Penny was my grandmother.
Here she is:
She was an amazing woman.
In an era where women seldom sought higher education, she graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1939 and then went on to Stanford for her master’s degree.
She taught biology. First at the high-school level and then for the California State University system. 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.
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.
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.
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 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 miss her just as much.