A family legacy of books

Thursday will be my grandmother’s 94th birthday. The women on that side of the family tend toward longevity, but my grandmother is exceptional.

A few months back my aunt gave her an old cell phone with WhatsApp capabilities. She’d never had such a device before. Within weeks she was sending my mom long strings of emojis, gifs, and forwarding photos. It’s been a boon because her hearing is too poor to call anyone anymore, and though she battles a bit with the keyboard it’s given her a new way to keep in touch. Every day she and my mom exchange good morning messages and updates.

A few months before the cell phone, my grandmother was bothered by a branch. She still goes outside to feed the birds every day, and this one branch was becoming an issue. My aunt was going to have someone in to take care of it. My grandmother was too impatient for that, so she went to my grandfather’s old tool shed, got a hand saw, and my aunt came by to see her 93-year-old mother sawing away at this branch. She succeeded.

We worry about her, of course. You don’t reach 94 without some health issues cropping up. But she is always pulled together and never panicky. She gets right back up and continues with her routines, which include feeding the birds, reading, and listening to Maria Callas recordings. Up until the last 2 or 3 years she didn’t even have in-home medical carers. Now she does, and they swap WhatsApp messages so they can show my grandmother pictures of their children.

My grandmother is indomitable without being overbearing in the least. She is a steady, persevering force that continues onward doing the things that make her happy. We should all be so lucky to end up in a similar state.

There’s sixty years separating us, and she’s seen so much. Her younger sister died in the global flu epidemics of the 1920s. She herself was part of the WWII effort, part of the crew that kept guns on Table Mountain trained on the sea in case some Axis powers wandered that far south. Her favorite meals included beer and sopping up meat juices with bread. She worked, when working wasn’t something mothers were supposed to do. She and my grandfather made sure their two daughters had money put away for university–not weddings, university–and were cool with the ‘dirty hippie’ friends my mom and her sister brought home. She never tried to fit in to what society wanted, she did–and does–what she wants.

She has always been the strongest one, and no one is surprised that she’s still here.

The two of us.

A 4-year-old me and my grandmother.

I don’t have many photos of the two of us, because I grew up an ocean away. We stayed connected through phone calls and small boxes stuffed with even smaller presents, many of which I still have. My grandmother loves miniatures, and so does my mom, and so do I. I have a bunch of small glass animals, ceramic boxes, and other knick-knacks that I can’t bear to part with.

Perhaps the most important part of my inheritance from my grandmother is a love of books. It’s something she passed down to her kids and got passed down to me. I think it’s been in the family for generations, going all the way back to William Hone. Hone was a political satirist in the 1800s in England, and he actually won a massive court battle against government censorship. His writings are preserved and studied.

His daughter, Emma, left England alone at eighteen to go to South Africa. She wrote extensive letters to her family which have since been put in a museum and compiled into a printed book. She wrote about things like getting the captain of her ship to teach her how to navigate by the stars.

Emma was a missionary and an agent of colonialism, which is absolutely terrible and not something I’m proud of. I think it’s all the more impressive that within a few generations my grandmother was so progressive. She protested the institution of apartheid and always voted against it. (Thanks to gerrymandering, those votes never made much impact. Americans, take note!) Her views are still very modern, for which I’m grateful, because it helped lay the foundation for me to go even further.

My grandparents’ house has always been full of books. They have enough to have their own library. Fiction, nonfiction, comic collections, it’s all beloved. My grandmother’s been working to sort and sell or donate a lot of my grandfather’s part of the collection but there are still so many.  My mom always had something to read growing up, and she made sure I had the same experience.

Literacy is a treasured heirloom I hope to live up to. I want to publish and be read widely. I want to inculcate that love of books in even more young readers.

(And if they grow up to protest government censorship, more’s the better! We’ll have come full circle.)

Today I’m going to look through my printed books for any my grandmother might like. I’d love to get ebooks on her new phone. I know she would love to keep expanding her horizons.

Happy 94th, Granny Joy. You inspire me, and I’m proud to know you.


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