What Would Leonora Do?

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“What on earth are you doing?” I hear my grandmother Leonora ask me from wherever it is that she resides now. I like to think, and also don’t like to think, that sometimes she is watching me, observing my life from afar. Is she proud of what I am doing, what I have done? Does she understand my choices perhaps more than I do myself? Does she want me to have children? Does she think that I am living a life of sin with my boyfriend, sleeping in the same bed, and still unmarried?

Some people wear bracelets inscribed with “WWJD?” Sometimes I wear an imagined talisman that asks, What Would Leonora Do? Obviously she had a life much different from my own; times were different then. I know that she went to school and became a nurse, a noble profession, yet she did not practice for very long. She met my grandfather, fell in love, settled down, and bore eight children. This kind of life is also noble, in its way. What could be more profound than giving life, what could be more hopeful than engendering a new generation that could perhaps change the world?

Though my grandmother was a housewife, she breathed creativity. Before she had children, she wrote stories. I know that she, even after they were born, created sculptures, knitted afghans. She was a voracious reader; I like to think that my love of the written word began with her. She encouraged her children to pursue artistic endeavors. At one time, nearly all of my mother’s siblings played an instrument; some of them still do. This legacy lives on. One of my uncles is an actor. Another uncle, a kindergarten teacher, used to perform in a band with the fantastic name of The Leopard Set, and still plays guitar and makes up songs for his students. Another uncle is an actor as well, and teaches at a university in Massachusetts. Yet another uncle draws funny, intricate portraits. My aunt is a librarian at an elite high school in Los Angeles. My mother paints, sculpts, sews, and makes jewelry. Nearly everyone in my family likes to sing; my grandfather sang in the church choir every week and one of my uncles does the same.

On the other side of the coin, my grandparents were strict Catholics. All of their children attended the Catholic school a few blocks away from their house in Torrance. The freedom of artistic expression was always tempered by Catholic, old-school beliefs. My mother was not allowed to take a Black man to her prom. My aunt and uncle were, to put it lightly, misunderstood when they came out of the closet. My grandmother’s children definitely gave her a run for her money. Not only is one of my uncles gay, but he is married to a younger Jewish man. Not only is my aunt a lesbian, but she is married to an electrician. Not only did my mother have two children out of wedlock, but with a Black man. Perhaps my grandmother regretted instilling the free, creative life in her children; I’ll never know.

So, on the one hand, I believe that my grandmother is proud of me:  I finally went to college and received a Bachelor’s degree in English, one of her favorite subjects. I am an observer, like she was. But on the other hand, I think my grandmother must be a little overwhelmed and befuddled over some of my actions. I am twenty-eight and still not married, I have no children. I have lived a fast, wild life. I have committed quite a few sins. I have been seduced by the elusive allure of alcohol and cigarettes, the latter of which I am sure she highly disapproves of. Though I was baptized Catholic, I have not been inside of a Catholic church since her funeral.

I wonder if my grandmother respects or understands that though I do not adhere to Catholic beliefs, I do believe in a power higher than myself. I wonder if she is dismayed or buoyed when I occasionally attend service at The Center for Spiritual Living, where the sermon is given by a gay reverend and the accompanying music is performed via bongo drums, guitar, and sung by people wearing flowy, sparkly outfits. I wonder if she laughs, shaking her head, or smiles, happy that I am inside of a church, no matter what kind. I wonder what she is thinking when I meditate or do yoga in my living room.

Though my grandmother was stubborn and set in her ways, which I definitely get from her, she was also a world-traveler. She and my grandfather bicycled around the country for their honeymoon, camping and fishing. They went to Europe, to Hawaii, to countless other places I do not know. I love the image of my conservative grandmother drinking out of a coconut, talking to the locals, wearing a lei. She probably thinks that I should travel more, she probably wishes I would see some of the things that she has seen. I wish that I could tell her that there is nothing I want to do more than just that.

She was a woman of many facets, a woman who had a secret life that I will unfortunately never know anything about. I wonder if she internally agreed with everything that she outwardly believed. This was a woman who attended church every Sunday but who also read steamy Harlequin romance novels at a breakneck pace, her legs crossed as she sat in her favorite chair, right foot swinging wildly as she read.

I wonder if she approves of my choice of the man whom, after countless years of being off and on, I’ve decided to settle down with. I like to think that the smile that radiated from her when she met him the one time at the nursing home, her face opening like a flower, was a signal of her approval. He is, in many ways, like my grandfather. Though he did not go to college like my grandfather, a chemical engineer, he builds things with his hands. He is, in many ways, an old soul. He takes pride in his work, places his family first, lives by a code of honor. He is a good person. He probably wishes I was more like my grandmother:  making dinner every night, doing the washing, tidying up the mess. But I know that he fell in love with me because I am a free, creative spirit, an aspect of myself that sprang from my grandmother’s subtle touch.

Would my grandmother have lived the same life she led if she was born in another time, a time closer to the present day? I can picture her in Africa or India, a nurse as she was then, administering medicine to children with bellies swollen from malnourishment. I can imagine her dancing in a street in the Caribbean to the sound of steel drums, face tilted upward toward the sky. I can see her lying down for the night in a tent, reading a book by the light of her lantern, bed swathed in mosquito netting. Who knows?

“What on earth are you doing?” she says from another realm. Is she saying it warmly, chuckling to herself? Is she saying it in a concerned tone, eyes wide? Does she know where my path will lead, where I am headed? Is she content, seeing my future and what it holds for me? Does she want me to live with abandon, or, most likely, does she want me to rein it in a bit?

I am young, perhaps six years old, and I am staying home from school. I am sick, truly ill and not faking it, as I sometimes did just so I could stay with her. We are watching an old movie on TV, another of her favorite endeavors that has been passed down to me, and I am wrapped up in the multi-colored afghan she knitted. She has made me a milkshake, and I sip it slowly, savoring the sweetness as it slides down my throat. Though I feel terrible, I feel wonderful, comfortable and safe, tucked into our own private little world. I don’t ever want to leave, don’t want the spell to be broken.

I wish you a wild, free life.

8 thoughts on “What Would Leonora Do?

  1. Auntie Susy

    What a beautiful reflection. Thank you for your insights. I believe that your grandma was very proud of you and wants only the best for you – whatever makes you happy, brings you joy. When I came out to her, actually when she dragged me out all she had to say was how much was loved, she wished I hadn’t chosen such a challenging path but also wanted me to be happy. She was a woman of few words and I didn’t always know where I stood but I believe she has seen all of my struggles and my accomplishments and is proud of who I have become. I’m adopting your talisman – WWLD?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Auntie Susy, for sharing this with me! We are so very fortunate to have been raised by such an amazing woman. She created a beautiful family and you are right, as long as we are happy then she is happy. Love you!

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  2. Your loving and understated Grandmother is in every milkshake and afghan that comforts you. Every choice you have made has led you to where you are. She is likely giving herself a pat on the back for inspiring you. I know how much she loved you!

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  3. Mr. K. (King of Kindergarten)

    Beautifully written. You’ve inherited Leonora’s heart and soul!
    Leonora could heal! And she still does!
    To this day, I cannot tell this story without tears: When I was a senior in high school I sat in my room crying. I had just received the proofs of my senoir portrait. At the time I had a wild eye that turned in, causing me embarrassment and self loathing. Lenora found me crying, wanted to know why. I explained to her about my eye and the portrait and how important it was for me to look normal in my senoir picture. Well, she kicked into action. She called the portrait studio, set up an appointment for a retake. We drove to downtown LA and she walked into that studio and directed the photo shoot. She knew instinctively which camera angles accentuated my crazy eye and which angles downplayed it.
    Creative? Yes. Empathetic? Yes. Generous? Yes. Loving? Yes. The list goes on. What would Leonora do is what I, as a kindergarten teacher often ask myself. I do what she would do; lead with my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for saying that I inherited Grandma’s heart and soul, and thank you for sharing the story about your senior portrait, I’d never heard it before! What a lovely thing she did for you! She taught us such an important thing about life — to lead with our hearts. Love you!

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  4. Sis

    Oh, my sister. Thank you for this reflection. I too, often, find myself asking, “What would Leonora do?”. Now that I am a mother, homemaker, and wife, it seems Grandma is forever on my mind. In the myriad tasks that make up my day to day, in the mundane or profound, there are so many questions I want to ask her: What age to wean? Any tips for potty training? Favorite recipe after an exhausting day? Best way to settle a quarrel? How did you make time for yourself?… The list goes on and on.
    I wish she was here to offer her advice, to tell me I’m doing a good job, to tell me it will all be alright.
    In all the joys and worries of childbirth/motherhood/wifedom, I think of her. The scrapes, the tears, the complete chaos, the songs, the smiles, the love. That something that is new and incredible and learned, yet instinctual. My son’s first steps and the sound of his laughter. That complete bliss I felt the first time he spontaneously whispered, “I love you mama”. My daughter’s soul-stirring smile and the sweet smell of her breath. Having such kind, loving stepsons. I like to think that Leonora is a part of those gifts.
    I don’t remember Grandma being a woman of many words. You knew you were in trouble when she gave you that look. I know you know what I’m talking about. I am a woman of few words myself, and my children usually know when to stop doing something just by me giving them a look, something I like to think I inherited from her.
    I never realized how much work being a mother/wife/homemaker was, until I took on the role myself. I have so much respect and awe for her. Eight children? Six boys? How did she do it? With an abundance of love and patience I imagine.
    I believe she is proud of you, of how far you’ve come, and of where you’re going. I know that I am.
    All we can do is keep asking ourselves, “What would Leonora do?”, and whatever the answer, hope that it is our wise, beautiful, talented Grandma guiding us.
    I love you,
    Sissy

    P.S. I don’t remember ever getting any milkshakes…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My beautiful, darling sister! I have no words for this wonderful comment on WWLD, thank you for sharing your absolutely lovely insights and thoughts. I know that Grandma is very proud of you and your journey as an amazing mama, you inherited so many great qualities from our matriarch. Keep loving your children and others as you do; you are keeping Grandma’s legacy alive. Love you to the moon and back!

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