What Lucy Taught Me

Grandma Lucy died Saturday night, 94 years old. Her story needs to be told. It is about community, about hope and all about living. The importance of what I am about to share cannot be overstated. In a world where we seldom seem to know what to do with our elders and where there are more stories about abuse and neglect, this is one to give us hope in the power of sharing.


I met Lucy about eight years ago, and at the time, I had no idea of the impact that she would have on me and my community of friends and family. At the time, she was living in a house that she had been in for 30+ years. However, three years later, her husband died and our family was left with the hard decision of how to help her move on to the next phase of her life. At the time, she was merely 88 and it was amazing to witness her strength.


During that year, I had just sold my restaurant and my wife and I were looking for a place to live in the Twin Cities. It just so happened, that her parents were also looking for somewhere to stay while they were in Minneapolis. It was decided that we should all search for housing together. This decision was actually fairly easy to make. We were all independent and able-bodied and, if we pooled our resources, we could afford a nice house. However, the impact that it would have on all of our lives would surprise us up until the very end of her life.

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First, imagine someone who was a teenager during the Great Depression moving in with you. The idea was hard to fathom. At first, I thought that we might not connect, being so different. I could not have been more wrong. It did not matter that Lucy was in a different part of the house; it just made sense to involve her in as much as possible. She did the same for us. Our laundry would magically be done and folded. Gardens suddenly were free of weeds. Dishes appeared on our countertops cleaner than I imagined possible. Our newborn son spent everyday having stories read to him and being held by her strong hands.


We contributed by cooking for her. After all, anyone who has had to cook for themselves for any extended period of time finds that it is not always terribly rewarding or fun, especially when you have become used to cooking for family for over 70 years. We invited her in to our meals with the trepidation that comes from the wonder of how pad thai and curries would sit with someone who had only four spices in her kitchen. It was amazing to see her openness to our way of life and food. She was actually excited to see what strange things we would put in front of her. I cannot recall how many times we had to explain to her what daal was. “Doll” she would say. “What do I do with it?” Sushi was even worse. We must have had it 20 times and every time she would say. Sushi? I’ve never had this before. It never failed that after every meal, she would express endless gratitude. The following day she would come back full of questions, but always excited and ready to learn because she had never eaten better in her life and she knew it.


After about a year, we began to notice something rather amazing: her health and energy level were higher than ever. At 89, Lucy was having a renaissance of sorts and her friends and relatives were telling us how happy she seemed. Was it seeing her great grandson every day, the variety of healthy food, the comfort of family? Yes, but there was more. See, it was not just what we gave to her, but also what she could do for us. Nothing could have made her happier than feeling that she had purpose in life and could contribute to our community.


One of the contributions was her stories. Around the dinner table-or while playing cards and dominoes afterwards-she would tell us about life during the depression and during war time. It was not the stuff of history books, but of hard work. Lucy was involved in every aspect of creating a home from the garden and kitchen to helping with construction (she told us she was in charge of saving and straightening old nails once). She told us stories of birthing her children in the house they had built when it was over 100 degrees and I began to notice that every story spoke of strength, despite her humility.


Are you still wondering why I am telling you all of this?


The importance of having four generations under one roof is still revealing itself to me every day. Here is what I know for sure.

  1. My son knew his great-grandma well and has absolutely no awkwardness around older generations. He so loved her that if she missed a meal at our large family dining table, he would be visibly sad. The importance of having everyone sitting together around the table for dinner was amazing. It was a time when we all let go of the day’s tasks and laughed, shared stories, and checked in with each other. It was a time to celebrate the Earth and all that it gave us. It was a time to simply be together without distractions. I am confident that the importance of the family dinner cannot be understated.
  2. My life was changed for the better. Sharing a home with a large family taught me the importance of respecting our differences. Each of the six of us living in this house had something unique to contribute. With all of these different abilities at work, our quality of life was high. The trick was that we did not focus on our differences as boundaries, like so many families these days, but instead played off of each others strengths to enhance our lives.
  3. Life is easier with many hands. Paying the bills, child care, cooking a meal, all become simpler when you are not alone. Anyone who has done much cooking knows that it does not take too much more time to cook for six than it does for one (and dishes sure get done a lot faster in a full house). I remember the sense of surprise expressed by many of my friends when I told them that I would be moving into a community house with parents and a grandmother. They were so busy worrying about privacy and space and ideological differences that they failed to see the benefits of what to me was a “team.” In the end of her life, so many of my friends showed up to help Lucy, or just to hang out with her, that it still brings me to tears to think about how she brought all of us together.
  4. Lucy had the best time of her life. Really. On her death bed, she told us that the past  five years with us had been the happiest of her whole life. Remember, she was 94. If this does not give us hope that there are other ways than the nursing home and the isolation that so many elderly face, than nothing will.

The last thing Lucy told me was how much she enjoyed watching me work, raise my children and care for our garden. She went on and on about my potatoes, beans and especially the radishes. Lucy sure did love a good radish. I never would have known any of this had we taken the “easy” way out and decided to live on our own. My son surely would not have seen the humanity and joy of caring for our elders. More importantly, I may never have learned the importance of keeping those you love close and sharing life, ugly or beautiful, with them. 


Please pass this message on. Invite your elders over for dinner. Make peace. Put aside unimportant differences and enjoy the time you have, together. Not for me or for Lucy, but for you and your family.


None of this would have been possible had it not been for the amazing support of our community of healers. I would personally like to thank everyone, from accupunture to nursing to hospice care specialists, who were there when we needed advice and education. If anyone reading this has any further questions or needs resources, feel free to email me and I will share some information about the wonderful communtiy surrounding us with their wisdom about living and dying.

Lawrence Black is a writer, managing editor and owner of 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at