Today is Julia Child’s 100th birthday. I’ll be completely honest, I don’t know too much about her personally, at least not enough to recount it off the top of my head (and I’m too lazy to do a lot of Wikipedia research), but I’ve always liked her. I don’t know if it was her unique, enthusiastic voice, the crazy delicious food she cooked along with her guests, or the weird sense of familiarity I get every time I see her face, but I just like her.
I think a lot of it stems from my grandma. I mean, I don’t think she and Julia Child had an awful lot in common (other than both being uncommonly tall women – did you know Julia was 6′ 2″? – who played basketball in school). I mean, no offense to my grandmother, but she wasn’t exactly known as the best cook. I mean, passable (and I loved her Russian tea cakes), but certainly not a gourmet. But, as I mentioned in my Facebook status earlier today, some of my earliest television memories are of Julia Child as I sat on the brown shag carpet in my grandma’s living room, leaning up against my grandma’s shins as she moved between engagement and quiet dozing in the early afternoon. I think that’s why, whenever I think of or see Julia Child, this wonderful, warm and familiar feeling passes over me, and since my grandma passed, a little pang in my chest.
I spent a lot of time with my grandma growing up (my grandpa, too). They lived just up the road from us for a lot of my childhood and frequently babysat me. Grandma had a really strong personality, and as I got older, I could feel pretty disenchanted by her, her opinions, and her criticism. But that doesn’t discount what she contributed to me as a person and how much I loved her (a lot). And years after our little spats, a lot of it seems kind of funny (“Why didn’t you use condoms?” was a frequently asked question when I turned up pregnant with E. at 19. I had a pretty great answer that I won’t share here – save the hubs the embarrassment – that she accepted, if a bit sheepishly). In reality, she afforded me something she didn’t really give anyone else: Listening. I knew that if she had a problem, if I could calmly and rationally explain my feelings and reasoning to her, I wouldn’t hear about it again. There were few other adults in my family that I felt I could deal with in that manner.
But any negatives aside, she was a very positive force in my life. She was a smart woman. A reader. Attentive. She cared immensely about school and education and pushed me very hard to do well and was thrilled to acknowledge my hard work and achievements. It’s something her own family pushed, something she and my grandfather ingrained on their children (my dad and aunt). Being smart and well-educated is important, and I had darn well better know it and do it.
Even when she losing a very hard fought battle with cancer she wanted to know how college was going for me. During my last visit with her before she passed, I showed her my Practicum portfolio. I had brought it with me not realizing quite how bad off Grandma would be when we showed up. She could barely speak, spent most of her day in an armchair in the living room, and barely ate. She sat and watched E. play and the TV. For whatever reason, my portfolio was out in the living room and she spotted it out of the corner of her eye. With barely a whisper she asked to see my portfolio.
Now, the thing you need to know about Practicum portfolios is that they’re huge. Months of work, your own and students, along with a full unit’s worth of lesson plans, products, and explanations are compiled into one massive binder. It’s intense and not really something fun to browse unless you’re really into that kind of stuff.
She looked at every freaking page. She listened to my explanations, nodding her head, smiling, patting my hand here and there. I felt so happy that I could show this to her, to show her how hard I’ve been working, and it felt good to know, though by the time we were done she didn’t even have the energy to say it, that she was proud of me. I am immensely relieved and happy that this is part of my last visit with my grandmother, because it pretty much sums up our relationship. She and I both take education seriously. I love school, she loved that I love school – it is a huge part of who I am largely because of the emphasis she put on it.
When I think of my grandma, I feel a mix of happy and sad, as I think most people do when someone they love a great deal has died. I am happy to have had her in my life, to have known her, to have heard her stories, and gained some small part of her into my psyche as well as my DNA. But I am often, especially of late, struck with an overwhelming sadness that she is not still here. I feel a bit robbed, because we all expected her to basically go on forever, she was just that kind of person.
She missed my college graduation, E. starting preschool (and just being so damn smart, my 40 lbs. weight-loss (she was a bit of a health nut), and the purchase of our first house. And she’s missing this pregnancy, the making of her second great-grandkid. I think this time she would have worried less about the use of condoms
When I hear about Julia Child, when I read about her, the celebration of her life, I cannot help but think of my grandma. I know I said before that I could not think of what exactly the two have in common, but perhaps they have more in common than I had originally thought. There is something about the women of that generation that led to great personal strength and a wonderful about of intelligence and ingenuity. Julia pioneered the concept of the television chef, making delicious delicacies accessible to every housewife in America. My grandmother had her own pioneering to do, encouraging herself and her second generation American children to be better, even the best, among their waspy peers. At her job (an elementary school gym teacher), she pioneered the jump rope program (which I participated in as a young kid at the same elementary school), encouraging boys who thought it was a silly, all-girl activity, by showing them films of the provocative and controversial boxer, Muhammed Ali jumping rope as a part of his training.
In her own small way, she made her own changes to the world around her.