I am a big fan of Oprah’s new show Master Class.  It showcases “modern masters” such as Diane Sawyer and Sidney Poitier as they share some life lessons they have embraced on the path to success.

This weekend my grandmother (aka. Nannie) turned 93.  If anyone deserves to give a Master Class, it’s her. Three years ago,  a few weeks leading up to her 90th birthday, Nannie and I traveled into NYC.  Snuggled in a little sound booth in lower Manhatten, I interviewed Nannie about her life for Storycorps, a donation-base radio program on NPR.

I had not listened to the interview in a while, so yesterday I popped in the CD while cleaning the kitchen.  Once again I became captivated by her story: the death of her mother at 6 years old, being raised during the Depression by her aunt and uncle, meeting my grandfather, their quick war-time wedding in Kansas after he was drafted in 1941, 54 years of marriage, 4 kids, 11 grandchildren, and 15 great grandchildren.  She tells the story of a different time; a simpler time before cell phones, Facebook, and Costco.

Nannie was gracious enough to share some of her secrets to a long and happy life, and I am so grateful to have them recorded in what I now think of as her Master Class:

Let Go Of The Past. Nannie has been dealt her fair share of adversity and heartache, but these are not the memories that live on in her mind.  While she does not complain about it, the years of having my grandfather overseas were undoubtedly difficult.  My mother was born while my grandfather was floating somewhere in the Pacific; he finally got word of her arrival via telegram a month later.  Every day that they were apart, my grandparents wrote letters to each other.   Upon receiving word that my grandfather was in Fort Dix and would be home in a few days, Nannie took all his letters and burned them in the backyard.  She saw his return as a new chapter, and did not want to dwell on the difficult times of being apart. 

Start Fresh. Poppop died when Nannie was only 65; she went on to live another life on her own.  Starting fresh is something Nannie believes in doing every day: “We all make mistakes; just don’t make them again.  Don’t hold a grudge, because each day is a chance to start over and do your best.”

Do What You Have To Do. When Poppop was stationed with the army in Salinas, CA, Nannie and my aunt (then 6 months old) embarked on a week-long train ride across the country to be with him.  Between sharing a sleeper car with a stranger and my aunt rolling off a bench/changing table in Chicago, the trip was not exactly a cruise to the Bahamas.  But she wanted to be with my grandfather, so “you just do what you have to do.”

Make The Best Of It. Not only does Nannie do what needs to be done, but she does it with a good attitude.  While in Salinas they lived in bathroom-less shacks typically reserved for migrant workers. Yet somewhere between trips to the outhouse, Nannie managed to procure some tennis rackets and organized tennis tournaments with the other military families.  “We sang, held dances, made recordings…you just kept busy.”

Keep Moving. I rarely see Nannie sit.  Even in her 90’s, she can scrub a bathtub more efficiently than Mr. Clean himself.  She is always looking for something to do: “Give me a job,” she says.  In the last year or so Nannie has been diagnosed with spinal stenosis; standing for long periods of time is now impossible.  So now she sits in her chair and irons.  And man, can she iron. 

Have Fun. When I asked Nannie what she loved about dating Poppop, she said: “He didn’t just sit around, we did things.  He had a car and we would go to the movies, down the shore, or to dances.  A lot of boys just wanted to sit around, but he wanted to have fun.” My 5 year old Emma considers Nannie her best friend.  When I asked her why, she explained, “Well, because we have breakfast in bed, and she helps me build forts and play dolls…and she’s 92, which is the same number as my school bus, #92….she’s just super fun.  She makes me feel good.”

Find Your People: Whether it be in kindergarten, on an Army base or working for the telephone company, Nannie always found her tribe.  Her positive attitude and desire to live in the moment has created a community of loyal travelers and lifelong friends.

Home Is Where Your Heart Is: When my grandfather’s health began to decline, he and Nannie began spending the winters in a warmer climate.  One year they were driving home to NJ from Arizona, and they received invitations from friends from Texas and Kansas to stop and visit on their way.  In order to determine their next destination, my grandmother (a gambler) proposed writing “Kansas,” “Texas,” and “Home” on three different slips of paper and picking out of a hat.  Knowing that my grandfather was not feeling well but was too proud to admit it, she secretly wrote “Home” on all three slips.  Wherever he was happiest was where she wanted to be.

Always Hold the Door: Nannie met Poppop when she was walking downtown on her lunch break from her job as a telephone operator, and noticed my grandfather – a delivery boy at a bakery – struggling with a large tray of goodies.  So she held the door…and that was that.

Happy Birthday Nan!  Thank you for being my teacher through your inspiring example.  I love you.

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