Lizzie, this one’s for you

Today, New Year’s Eve 2009, would have been my beloved Scottish grandmother’s 101st birthday.

Elizabeth Robertson, “Wee Lizzie” to all who knew and loved her, may have been small in stature but she had the personality and character of a giant.

I often wonder if it was the genes I inherited from Wee Lizzie that brought me to New York. I wasn’t a particularly adventurous child.   Our family had never done Disney.  Family vacations were always to Scotland to visit Lizzie and the rest of the Robertson clan.

Lizzie got her first ten-year passport at age 70, never imagining that she would renew it. But renew it she did.   In her late seventies, she traveled to Orlando on her own for three weeks and did her first and only exercise class.  Lizzie in Lycra and legwarmers must have been a vision.  She traveled to Lourdes, Florida and Turkey and many other destinations in those ten-plus years of being a passport-holder. She continued to regale us with wonderful tales long after her trips ended.

Wee Lizzie passed away at age 93. My biggest regret in life is that I couldn’t get back quickly enough to see her when she fell ill and to be at her funeral (Francesca was still a baby and I couldn’t get a passport for her quickly enough to get home).   The intensity of this regret burned a hole in my heart until I spent some time with it and allowed it to be.   Given my time again, I would have been on the next flight out of New York so that I could have physically said my “goodbyes” to the woman who shaped the person I desperately hope to become.

In reality, wee Lizzie is ever-present in the way my youngest daughter folds her arms and the way she carries herself. Her spirit shines as brightly in death as her personality did in life.

Here are some lessons I learned from the way Lizzie lived her life:

1.   To quote Shakespeare, ” there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Lizzie had an extraordinarily positive outlook on life.  She always saw the best in situations.   She recognised that not everyone had that same outlook on life and was not impressed by those with a glass half-full mentality.  She often commented that “you could carry some folks on your back all day and, at the end of the day, they’d still complain of sore feet” (which sounded like “sare feet” with her beautiful lilting Scottish accent).

2. The importance of laughter.  Whenever you were with Lizzie, it felt like laughter was always imminent.  She had a constant twinkle in her eye and a constant quip at the ready.  She would tell hilariously funny stories and often struggle to finish them as she was laughing so hard herself.  I think my respect and admiration for funny people was born from time spent with her.   Some of my happiest memories are of vacations spent in Scotland with my Granny.  Each visit we would go to the Gaiety Theater in Ayr and see famous Scottish acts such as Johnny Beattie (singing The Glasgow Rap), Andy Stewart (singing “Donald, where’s your troosers”) and The Alexander Brothers.   What was wonderful was that we laughed just as hard when sitting in Lizzie’s living room as we did when being entertained by “real comedians”.

“A day without laughter is a day wasted. ”  ~ Catullus

3.  Character not circumstances shape a life. By all objective standards, Granny had a very hard life.  Partly it was the era she lived in.  Times were much physically harder then than they are now.  Our generation really doesn’t have a clue what life was like for people of our grandparents’ generation.  She worked as a servant for a large estate in Scotland and the work was hard.  Yet, that wasn’t what she dwelled upon.  Even in her role as someone’s servant, she was remarkable.  She forged life-long friendships with the people she “worked” for.

She had a life that was hard and yet she made it a great life. In an era when women didn’t really have any social outlets or expectations, she invited a large number of women to come to her tiny house out in the country when the men were all out drinking in the town.  As all the women left at the end of the night, the bus driver would laugh and say it was like people leaving a theater at the end of the night.  She created a life that reflected her character and not her circumstances.

4.  The importance of gratitude. Wee Lizzie considered herself a very lucky wee woman.  She was grateful for everything – her family, her wonderful daughters-in-law, her friends, her faith (she was one of the most wonderful examples of Catholicism I have ever known), for living to a big age (after she passed 70, she would often comment that she’d had her 3 score years and 10 and so any time from that point on was a gift).   Long before Oprah taught us about gratitude journals, Lizzie was living a life of gratitude.  She loved the residential home where she lived at the very end of her life.   She would tell everyone what  a “lucky wee woman” she was to live there.  Again, character not circumstance.

5.  People – especially children – want to be seen for who they really are. When I was talking to some very close friends about Wee Lizzie recently, one of them said: “Every child wants to have some person who sees who they really are.  I have a hunch that your grandmother was that person for you.”  This resonated with me so strongly.  I did feel truly seen and recognised by Lizzie.  I felt truly loved.  It’s an experience that becomes a part of who you are.

6. Be you. Lizzie was glorious just by being exactly who she was.  She didn’t try to be a good mother or grandmother, she automatically was those things because she was a truly good person and a truly authentic person.  I don’t think that the kind of mother you are defines who you are as a woman but I do think that the kind of woman you are defines who you are in all the other roles in your life.  She had it the right way round.  She was herself.  In everything she did, in every relationship she had.

The psychologist, Alice Miller, interviewed a number of adults about their mothers. Most said “I know that my mother loved me, but …”.   She then spoke to one man who, when asked about his mother, smiled and responded, “my mother loved life.” How powerful is that? That is how I felt about Lizzie, she loved life.

In February 2010, I will be performing my new one woman show, “Mother is a Verb”. It is dedicated to Lizzie.

“Lizzie, this one’s for you.”


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