My Grandmother, My Inspiration
“A grandmother is a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend.”-Author unknown
I recently gave a speech at an entrepreneur conference where I spoke to the crowd about being “the CEO of your life first and foremost.” It is so important to be the best version of yourself, no matter what you have or where you are.
When I reflect back on my own life and the people who have impacted me the most, one person in particular stands out. Her name is Jean Ann Varsalone and she is my grandmother. Jean was not the CEO of a company; in fact, once she married my grandfather Joe, she stopped working altogether. She was the CEO of her LIFE and when I think about the kind of person she was and the leadership skills that she possessed, I know she is the exact kind of woman that I strive to be like. She was my entire world and there is not a minute that I don’t feel her presence with me. I remember her vividly – what her warm hands felt like over mine, the sound of her voice, and how her guidance made me feel. I could go on for days about the qualities her memory evokes, but here are a few of my favorites.
1. She put true love first. My grandparents’ relationship is one that few can hold a candle to. I have yet to find two people more in love until the very end. They were a team, true partners, and I don’t think I can pinpoint a time where there was with one without the other. She showed me by example what a real relationship looks like and her marriage to my grandfather laid a beautiful foundation for a large, happy, Italian-American family.
2. Family was everything. My grandparents’ strong partnership and marriage created a solid foundation for a strong family unit. When my own parents divorced, I was 3 years old. We moved in with my grandparents and immediately my grandmother became a key person in my life. Nan and I had breakfast every morning when I was a young girl. After school I would play outside as she prepared home cooked meals. She defined family, a feeling of home, and the American dream for me.
3. She was respected by everybody. My grandmother never demanded or sought out anyone’s acceptance or approval, but everyone respected her. She didn’t define herself by professional accolades. When she walked into the room, her mere presence commanded respect without titles, awards, or businesses. My grandfather was the one who carried all of the military and community awards and she loved to see him shine. She never tried to be the hero. If she donated money to a charity or lent a helping hand to someone, she did so quietly. She truly did things out of the kindness of her heart and never spoke a word of it. She was as genuine as they come.
4. She never wasted a thing. I have never seen a more resourceful woman in my entire life. For breakfast we would eat hard boiled eggs, grapefruit, and tea, but I was not allowed to throw the waste in the garbage. She would cut up the skin of the grapefruit, crush the eggshells, and even open up the tea bag to make mulch for her garden. Her ability to reuse and recycle anything and everything was remarkable.
5. She told the best stories. When we were teenagers, my best friend Katie and I would sit around the table and talk to her for hours. We told her we had “boyfriends” and she said if they act up, show them to the door. She always offered the wittiest, yet sound advice. She would often quote the song “I will survive.” To this day, I can still hear her voice every time that song comes on.
6. She loved me unconditionally. My grandmother really got me. One day when I was young, I threw a temper tantrum before school. I was feeling overwhelmed with family drama coupled with the typical pressures of middle school. I started crying and I told my grandma no one loved me. She stopped in her tracks, dropped everything, and gave me the biggest hug while telling me that she loved me. That is a moment I will hold onto forever.
7. She was funny. Although my grandfather was the one known for his jokes and razor sharp wit, no one could make me laugh like my grandmother. One time I took her to the nail salon and when I looked up she was gone. I nearly had a nervous breakdown (she was 89 years old at the time). Did she get lost or confused? How did I lose her? I hopped out of the pedicure chair with my feet sopping wet. Just when I was starting to panic, she emerged from the waxing room and informed me that she had told the lady to take care of some whiskers on her chin. I nearly died laughing.
8. She was the disciplinarian . Growing up, I was very well behaved and I hardly ever needed to be disciplined. If my sisters and I ever acted up, Nan would say, “Now don’t make me get the wooden spoon!” and we would immediately stop in our tracks. I never wanted to meet the wooden spoon because I knew it wouldn’t feel good. More importantly, I respected my grandmother and I knew she was a person of her word.
9. She loved the simple life. I never did anything extravagant with my grandmother, yet I always had the best time with her. Aside from one trip to Atlantic City, my fondest childhood memories took place at her home, playing outdoors all day long, and only coming inside for home cooked meals. When I grew older, however, I loved to take her “out on the town” for local day trips to places like the Florida State Fair, the dolphin cruise, or to the nail salon.
When my grandmother passed away, she had not one material possession to leave behind aside from a gold band that she wore on her finger for the 69 years she was married to my grandfather – a band that I cherish and that serves as an important reminder for me.
She remains in my heart every single second of every single day. I still reflect on her ways, her actions, and her beauty when I need to find a piece of calm in my life. More than anything, this is the legacy I want to leave behind for my children when I have them. Like my grandmother, I want to be remembered as family oriented, loving, and most of all an upbeat force in the life of my loved ones.