How Grandma made her life a work of art



Two parts reverence, one part mischief. That’s how I’d sum up my grandma, whose name – Elinor Marcella – captures her mix of poise and playfulness.

She raised five kids with a kind of 1950s ease: neck bows and neatly coiffed hair, family dinners and at-home haircuts, playing Bud & Travis on the record playing and zipping around town in a Ford LTD station wagon.

Grandma died this week – two days shy of her 90th birthday – and we are left to distill her remarkable life, turning memories in our minds, scanning slides frozen in time. It’s 1972 and she’s standing at Glacier National Park, a gold scarf tied around her dark hair. It’s 1992 and she’s playing Solitaire in the porch, greeting all who come and go. It’s 2022 and she’s in the party room of the condo, cooing over her newest great grandbaby.

There was always a twinkle in her eye – a spark of recognition, a sense of fun. She wanted kids to be kids. Her own inner child was alive and well; up until her final weeks, she’d request a corner piece of cake covered in frosting.

You could count on Grandma to be your cheerleader. She saw your special gifts and believed in them.

She never sought the spotlight but preferred her supporting role – keeping books for her husband’s business, keeping house, keeping it all together. She never sang the melody but always found a harmony, enhancing the other singers.

She took certain fundamentals seriously – her Catholic faith, the sacrament of reconciliation, marriage, education – but wasn’t afraid to take her own approach on all the less-crucial stuff. Reverence and mischief.

Her OB-GYN was strict about weight gain, so she’d schedule her appointments for first thing in the morning and then indulge in a hot fudge sundae on the way home. In her 70s and 80s, when she’d meet girlfriends for lunch, they’d ditch the main course and cut straight to dessert.

Grandma deferred to Grandpa but quietly wielded influence, calling to mind the quote in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” – “The man is the head [of the house], but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.”

Grandpa preferred to drink 2 percent milk, but skim milk seemed healthier and cost less in the ’60s, so Grandma poured skim milk into 2-percent cartons. The head doesn’t always realize when the neck subtly turns.

Her love of beauty led her to become an artist in her own right – the kind of quiet, resourceful one who makes a house a home, who makes memories and makes gifts: embroidering personalized shirts for her children, sketching their portraits, crafting whimsical Christmas cards, painting porcelain dolls for each granddaughter in the color of their birthstones.

Those twinkling eyes never missed flashes of beauty. She’d relish a sunset or a pair of earrings or a beautifully wrapped gift, setting it on display for days before opening it and occasionally re-wrapping it afterwards.

In her final days, I gave her an early Easter gift wrapped in watercolor florals. She was near death and speaking very little, but she admired it as only Grandma could.

Her Easter came early this year, skipping the second half of Lent and cutting straight to dessert, her heavenly home.

The rest of us honor her memory when we slow down and soak up the beauty in our midst, sensing – if not fully grasping – that it points us to God.

Grandma lived out the words from St. John Paul II’s letter to artists, who wrote that “all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

She painted nine decades with such vibrance and joy. Masterpiece, indeed.

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.