs, got a record contract, then a TV show, performed with artists like Don McLean and Billy Crystal, began acting, and worked with legends like Jason Robards, Tony Randall and Lucille Ball. By the time I was 35, I had met not one but two future U.S. presidents. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Granny set high goals for me and assumed I would simply meet them. She was a feminist before it was popular, yet was adamant that I know how to cook, clean and sew. Marriage never even entered my mind. Granny made it clear that I should “neither live with a man, nor marry one, until you have truly lived on your own and supported yourself.”
Even when dating, I could not let a boy pay for anything. “If you’re both doing something that you both enjoy, you both should pay your own ways,” Granny said. “Why should he pay for you?”
Granny was neither surprised nor impressed by anything I accomplished. Her own life had been unusual. Born on July 4, 1900, she graduated from Smith College in 1921 at a time when few women even went to college. Her youth was one of privilege, with a grand estate, servants and trips to Europe. John D. Rockefeller was a friend of her father and visited the family home. Yet, when the Depression took their fortune, she once told me, “It was a relief from all that responsibility.” She raised three children on her own without complaint because her moral compass never wavered from True North.
Grandmother had indirectly navigated my course for so long that it was a shock to find her slowly losing her own way barely a year after I married. She got lost on the way to the store, couldn’t find things or remember dates. She turned on the gas stove but forgot to turn it off. Her bills stacked up, unopened. The lights went out—and not just in her house. “Alzheimer’s” was not on anyone’s lips in 1981, and most said Granny was just getting old.
When my uncle called to say he was putting her in a nursing home, only one thought entered my mind—something I had said to her when I was 12. “When you get old, Granny, I will take care of you myself,” I promised. “I will never put you in a nursing home.” At the time, we had just returned from putting her mother in one, and the memory of leaving my beloved great-granny in that foul-smelling, wretched place haunts me still.
I hung up the phone and asked my new husband, John, if Granny could “stay with us for a few weeks.” To my joy, he replied, “Of course.”
During the next 13 years, the three of us did everything together: went to church, the gym, concerts, museums and even Disneyland, where we rode the Tea Cups. While our thirty-something friends were having children, we had Granny.
Living with us helped her regain much of her confusion, as she was now eating well, exercising and involving herself socially. I returned to performing at colleges across the country and hired a young woman to look after Granny in my absence. John’s office was nearby and life ran smoothly, albeit differently, for a while. In 1983 the National Association for Campus Activities honored me as Campus Entertainer of the Year. When I returned home, I found Granny and John watching basketball on TV and eating ice cream.
Her presence was a gift to us on many levels. As newlyweds we had few possessions. When Granny moved in, we had an entire house! She ameliorated arguments and added levity even without intending to. It was also good for others to see a young couple including an older person in their activities.
In 1990, I made The Guinness Book of Sports Records for being the first person to sing the national anthem at every major league baseball stadium. We celebrated Granny’s 90th birthday at a game of my final team, the San Diego Padres. Our whole family came, but Granny recognized only her brother, son and daughter. The others were a blur. As we left, she even asked, “What was the name of that familiar song you sang tonight, Dear?” The next morning, when I showed her my picture in the newspaper, she had no recollection of being there at all.
We moved from California to New York City and finally settled in Nashville, where I entered Vanderbilt to work on my master’s degree in human development counseling. During finals I gave birth to our daughter. Now we truly had two “babies” at home, though nearly a century was between them. Both wore diapers, took naps and ate mashed bananas. One brightened at the sound of my voice, and the other thought I was the maid. As our own child blossomed, Granny dwindled, then disappeared altogether.
Alzheimer’s did not have the last laugh, though. We did. Her lack of memory meant that we could still tell her every day that it was our birthday, and she would still sing “Happy Birthday” to us.
At 95, Granny Jo passed away at home with us. I shared our story in my book Kissing Tomatoes in the hopes that others would be encouraged to keep their loved ones close as they enter life’s final chapter. Sometimes I look back and think those years might well have been the happiest ones of Granny’s life. Come to think of it, she was a lucky girl, too.
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: JIM MCGUIRE | Illustrations: MERCEDES MCDONALD
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