Remembering Grandma Penny

I’m going to take a break today from the Points and the humor to talk a bit about my grandmother, who left this earth this past Easter Sunday.

This is the grandmother that my brother and I knew as Grandma Penny, despite the fact that Penny wasn’t her name. Penny was her nickname because her last name had the word “penne” in it. But, since her father and her brother had the same last name, I had a Grandma Penny, a Great-Uncle Penny, and a Great-Grandpa Penny. My family was weird with names. I never actually knew that Grandpa also went by “Penny” for some years, because we only ever called him Grandpa. He lived with Nina. And for roughly the same number of years I didn’t realize that he was also a Penny, I didn’t realize that “Nina” was the moniker my mother used for her own grandmother which meant that this woman was, in fact, related to me. Until I was ten I just thought Nina was the nice chick who shacked up with my great-grandfather.

Four generations of women in my family. Grandma Penny is the one with dark hair and wicked glasses. Yours truly is in the frilly knickers on her mother's lap.

Grandma Penny was unusual. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1939, and then received a Master’s Degree from Stanford. She taught biology, first at the high school level, where she scandalized the community by teaching sex education, then later as an associate professor at a California university. And she was ultimately the first educator in that university’s history to be given the position of full professor without a PhD. But in that sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful (but in this case wonderful) way that kids have of normalizing their environment, I found nothing unusual in having a grandmother with advanced science degrees who taught at a college. In my young brain, that was just one of the things you did. It wasn’t until much, much later that the enormity of that accomplishment registered with me. And now it doesn’t just register, it amazes.

At her 1939 college graduation.

Although Grandma Penny was a part of my daily life for most of it, one of my clearest young memories of her was when I was seven or so, when we sat at the tiny kitchen table in her apartment and she explained cell biology to me. She always had red and black felt-tipped pens handy, and she illustrated cells and their various structures to me, explained how they divided, and explained how they made up every inch of me in such a way that it made perfect sense – these little building blocks I couldn’t see held together by invisible mortar – to my wee seven-year-old brain.

She explained space, and evolution. She revered exploration and diversity. As the conference chairwoman of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, she managed to lure Fred Haise as the keynote speaker at the San Francisco convention. For those of you who don’t quite recognize that name, he was one of the astronauts on board the Apollo 13 Space Mission. She also managed to pull every string she could pull to get my little brother into the very first Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. He needed to go, so she got him there. Some things were just as simple as that.

With my then newborn son, her first great-grandchild.

With my then newborn son, her first great-grandchild.

Grandma Penny had a series of debilitating strokes in the late 70’s that were life changing. She was severely disabled temporarily, and lived with my family for a while. But she recovered her independence and moved back into her apartment, and eventually even retook the driver’s test and got back her license. But she was changed, she said. She still loved science, she still loved space and exploration, but she told me that the part of her brain that could analyze and dissect had been heavily muted by her strokes. And a more ethereal, more magical sense of wonder had replaced it. A long time fan of science fiction, she became more fond of fantasy and a world where the magic was wielded by wizards spoke to her more than the one where the magic was wielded by scientists.

Somewhere around this time, researching our family history became important to her, and she wrote a detailed and comprehensive genealogy of her parents’ families. She united cousins, second cousins, and second cousins two and three times removed across the country and around the world with her research, and enormous family reunions ensued. She loved it. “I’m just so tickled!” was one of her favorite exclamations.

With her son, my Uncle William.

An amusing fact about my grandmother is that while she loved to craft, she was horrible at it. She had some lovely skill with embroidery, but beyond that, it was only her love of the gifts that she made that rendered them bearable. Still in my childhood treasure-box somewhere is a hot-pink, velvet bound book edged with silver brick-a–brac that she made for me, a miniature version of the family history. It is garish and tacky, but it says “For Lori” right on the front in her familiar, slanted script, and so it stays there in my box.

Some time after her stroke, when she was writing a lot, making cards and crafting, she had a custom stamp made. It’s a heart, with a staff of music waving across it. The notes on the staff, if you were to play them, were the tune “Que Sera, Sera!” and around the outer edge it said, “The gal with the singing heart!” She stamped that stamp on every book, every card, on the envelope of every letter she mailed. It was her slogan, her emblem. “Whatever will be, will be,” was her philosophy after her strokes (it might have been beforehand, but if it was she never told me). She knew that the strokes had taken away a part of her that she had treasured, but, they could have killed her. They could have left her disabled. They did not. The strokes closed some doors, but opened others. She was grateful for those doors, grateful for more time on this earth, full of love for this life, and refused to fret about what was beyond her control. And so “Que Sera, Sera,” from the gal with the singing heart fit her like a glove.

Her departure from us happened slowly. Over years and many, smaller strokes. But even when she couldn’t remember exactly who I was, she’d say happily, “I don’t remember which one you are, but I know you’re one of mine!” Her memory faded, but never her contentment. Her face would light up when you’d visit and you’d be greeted with a hearty, “Hi, honey!” (Even if she wasn’t quite sure which “honey” you were.) She even greeted me that way in the hospital with an oxygen mask on a few years ago when we thought we might lose her to pneumonia. But when I came into the room, the oxygen mask didn’t matter, the “Hi, honey!” did.

She is much the reason I am who I am. She is much of why I set goals so high, I never learned how to set them any differently. She is why my mind thinks so quickly and so analytically, it never learned how to think any other way. And I hope, I truly hope, that her optimism and never-ending wonder at this amazing world we live in is a part of me as integrally and perpetually as it was a part of her.

Those were such wonderful things to bestow upon a grandchild. They are not just gifts, they are a legacy. I loved her immensely, and I will miss her just as much.

13 comments

  1. Lori–That’s a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. As I told your mom, Dan and I have great memories of her when we were all teachers at Modesto High School. Some day I’ll tell you about the best party ever at her place. What always struck me about her was how non-judgmental she was. I can see why que sera sera would fit with her personality. She must have been a fantastic grandmother.

  2. That was a fabulous tribute, well written and full of sincere emotion and adoration. She was my high school biology teacher and a wonderful teacher she was. She was so inspiring through her own love of science. She was always pleasant, never judgmental and always kind. She also gave us your mom, Pat, as a wonderful friend that we made many memories with through Jr. High and High School. You come from a fine line of women and I’m sure you are the same. Thanks for sharing your memories of this awesome woman.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Patti. And yes, I think Grandma Penny may have been one of the most tolerant people I have ever, ever met.

      And I think I come from a long line of fine women too. I hope to do them proud.

  3. Thank you for that wonderful tribute to your grandmother. You’re very lucky to have had her in your life. (You will still have her in your heart. ) My own grandmother was so important to me in my life. You can ‘pay it forward ‘ to your grandchildren. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers. Take care.

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