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A Song for my Grandmother, Loretta 1920-2014

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Loretta Meischner
Loretta Meischner

Someone once said, “Sometimes it’s not the quality of the voice that makes the song good, sometimes it’s the road it has traveled to get there.” Well, she almost made it to 100. Had she had a little easier life, she might have lived longer. But 94 is plenty long, unless it is someone you love. I guess its okay to be selfish. Sometimes. i saw this great movie the other day, about these old people and it was called A Song for Marion. Vanessa Redgrave, Terrance Stamp. Jemma Arterton. Just and amazing experience. Tears just poured down my face most of the time and I was ready to be cynical, but it just happened. The chief theme, for me, was this woman’s immovable and great love, which caused he, with her last breath, to help her husband find a way to be happy, give a gift, teach him how to love and live, after she was gone. She wanted to give him this great thing, happiness and a creative outlet, a path to joy. It made me think of what my grandma had done for me and for my daughter, and my mother, and how she got better at giving and helping and supporting as her life went on, and how she became totally unselfish at a time in her life when she could, and how I misunderstood her for so long. About healing old wounds and forgiveness. About love and remembrance.

It has been a long road in my family. Not the road only traveled by me, but the road the women who brought me up and influenced me, have traveled on. That’s where I am to some degree-where they have left me to continue. I think I have a clearer direction of what that is meant to be and how it is important to pass that down, somehow to my children. Now I have children, and they will travel on. That’s family and perpetuity. Crazy, but true. My grandmother was a far better person than I am in many ways. Sometimes, she seemed perfect. I remember her when I was about three or 4, visiting us in Florida. She stepped off the plane, and I saw her approach as we waited in our car, in a black knit suit dress, single strand of pearls, dark red hair swept up off to the side, arched eyebrows, simple and elegant, slim and graceful. I remember her soft tanned skin and her beautiful eyes, and I remember how she smelled. I thought, is this my grandma? A grandma? Not what you’d picture. Loretta. My mother’s mother.

My grandmother passed away August 21, 2014.  She was 94 years old. She had a very full life and liked nothing better than music, singing and dancing, the outdoors. She was born in 1920 to a mother of Bohemian descent and a father of German and Austrian descent. They had twelve children. One died then. My grandmother has outlived nearly all the rest. I think she was like the best kitten in the litter. Everyone wanted that one and they all resented her. As a payroll master of the mines in Coal City, IL they had to scrimp and save. She was quite a woman and he was a very much loved character. I think he loved none of his children better than the resourceful and beautiful Loretta and he loved my mother. He loved me, too. Otto Meischner and Lara Eleanor Sistek, and Loretta Mae Meischner. I never knew her by that name, and there aren’t too many pictures of her from that early on. It is hard to imagine her wild and skinny, a poor child running the hills and hollows of Illinois, by the river. But that is where she grew up and where she always lived. The furthest she went was California, with me. She liked her home and she loved her mother and father.

My grandmother was an extremely beautiful woman all of her life. At 94, she still had the body of an eighteen year-old-hard to believe, but true. Hers was not a life (always) of abstinence, but she would say things like, “I haven’t eaten ALL day, so now I can have a sundae. Do you want a sundae, too?” She was not brought up with very much, so she learned to sew so well, she could look at you, size you up, and whip out a copy of the latest suit or fashion. She had long fingers and they flew! Of course this lent itself to other artistic/creative endeavors, such as playing musical instruments and hairdressing. She could turn your curls onto her fingers and make them just so long and pretty. She was very difficult to deal with at the hairdresser’s. I remember looking at pictures of my mother, when she was little, dressed up in costumes, to the nines, twirling and dancing on the roof like a dervish-a product of her mother’s designs. I thought she was so pretty and professional looking, but my mother hated being made up, sitting still, and being dressed like a doll, but my grandmother would have the prettiest doll. She bragged about my mother’s dancing, was a real stage mother, and took her to classes, as she as a little girl had been unable to afford them, so of course she wanted her own daughter to do the things she wished she could have.My mother wouldn’t cooperate, but she did love to dance and she, also, was good at it.

But that didn’t mean she didn’t learn to dance! She danced incredibly well, was naturally limber and at 89 could still kick the back of her head with her pointed toe. As a little girl, she and her friend would wait outside the dance studio and when the other little girls came out, she would sidle up to them, get them to teach her what they did and how to do many things. Not surprisingly, they were a little peeved when she could do them better! She had an aunt (her mother’s sister) that danced in the theater, and traveled as a dancer with a company. When she was little, that aunt (Mary) invited she and her mother to Chicago to see her perform and it made an impression on my grandmother, who was always active physically and athletically gifted. She taught herself everything, but she knew how to dance properly-I do not really know where she learned it, but she did. Maybe she learned a bit of it from the movies. She would sing, and play guitar and she and her brother would put on little shows with dancing. They ice skated together and swam. She was also a champion swimmer. I guess her father felt she took after him-he spoke twelve languages fluently, did calligraphy and was an unbeaten bicycle racer as well as being very intelligent he had an irascible wit. She was my grandmother. She was a big fan of the movies, so my mother saw just about all of them, and when my grandmother got it into her head that my mother would dance a Spanish variation, she sewed a dress entirely of crepe paper with layers and layers of red skirt which outshone the brightest costume of the event. My mother must have enjoyed it, and was very supportive of me in dance, in a different way. I think she felt she could not be the kind of mother her mother was, and she must have always been living in that shadow. My mother was the best mother for me. I was shocked when my grandmother mailed me, as a teenager, her harem costume, that she had sewn, from the movies, like the ones in La Bayadere and the Nutcracker. It was so authentic, probably from her imagination, but she wore it!

She used her gifts to the best advantage she could. Around her a light shone, and she was happy. Her lack of wealth never stopped her. but she did increase it by careful planning and saving. When my mother passed away in 2009, and after her husband died, my grandmother made a very big move and decided to become a part of our very different family over a thousand miles away. I admit, I had not known my grandma as well as I thought I did. I did not know she had such gumption, was such a lady or was so intelligent. I always though of her as a pretty grandma, but not being mature, did not recognize her sharp intellectual capacities. I did not see her for the person she really was, nor my mother, and my grandmother has helped me to see that. It took this long. A different kind of smart and sharp. Always ready for the new and the pretty, fiercely competitive, and a real survivor. So, for the last five years, she has lived with my family. She seemingly took the place of a much loved grandma, and for me this was helpful in what would have been a very depressing time for me, but it was not always easy for my children, though I think in the end, a good experience. I began to know, really know, and understand my mother’s mother, and my mother in a way I had not been receptive to while growing up. Together, it made getting through my mother’s passing easier for both of us, and we shared our similar grief. We forged ahead, and I learned there is much more to life each decade, and it does not have to stop at fifty or sixty. The picture above is of my grandmother in about 1979. She would have been about 60 years old. That was now almost as long ago. Not quite, but it seems like a long time. That light was never dull-not for a moment! She brought into our home, as much as she could, what she could, spread her love around and was there for us, and I hope we, too were there for her in a way that she needed. She stayed with us and filled to capacity (almost) that void, so intense was she. It was a coincidence, really. She was ornery and mischievous, and she has filled my life with her presence, making things possible that never would have been otherwise, for all of us, but especially my daughter, whom she gave money to start taking ballet lessons. She wanted her to. My mother would have loved that she did that, but she never knew. Each time my daughter had a performance, a costume, or a new step, my grandma would want to see it, share in the excitement and moment of it, and even went to her early classes, gave her corrections.

So, besides bringing my mother into this world, and all of the other things that she has done and accomplished, without her, I would not have been here and developed the appreciation for dance that I have. My mother would not have been the compendium of ballet knowledge that she was and taught me the things she did, a way of looking for things, that she did, and encouraging my own creativity. My daughter would not have probably ever started ballet because we just simply could not afford it. My sons would never have been supportive of it. It’s hard to find the thread, but when following it, it always comes back to her. I hope one day my grandmother’s creative legacy continues and we create a long continuum of dancers, and they will all be there in some small part because of my grandmother’s great gifts and legacy to each of us.

My grandmother was a perfectionist. She did nothing and finished nothing, that was wrong, always right. Every morning every hair was in place, she was always the best person she could be, inside and out. She always wanted my mother to be like her, and my daughter to do things correctly, and she always wanted me to have a better life. It seemed to be her especial gift to always look serene and graceful. She always took great pains to perfect things, to learn things every day, and to make everything around her more beautiful, and those around her, and their productions-whatever it was- paled in comparison. Her haters attributes and hearts were sometimes less, and they resented her- often they were jealous and mean-spirited, even into death, but my grandmother said, “Hooey!” and “That’s a shame!”, but never stopped for a moment to allow their negativity steal her precious moments of happiness. She was always kind and gracious and never said a bad word about anyone. She thought that a waste of time and she went right on, improving herself and making the area around her even more beautiful. She led by example. I truly learned a lot from her actions and her consistency of behavior, but I had no idea she was so tough on the inside. She had real mettle.

Knowing her better has made me understand my mother and myself just a little bit more, and I do not feel so removed from the chain as I once did, now I see how my mother was like my grandmother and how I am a little like them both, and I would not change it for the world. Once upon a time I did not feel that way. I thought myself different, removed, even above it. My grandmother told me right before she passed away that I was beautiful, as though she had always known I had thought I wasn’t. Maybe she wanted me to (finally) know she thought I was or maybe it was the nicest thing she could think of to say besides “I love you!” She said it repeatedly over and over a night or two before she passed. Right up until the end she would not relent. She really lived fully to her last breath. There is a lesson in that for me, and if I can keep up with her, even a bit, then I am going to be fine. But I had better try. She had a true lust for life and loved all of it, and everyone, not just the good. She always learned from the bad, she said, so whenever something did not go well, she changed it, made it better next time, improved it, was nicer-whatever it took. Behind what some people might have thought was an average ability and intelligence was someone who was the most composed fighter-a real champion-that I have ever seen. I hope she has gone to a place where she is free and her spirit is released from the chains of the earth, knowing no bounds. I will always remember her dancing. They say none of us is perfect, but she was living proof that you could try.

I saw a little dragonfly today, buzzing around me and I thought, perhaps her spirit inhabited it. I do not know what made me think of that, but I would like to know she was watching over us all, and doing what she loved and making us remember to do keep trying to do better at it all.



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