Looking at us, you wouldn’t think my grandmother and I have a lot in common. I’m tall, she’s under five feet and shrinking. I’m downright boyish in build, and she’s got the ample bosom of someone who lived through the Depression and is hoarding it in case of a shortage.
But we’re alike in two significant ways: We both have birthdays this week, and we both love to tell a good story.
A nice thing about sharing your birthday with a woman in her 80s is that when you begin lamenting your ever-augmenting age, you remember that you’re not actually old. She’s old. Like really old.
And with a silver wig on her head, orthotics in her shoes and quite possibly the largest underwear you have never seen in your life, Grandma would be the first to agree.
“My eyes seem to be working for the secret service these days,” she jokes. “Because they’re very careful not to let me know everything that’s going on around me.”
But another advantage to aging alongside Grandma is that she reminds me, in the reflective way she meets each milestone, that life isn’t measured in years. Nor is it quantified in dollars. Or notoriety. Or real estate. Or the number of heads that still turn when you walk down the street.
It’s measured in stories. Rich, real-life tales of risks taken, mistakes made and lessons learned. In recounting the delicious narrative of our lives, we can revive the millions of moments we’ve logged — savoring the sweetest parts and skimming o’er the sour — with every telling.
Grandma has her share of wrinkles, sure, but her tale-telling talent remains utterly uncreased. I relish her stories all year long: the folksy language, dramatic pauses and old-fashioned moral code that sits just below the surface of each one. Some are sad: the bank-robbing father she never knew, the teenage daughter killed by a drunk driver. Some are funny, like the epic account of her work in the shipyard during World War II, when she was secretly — and, she claims, accidentally — engaged to three men. (The victor, my grandfather, was a willing listener and recurring character in her stories for fifty-some years before he died.)
But when our synchronized clocks tick “birthday,” Grandma’s yarns are an especially heartening reminder that age isn’t just a number; it’s a sum. And my favorite of her oral histories are the life’s-what-you-make-it stories spun around her Okalahoma upbringing, when she helped moonshine-making grandparents run a boarding house for weary Dust Bowl travelers.
“We were very poor, but I didn’t know it because we had so much fun laughing and singing and learning how to survive,” says Grandma, who knows from hard times.
Their inn had no gas, electricity or running water, so Grandma had to empty guests’ bedpans and collect “cow chips” from the field to burn on the wood stove. She bathed in a kitchen tub, washing her hair with vinegar.
“The only entertainment for the whole, four-block town, other than church and an occasional funeral, was a movie house that showed a still movie Friday and Saturday nights,” she says with barely a hint of a Farm Belt drawl, “and a medicine show that came to town on the bed of a truck.” One of her greatest childhood joys was doing odd jobs so she could earn enough pennies to buy a Nehi soda-pop from the cold drink case at the gas station down the block.
I may never have such colorful stories to tell of my own life, but I’m lucky to have racked up 35 years of memorable moments just by sitting and listening to hers.
Happy birthday, Grandma.