For my grandma, Joan Acker

My grandma died earlier this summer. Here is what I read at her memorial.

I figured I should say something about my grandma today because, while she was a lot of things to a lot of people, she wasn’t a grandma to a lot of girls. She had three sons and only one of them had any kids and up until about a year ago, I was the only female inheritor of any of her genetic material. Because of my grandma being the person she was, I would say the experience of being her female relative was distinct from that of being her son, or her grandson.

As a grandma, Joan Acker wasn’t perfect. She made pretty solidly terrible cookies every Christmas and she called every single member of my family fat at least once.

But she was also an amazing grandma. She was a constant champion for me, for my voice and my autonomy from when I was very young. She taught me how to say the pledge of allegiance and the Girl Scout promise without the God parts, gave me the confidence to frequently and loudly proclaim that I was an atheist in public spaces when I was under the age of 10.

When I was in middle school and got an unsatisfactory grade in citizenship, because I talked too much, she told that was just because I was a girl and it made the teachers uncomfortable when a girl spoke up. So I kept talking.

In high school, my grandma wrote letters on my behalf to the Children’s Miracle Network and I don’t even know who else, when I decided the Mr. Spartan Pageant–a show put on by the coolest senior boys–should be gender integrated because I wanted to be in it. No one in my school joined my movement, no other kids supported me, I got laughed at, bullied and told over and over again that girls aren’t funny. But my grandma believed in me, even if the whole idea of addressing gender politics in a Corvallis high school in the nineties, in hindsight, seems destined for failure.

A few months before my grandma died, we were sitting in her room. It was hard to talk to her then, which you might know. She got skinnier and skinnier–which to be honest would have been the one positive she probably would have taken from her last couple years. Every time I saw her she was more frail, her skin was seemed thinner. But, I don’t know why, for some reason she asked what I was working on and I told her, because I wanted to impress her even then, that I was working on a big story about a powerful man raping young women. And she said, “Oh, they’re still doing that?”

It occurred to me at that moment there were so many things about the experience of being a woman in the world that my grandma and I had never and will never discuss.

I’m so grateful that I had my grandma for 33 years of my life, but I feel like just now I am old enough to begin to maybe understand her and it’s just now that I have enough experience to know the questions I want to ask her. I’m sad that there’s still so much I don’t know about who she was, what she loved, who she loved, the things about her that aren’t accounted for in the great work she did for women, for the world and for me.

My grandma didn’t go in for anything very spiritual, as far as I can tell. And in fact, probably the best April Fools joke I ever pulled was on her, was when I was in college in Portland and I emailed her and told her I was converting to Catholicism. I went to class and when I got out I had a panicked voice mail message saying, “Don’t do anything drastic before you talk to me Lizzy. I can be up there by tonight.”

She later told me I was the first person to April Fools her in 70 years.

She definitely didn’t believe in God or an afterlife and would probably be kind of annoyed that I even mentioned those things at all, because just mentioning them gives them some sort of importance they don’t deserve.

What I should really say is: my grandma is dead. And it’s sad but, she would probably agree, it’s inevitable. Luckily though, because of her, I have my dad who is, if science could prove this I am sure it would, the most exceptional father in the world. I have my uncles and my brother and my niece Rosie. And I exist, with the voice she helped me discover and protect.

I love my grandma. I miss her. And I was very, very lucky to be born her granddaughter.