Today is my grandmother, Marge Ryan's 96th birthday.
As I have gotten older, I've spent more time trying to understand how I came to my own view of the world. The more I think about it, the more I have come to understand just how much of who I am today was shaped by the way Marge "Nana" Ryan has lived her life.
Nana was a nurse, who has worked her entire life. A child of the depression, she was the first in her family to leave the farm, the first to go to school, and the first to truly have a career of her own. She married the son of immigrants from Ireland, my grandfather's family so poor that during the depression, Papa played in a band so the family could eat, and stole coal to keep the family's home warm at night.
Like so many of that generation, when my grandfather went to war, she went to work. She developed a fierce independence streak - something I definitely inherited, and when my grandfather returned from war, she continued to work -- something she continues to do today -- volunteering at the same hospital where she was trained nearly 80 years ago.
She worked so they could buy a home, buy a car, and put their kids through college. My mother and late uncle where the first in their family to go to college, and both earning graduate degrees during their lives. My mother became a school teacher, and my Uncle, a talented if not starving theater artist - a life that surely inspired my youngest sister to seek a career in music theater. They were the original two kid, two income, two car, and two career family, focused on that most American of dreams, a better life for their kids.
They were, and she is exceptionally frugal. She's lived in the same home for over 50 years, and she owns cars that she drives into the ground (and yes, she still has her driver's license), She'd even try to play golf with the same 3 golf balls all season.
In fact, when I was in high school, we played the TPC Sawgrass course together. For Nana, the course was way too long for her game, but she trudged on. When we got to 17, she didn't want to play it, fearful of losing one of her season's golf balls. So after promising to replace it if she hit in the water, she tee'd up and hit her 9-wood about 4 feet from the hole, making birdie on the island hole. She probably shot 130 that day, but the car has a 2 on 17!
But what they didn't spend on fancy things, they did spend travelling the world. They went places that their parents couldn't even dream about. Part of her basement to this day is a shrine to some of their travels. Though she'd never admit it, she embodied a true spirit of adventure, going to places so far from the life experience of a midwestern woman from Cabery, IL (pop 266) and Bradley, IL (pop 12,000) that they might as well have gone to the Moon.
She's also learned to persevere through tragedy. She lost her husband, my grandfather, way too early to lung cancer, and buried her only son, my Uncle Bob, who died at 39 from AIDS, a disease that sadly he contracted about five years before the science could catch up. She learned to do things - mow her own lawn, shovel her own snow, and fix things around the house. And while at 96, she has slowed down -- thankfully no longer shoveling snow, she still goes to work at the hospital one day a week, still lives in her own home, still flies out west to see her great grandchildren and remains to this day, fiercely independent.
God willing I will too see 96. Heck, some days I wonder if I'll see 46. But when I think about those attributes in myself that I appreciate (there are plenty I dont!): the value of an education, understanding the importance of hard work, appreciating the role of strong independent women, the need to have a healthy sense of adventure, as well as hopefully a kind heart for those different than us, I realize more than anything how many of those things I see in Marge Ryan's life, and just how fortunate I was to grow up with that example in my life.
Happy Birthday Nana!