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My Definition of Strength

For a long time, I had felt like a house of cards—unstable and weak. I felt very lost. I was swimming in a sea of confusion, always against the tide. Then, I got to know the woman who pulled me up out of the water and saved me.


My grandmother, Tillie, was a short, frail woman with a thin frame. She had a ball of white, wispy hair upon her head, like a mess of untamed clouds. She had the appearance of a small, dainty, elderly woman who would invite you in for tea, but her personality was quite opposite.


I rarely ever saw Grandma without a piece of chocolate, a cigarette, or a whiskey in her hand – sometimes a combination of all three. This was a humorous contrast to the soft, comfy (more often than not, bright pink) sweaters she would always wear. She didn’t care what she looked like. She didn’t have much of a filter; if you messed up, she wasn’t afraid to let you know. Grandma was brutally honest. Some saw this as rude, but she felt like she was doing you a favor; she told you exactly how she felt, and you never had to wonder if she really meant what she said.


But as quickly as she would tell me if I was doing something stupid, she would also tell me what an amazing granddaughter I was. Grandma was honest about everything, including how much she loved me. To her, family was everything. She loved her family, even if she showed it in a unique way.


Grandma didn’t have great first impressions on people. Her voice could come off as harsh and accusing.

Sometimes, I felt ashamed to go out in public with her because she was so impolite to people.


“Grandma,” I would quietly say to her, tugging on her shirt as she scolded the waitress who got my order wrong. “Be nice…”


One time, my whole family went to South Dakota for Christmas. We had lots of extended family there because that’s where my Grandma grew up. On that December night, our house was alive. The air was warm from over forty people being in a fifteen-hundred square foot house. Even though it was freezing outside, our hearts were still warm.


I hardly knew anyone at the party. Everyone was either someone I had never met or I didn’t remember, simply a distant face in my nine-year old memory. I would just smile and hug whoever I saw as they told me how big I was getting. I stuck to my mom and my grandma like a shadow. I didn’t want to be without them, left to fend for myself in maze of unknown faces.


Of course, Grandma spent most of her time in the kitchen, telling everyone how to cook the right way.
“Betty, add a little more salt to that… Jesus, I said a little…Now, mix them together… No, not like that… Here, let me show you.”


And that would go on and on. But I watched Grandma with an admiring, respectful glow in my eyes. If only I could be as bold and decisive as she was. People looked to her for leadership and for guidance; I always blended in with the crowd. Grandma knew what she was doing.


At one point during the night, I saw my mom and Grandma talking quietly to each other in the corner. They looked suspicious. I tried to discreetly listen to what they were saying, but the party was loud, and they were excellent whisperers.


Finally, after what seemed like ages, my mom left, and Grandma came over to me and said, “Grab your coat, we’re going for a walk.” My little mind was confused. A walk? At night, in the freezing cold? But I knew better than to challenge Grandma.


As soon as we stepped outside, a chill set into my bones. South Dakota winters were cold. All the snow made it look like a white blanket had been laid over the ground; everything was covered. But I walked beside Grandma down the driveway, with the full moon lighting our path. We were both silent. I held my breath. Was I in trouble? Was something wrong? I grew more anxious with each passing second.


Finally, Grandma said, “You know, your mom was telling me that you’ve been trying to make more friends at school by buying them all Christmas presents.”


Immediately, I sighed and hung my head. My mom was a snitch! “I just want everyone at school to like me…” I tried to explain. “Some kids in my class don’t like me, and it’s hard to make friends.” I hoped Grandma would understand. The last thing I wanted was for her to think I was a terrible, weak human being!


My Grandma sighed. “I know it’s hard.” My head whipped towards Grandma. I was shocked! I’d expected her to be ashamed, even mad at me for being such a coward. I was practically trying to buy my friends’ affection by giving them gifts. But she seemed to understand. This was a side of Grandma I had yet to encounter.


“Let me tell you something. Sometimes, in life, people aren’t going to like you – I know a lot of people who don’t like me!” Grandma chuckled to herself, “and you just have to accept that. I know that seems hard. But you can’t live your whole life trying to please others. Let me tell you, that doesn’t work. There’ll always be someone who doesn’t like you.”


I slowly nodded… I’d never known Grandma to be like this.


“It doesn’t matter what other people think of you. What matters is what you think of yourself,” Grandma said.
As I thought about it, I realized she was right. I spent a lot of time worrying about what my friends would think about me and how to make them happy. I spent more time doing that than worrying about myself. I looked at my Grandma and gave her a grateful smile as I tightly hugged her.


Then was when I realized that people’s opinions of me shouldn’t determine how I live my life. My grandma taught me a valuable lesson not only that day, but with the rest of her life. She showed me what being your own person really meant. About a month ago, my grandma passed away. But throughout my life, she will always remain the prime example of what being strong truly means. She taught me how to be my own person and to not let other people stop me from living my life without anyone holding me back.




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