Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2024

Learning from my grandma’s positive outlook

By GABRIEL LESSER | September 12, 2023



Lesser reflects on feeling inspired by and learning from his grandma’s joyful approach to life.

Last summer, while working with patients with Parkinson’s disease, I noticed one elderly patient who was incredibly nervous about her upcoming mobility test. Right before beginning her exam, she stared ahead at the large digital clock in the room. When she saw that the time was 12:14 p.m., she immediately relaxed her shoulders and let out a deep sigh. Tears gently welled up in her eyes as she became filled with emotion, radiating comfort and relief.

She then explained the importance of the number 1214 — that it was a part of the address of her childhood home. She told me how whenever she saw these numbers, she immediately thought of her mom and sister. Seeing these numbers on the clock made her feel safe. She said that she could breathe calmly now. She said that she felt like her mom and sister were watching down on her to ensure that she was protected and to inform her that everything would work out.

I’ve never been a very superstitious person myself, but I look back fondly at this story as a reminder that even when a loved one is not physically with us anymore, they still remain a part of us. Whether that be through the memories we carry, the signs we see or the emotions we feel, we hold onto our loved ones eternally.

When I think about this story, I’m inspired by my grandma — my vovó tata — who, in her last few years, had mobility issues herself, but never let her physical situation impact her positive outlook on life. Despite not being able to walk long distances and being mostly wheelchair-bound in her last few years, she would always say, “One day, I’m still going to go run on the beach.” 

She always had a playful perspective and an endless joie de vivre, regardless of her circumstances. Even when the pandemic began, my grandma maintained her everlasting enthusiasm. Despite the need to socially isolate, she continued working as a psychologist by speaking to patients over the phone, and she kept herself connected and entertained by communicating on WhatsApp and playing games on her iPad (with Spider Solitaire being her all-time favorite). 

During the peak of social distancing, I remember calling her to tell her that I had baked a cheesecake for the first time; she responded by excitedly asking me to keep a piece in the freezer for the next time she visited. She even jokingly suggested that I ship it to her in Brazil.

My grandma had a clever imagination and was quick-witted, in the sense that she could naturally come up with a humorous response to any comment, and it was bound to put a smile on your face. More recently, when I was flying to Buenos Aires on a school trip, she said to me on FaceTime, “Make sure to wave at me when the plane flies over Rio!” 

When my grandma was in the hospital in her last couple of months, she was still looking at the cup as half full. She would make small talk with the nurses, and she even taught them the Yiddish word kratz, meaning “scratch” when she wanted a scratch on the back. Whether it was from the nurses, her children or her grandchildren, my grandma always loved her kratz.

Most recently, I think fondly back to how my grandma would call me meu ruivinho as a term of endearment, meaning “my little redhead.” While I never considered myself a redhead, I began growing a beard last year, and she was amazed that my beard had grown with a natural yet uniquely red tinge. I’d pick up the phone to video call her, and no matter what, she’d warmly pick up by saying, “Meu ruivinho, como você tá?” (My little redhead, how are you?). As I visited her during her last few weeks, I’d see her face light up in wonder as she questioned how it was possible that she had a supposedly “redheaded” grandchild. What I loved most about this was that no matter how many times she had seen my beard, she always felt the same sense of joyful astonishment.

In my last conversation with my grandmother, her final greeting to me was gingy, meaning redhead in Hebrew (to which I chuckled in amazement). When she couldn’t think of the word “ruivinho” in Portuguese that day, she was able to utilize her multilingual brain to recall the word “gingy.” No matter what, she always found a way to get her point across. She was consistent.

To this day, I’m inspired by my grandma’s intelligence, charisma, warmth and humor. When she was discharged from the hospital and made it home, the first thing she said (after greeting my grandpa) was, “Did you get me a present? Where’s my chocolate cake?”

When she passed, I started looking back at our old WhatsApp text conversations, cherishing every caring Shabbat Shalom paragraph, every boa viagem (bon voyage) and every você já chegou em casa? (have you made it home yet?), even when I was thousands of miles away. These messages were all classics from my vovó, who truly embraced her identity as a loving Jewish grandmother. I found comfort revisiting our conversations, and I smiled when looking back at her elaborate use of emojis — there were times when she’d send five hearts, followed by five-heart eyes and five exclamation points.

I miss my vovó dearly, and her absence is unexplainable. I wish I could pick up the phone right now and FaceTime her, or better yet, that I could fly to Rio and be greeted by her in her apartment. Nevertheless, I know that my vovó remains with me through the memories, the photos, and the signs. I keep learning from her wisdom every day, and whenever life throws me an obstacle, I think about how she would approach situations with poise, patience and positivity. I hope to carry with me her sense of humor, her easygoing attitude toward life, and her creative and imaginative outlook on the world.

Saudades vovó, te amo muito.

Gabriel Lesser is a senior from Westchester, N.Y., studying Neuroscience and Romance Languages. His column explores his memories along with his current reflections and the lessons that he has learned.

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