In the last couple of years of her life my Grandma Mac had become legally blind due to the effects of cataracts and glaucoma. But no such physical burden seemed too great for her to endure. At least that’s the way she continued to project her hard outer shell. Heaven help the friend or relative that would try to offer her sympathy or pity. The return of a stern look and stiff upper lip from Grandma Mac would tell the well-intentioned soul that he or she had just crossed the line from welcomed kindness to unwelcome charity. Grandma Mac would have none of it.
Despite a growing number of ailments and disabilities, Grandma Mac still lived alone in the Breezy Point bungalow after my Grandpa McCarthy passed away, as she proudly and stubbornly refused to relinquish her independence. She even continued to walk the several blocks to the local store each week to do her grocery shopping. Reluctantly, as a matter of pragmatism, she had to rely on other people for a few things, like the grocery store manager who had to escort her through the aisles and select items from the shelf that she could no longer see herself. During her weekly walk to the market, she also had to ask a stranger to help her cross a busy intersection near the store as she could not make out the changes of the traffic lights any longer. She hated that.
In the last story I remember her telling me personally, she described how on one particlular day she had asked two young women at the intersection to help her cross the street, informing them she was blind. Unusual for Breezy Point, though perhaps not for the changing times, the women inexplicably scoffed at her, ignoring and refusing her request. At the time Mrs. Mac was 85 years old, walked with a cane and was legally blind. But she proudly told me, “I gave those women a piece of my mind. I said they should be ashamed of themselves for being too inconsiderate to help an old blind lady cross the street. I told them I hoped and prayed that their own mothers or even they themselves would be treated more kindly in their own time of needs.” She said she stood there sternly as the women walked off. Typical Grandma Mac, I thought. But, after a pause, she added, “Then I began to cry.” Not so typical.
Jean McCarthy had lived 85 years through some extremely tough times and had rightly earned the thick skin and stiff upper lip that she was known for. But even Grandma Mac was entitled to grow old, become a bit tired, and let down her guard. She was, after all, only human. My mom often recalled how in those last few years of her mother’s life she finally began to notice that Grandma Mac really was a mere 4’10” tall after all, no longer appearing as the mammoth presence her grand persona projected. Sad but true. Fortunately we know that the spirit of her presence lives on.
Grandma Mac was the perfect antithesis to Grandpa Tony, and together they provided a great study in contrast for those of us in the family to learn from. As a family we were fortunate that three of our four grandparents lived well into their late 80’s before passing on. We all continued to learn a lot from their experiences and the great stories they told, as well as the ones they themselves created. Even in their waning years of life and old age I was always impressed that they each managed to carry on with the spirit of their personas, of who they were. Grandpa Tony still broke the ice with strangers using the quick joke and a warm smile. And Grandma Mac stayed proud, independent and tough as nails.
In my own life, I found myself predominantly following the softer, lighter tendencies of Grandpa Tony, the super Nice Guy. It seemed to come somewhat naturally and was reinforced by so many influential role models for me. Of course, I never came close to having the childhood adversity that Grandma Mac had endured, so I never had the need to develop that kind of tough outer shell. But I was smart enough to watch and learn from my grandmother’s ways, and to put a little bit of that “tough old Irish broad” in my hip pocket. After all, in a world filled with so many Nasty Guys, you never know when you might have to rely on a good old-fashioned dose of Grandma Mac.