Sitting on the bench of the Talbots dressing room, my grandmother slowly unties her size-6 shoes, moving her fingers from the worn-out laces only to smooth a few stray hairs that are drifting from her side-part.
Her green eyes steal long glances at the mirror under the fluorescent lights, a place where insecurities set up camp no matter your age.
This doesn’t fit, she says, as she throws a hanger to the side. She doesn’t like her haircut, she says. She needs a different size in these pants, she says, holding them up to me with a half-grin. She smooths her fingers over her wrinkled face, and for a moment, we are just two friends in a dressing room chatting about jeans and sweaters and suntans.
We are separated by nearly 60 years and grew up in starkly different generations, but a part of me really wants to split a bottle of wine with my grandma while watching The Bachelor. A part of me is always bursting with questions about what she thinks about things and how she got here.
My grandma will be 80 years old in June and to me, she’s like this walking Pinterest board. She always knows the right thing to say. She calls me “little one” and “child” and affectionately grabs my lower arm when I tell her about my day.
She makes homemade biscuits and fried chicken and it fills a spot in my soul I never knew I had. She doesn’t believe in the word “can’t,” and she jokingly pokes me if I use it in a sentence. When she tells me “pretty is as pretty does,” I soak it in like I’m hearing it for the first time.
My grandma is altogether strong-willed, wise and beautiful. She’s earned those adjectives through a span of decades, through hardships and triumphs, through ups and downs and through the simple steadiness of living a long time with grace.
Her given name is Dolly Sue Neikirk, but she dropped the Dolly part in grade school after her classmates teased her. She just didn’t like it anymore. Now, she goes by Sue or Mom or Nannie depending on who’s in the room.
She grew up in a poor, tiny Kentucky town called Irvine, one of ten brothers and sisters. She’s always loved learning, but only made it through a few years of high school.
Whenever I think I’ve fully grasped some piece of life, I think about my grandma.
Whenever I start to consider myself wise or resembling a grownup, I think about her story, how much she’s seen and experienced and how many big moments she has saved up in her brain.
I think about her putting on her nicest pantsuit and straightening her shoulders as she walked into a Lexington courthouse. She was 50 and being forced out of a job at a local hospital because of her age. She knew it was wrong, so she did something about it.
I think about her battling cancer. I think about her losing the people she loved the most. I think about the way her face lights up when she tells stories around the breakfast table dating back to when she was my age.
My grandma was never told she could be anything she wanted; there wasn’t a selection of study-abroad programs or fancy internships at her fingertips or a connection to the entirety of the world’s offerings. Her future started to unfold when she met my grandpa and at 17, she was married, had a daughter and my grandpa was far away fighting in a war.
When we dress up in dark suits for career fairs and talk about our grand plans and pretend we’re adults, we’re fooling ourselves a little bit. We’re so young. We’re not grownups and we shouldn’t want to be yet. I don’t really know how life works; I still fumble over can openers.
We’ve only tipped the surface of what being an adult adds up to, of what our life will really be about.
Let’s humbly face that about ourselves. Let’s nudge each other with reminders of how much is unknown, how much is waiting around the corner. And let’s find moments to stand in awe of people who have fully lived, as much as anyone really can, and take notes.