It’s been a year, and yet it feels like just yesterday. A year ago this week, my grandmother, my idol, my mentor, my best friend, received her angel wings. She was 95. Through her life, she set the ultimate example of how to live with compassion, humor, and grace. Making the most of every situation, she always viewed the glass half full. I am everything that I am today because of her. And yet, here I sit, wishing I had more time. I had 24 years of memories, which is more than many grandchildren can say. But, I suppose over those 24 years, I began to view my grandmother in an immortal way. She was so encouraging, so influential, and so impactful on my life; she could never die. No amount of time with her would have ever been enough.
To understand my relationship with my grandmother, it’s necessary to go back to the very beginning. Alexandria Kalchuk Frahm was born in Long Island, New York on February 15th 1920. Born the day after Valentines Day, she had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. She had two older brothers who didn’t treat her with the respect that she deserved. Her parents didn’t stand up for her. The times were very different then. When my grandmother graduated from high school, she went to work as an operator at the telephone company. She didn’t have the option to go to college. She had to help put her brother through medical school instead. Though this seems incredibly unfair to us now, it was a very common practice back then. A staunch feminist, I marvel at how far we’ve come since those times, when so few women were given the opportunity to get an education beyond high school. That being said, with the glass ceiling still firmly in tact, I firmly believe we have a long way to go. But that’s beside the point here.
At this point in her life, my grandmother picked up her incredible love for serving others. She was the most selfless person I have ever known, always going the extra mile to make other people happy. I’ve sifted through photos of my grandmother during the 1930s, and boy! She was a looker. Often times, I feel like an old soul. Listening to the Golden Oldies Pandora station at work day after day, I wonder what it would have been like to live during those times. I love the fashions, the music, and the simplicity of human interaction. My grandma told me that when she was a kid, she could go to the movies for a dime; a nickel for the movie and a nickel for food. It was a simple time, prior to iPhones and so many other distractions. I think that my grandma and I would have been friends.
Not married yet at the age of 23, my grandmother was an “old maid,” as her mother would famously call her. I like to believe that my grandmother was ahead of the curve, regarding her marital preferences. She told me before that she wanted to truly establish herself on an individual basis, before she would get married. This idea was very extreme for those times! But, it’s something that is much more accepted now. My grandmother was smarter than she often received credit for, since she never got the opportunity to go to college. I often wonder where she would have gone in her career if she had received higher education. But, that’s water under the bridge now.
Old maid status be damned, at the age of 24, my grandmother would meet my grandfather, Herb Frahm, and become a married woman for the first and only time. In her twilight years, my grandmother would often forget what she had for breakfast. But, she remembered her journey with Herb like it was just yesterday. She would recount how their relationship started with such promise. They went on to have five children; Barry, Jimmy, George, Paul, and one daughter, my mother, Christine. The Frahm name was something to be proud of. But, unfortunately, my grandfather fell off the wagon, and could no longer provide for his family. During this time, my grandma became the sole provider for her brood. She would pull long hours at the telephone company to make sure that she could put food on the table, while my grandfather hit the bottle and struggled to find purpose.
Though these years were hard on my grandmother, I truly believe that through this struggle, she cemented her purpose in life: serving others. No matter what else was going on, with her children, Alexandria Frahm was a fierce lioness, ready to protect and provide at all costs. Eventually, my grandmother divorced my grandfather. In the years after, my grandmother didn’t remarry. She didn’t really date, either. She seemed to reach a new contentment outside of her relationship status, which I always respected. You can define yourself by who you are; you don’t need anyone else. Growing up around that energy made me a strong independent woman, and for that, I’m very grateful. That being said, with an affinity for younger men, my grandmother was a natural flirt. She flirted with everyone and it was a joy to watch her in action.
Flash forward to 1990, when my grandmother encountered one of the biggest challenges in her entire life. Her son Jimmy was dying. Though my grandmother had shown such strength throughout her life, it is during this crisis, I am told, that she truly broke down. Being the fierce protector that she was, I’m sure she would have given anything to save her son. But, sadly he passed away. In a twist of fate, around this same time, I came into the world. I was born in the exact same hospital where my uncle Jimmy died. I can’t imagine the rush of emotions that everyone in my family was feeling at that time. But, I have heard the phrase “god takes one life and gives another,” and I certainly think that applies here. Maybe it was the timing, or maybe it was our matching green eyes. The relationship between my grandmother and I was destined to be something very special.
I was an awkward child. Cross eyed and adorably pudgy, I was not born to be a child model. That being said, looks aside, my grandmother always made me feel like I was the most beautiful girl in the world. I went through a phase, nay pretty much my entire adolescence, when I didn’t understand what calories were. I would eat super size McDonalds fries and a Mcflurry as a snack after school. It was a time of blissful ignorance. Though this was highly enjoyable, it was also highly evident in my marshmallow appearance. But, of course, my grandmother didn’t care. When I entered middle school and got pummeled by mean girls, I felt very alone. But in those moments of loneliness, I would remember that no matter what happened, I had a best friend who would never leave me: my grandmother.
We hung out like best friends. My mom would drop me off at her apartment for the weekend and we would cruise the mall, just like other girls my age would do together. Some people might find this weird, but it was awesome. Where as other girls my age were so focused on popularity, my grandmother taught me that there are far more important things in life than superficial statuses. As an adult, I realize that the kind of priorities we set as adolescents can impact the adult priorities we will have down the line. I am so happy to have my head on straight and I feel for the girls that started on the wrong foot. Popularity is fleeting. If you put your focus on being a good person, your life will be far more fulfilling.
Our favorite restaurant was Denny’s. For years, we would go there and pig out with reckless abandon. But, in high school, I learned what “in moderation” meant, and I tried to modify my gargantuan appetite. Around this time, my grandmother and I went to Denny’s. The waitress came over and asked “What would you like to drink?” Instead of my usual milkshake or sugary soda, I said “Water,” and my grandmother exclaimed “What are you anorexic?!” Our whole side of the restaurant laughed. Eventually, she would come to understand my new eating habits. But, it wasn’t easy for her at first. We still got an ice cream sundae at the end of that meal. Life is about balance.
I will always remember my grandmother for her love of food, especially dessert. She had the biggest sweet tooth I’ve ever encountered. In recent years, I would pick her up for lunch and we would get dessert at the restaurant, then stop at the ice cream shop afterwards. One of my grandmother’s famous phrases was “Eat, you’re on vacation.” When we were actually on vacation together, this was completely true. She hated when someone she loved ordered a salad at any time, but when we were on vacation, salad was a punishable offense. My grandmother consistently preached positive body image to me. She had a way of making everyone feel like a million bucks, always encouraging others to enjoy life 100% with no regrets.
When I had those moments of complaining that I was “fat,” she would be the first person to tell me otherwise and promote my positive qualities. She instilled in me a great sense of self-esteem that I carry with me to this day. When I encounter other friends who didn’t grow up with this positive influence, I feel so fortunate. To succeed in life, self-esteem is incredibly important. As Ru Paul famously puts it, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love anybody else?” My grandmother was my icon of self-esteem, giving me the foundation of confidence to achieve my goals. If I ever feel self-conscious, I hear her voice in my head telling me otherwise, and I push through my insecurities to get to the finish line.
As I shed my baby weight and propelled through high school, my relationship with my grandmother became even stronger. My parents went through a nasty divorce during high school, the aftershocks of which are still felt in my family to this day. In my darkest moments, when I needed pure love, she was always there for me. I am known for being a positive person. That being said, though I wore a happy veneer during high school, my internal emotions were very different. I could not have traversed the different challenges in my life without my grandmother’s love. Additionally, during this time, she would shed new light on my challenges by telling me about her life experiences. Being in her 80s, she had far more knowledge to share than anyone else in my life. I found it incredibly comforting to listen to her stories.
The knowledge of seniors is such an underutilized resource among kids today. Having worked at convalescent homes in the past, I can say that all too often, seniors feel forgotten about. They want someone to talk to, they are ready to share their wisdom, but few people open the door of communication. Through my relationship with my grandmother and other seniors, I have experienced the incredible benefits of talking to older generations and getting the senior perspective on pressing issues. A life’s goal of mine is to show younger generations the power of interacting with members of our senior population. I greatly benefited from my relationship with my grandmother and other seniors in my life. I want others to benefit too.
When I graduated high school, I went off to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I decided to pursue a journalism degree, in part because my grandma and I would always discuss our trashy tabloid magazines over breakfast at Denny’s. She had a part in all major decisions that I’ve made throughout my life. While at school, over the phone, I would update her on my classes, love life, sorority, and extracurricular activities. When I told her that I was going to pursue a broadcast news emphasis within the journalism school, she exclaimed “Oh great! You will be so much better than those other talking heads on TV!” When my first relationship ended, she comforted me by saying “You know I never got to marry Humphrey Bogart either. You’ll find someone else!” She had an incredible ability to relate to everyone in her life, always providing the perfect words of comfort in times of stress.
Four years flew by in a flash, and my grandma, 92 at the time, flew out to Colorado for my graduation. Showing her around the college town that I called home for 4 years, I could tell that she felt regret that she didn’t get the opportunity to go to college. Since she didn’t get to continue her education, my grandmother found an immense love in reading. I never saw her without a book, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical. She always wanted to be learning about something. But, even with her feelings about not going to college, when I graduated, she expressed sincere happiness that I experienced everything that I did. Never jealous, she always applauded the accomplishments of others. Her selfless demeanor never ceased to amaze me.
Following graduation, I debated where I wanted to go next; New York or Los Angeles. New York offered mysterious allure and a booming editorial scene. Los Angeles offered a comfortable home base near my family and a plethora of media opportunities. I ultimately chose Los Angeles, and I’m so happy that I did. From 2012 to 2015, I got three amazing additional years with my grandmother close by. For many Los Angelenos, driving to Santa Monica from downtown LA is “so far,” but I’m different. I regularly drive down to San Diego to see my mother and brother, and when my grandma was alive, the mere thought of seeing her (and the delicious ice cream we would consume) would motivate me to get out the door.
Life is short. Too often do I hear the phrase “I’m so busy” when I ask to hang out with friends. With the convenience of iPhones and other technological advances, we have been hardwired to be lazy. My grandmother had a love hate relationship with technology. On the one hand, she loved selfies, and was amazed at all of the things iPhones could do. On the other hand, though we tried several times, she could never adjust to having a cell phone herself. For her, the most valuable interaction was always done in person. My mom and I would joke all the time that no matter how often we visited her, when we picked her up, my grandma would always exclaim “why don’t you ever visit me?!” My grandmother cherished face time with the people she loved, and I have adopted the same perspective. Life could end tomorrow, and I never want to have regrets that I didn’t enjoy enough time with my friends and family.
My grandmother never stopped giving to others. Outside of her own family, she contributed money to several charity groups over the years. When I would look at her fridge and see the magnets from all of the different organizations that she supported, I couldn’t help but be in awe of her generosity. She was a celebrity within her assisted living center. She would walk through the lobby like she was a presidential candidate in a parade, waving her hand at everyone, and I loved to be a part of the action. Among the many things my grandmother taught me was to enjoy life, period. Life is too short to worry about what everyone else thinks of you. If you love yourself and be yourself, the right people will love you back. The wrong people don’t matter. Once you adopt this attitude, it is very empowering.
In the fall of 2014, my grandmother started showing signs of dementia. I assumed that she would be the first person to live forever. She maintained an overall healthy profile for most of her life. She belonged to an adorable age 50+ organization of women called “The Red Hats Society,” which kept her very active. The only recent hiccup, due to her intense love of sweets, was a “borderline diabetic” diagnosis from her doctor, but she laughed that off and continued to eat ice cream whenever she pleased. The dementia diagnosis caught me off guard because my father had been diagnosed with dementia a few years prior. For the last two years of his life, he couldn’t create full sentences. Once being a successful trial lawyer, his existence must have been torturous in those final years. He was only 73 when he passed away in 2015.
On a beautiful weekend in January 2015, my mom, grandma, and me had one of our classic girls outings in downtown San Juan Capistrano. When I picked her up, I asked “So grandma do you want to go get ice cream today?” and she said “No, I want a glass of wine.” So, we went to a nearby Italian restaurant, and ended up getting wine, pizza, and an ice cream sundae! Life is short, right? We just didn’t realize how limited our time with her was. The next weekend, my grandma landed in the hospital. Apart from my dad passing away the previous October, I hadn’t directly dealt with any other big deaths in my family. I’ve been very fortunate. And this was the one that I had always dreaded. So I rushed over to the hospital and dedicated the week to being by her side, as she had always been there for me. Thankfully, my company was understanding and let me work remotely from the hospital for a few days. It was agonizing. She would have good moments, when it seemed like she was 100% present. Then she would have bad moments when we were convinced we would have to say goodbye at any moment.
Eventually, my grandma made it out of the hospital and back to her assisted living center. It was her birthday month of February and we were doing our best to be optimistic, even with her recent health scare. She had a little over 2 weeks left at home, celebrating her last Valentines Day and most importantly, her last birthday. My mom had a special visit with her on her 95th birthday, bringing cake and making her feel like a princess. My grandmother’s last meal was cake, which is incredibly fitting.
They say that when it’s your time to go, especially in old age, you will see signs. When my grandmother was in the hospital, she kept asking us for specific details from her life. She was reminiscing constantly, which they say is a sign. One night at the hospital, while she was sleeping, she started putting her hands up in the air, doing the motion of what she did with the chords back at the telephone company, so many decades before. Once back at her assisted living facility, ever independent, my grandma had insisted on walking to dinner, even though she had her walker, which she loathed. Unfortunately, this final stand was her last. She took a bad fall and ended up in hospice care.
Though it was a time of immense sadness, there is a moment from my grandmother’s final day that stands out from the rest. My mother leads a busy life as a successful lobbyist. She had to keep up with her work responsibilities as my grandma’s health deteriorated. On the day that my grandma passed, due to the diligent work of our hospice nurse, we had an idea of the time frame in which things would happen. Tears streaming, we had faith that my mom would come through the door in the nick of time. When she finally did, she held my grandmother’s hand and said her final goodbye, moments before she took her last breath. It was one of the most tragically beautiful moments of my life, and everything about it was so indicative of my mother and grandmother’s character. Though my mother is one of the busiest women that I know, she always makes herself available for the important things. I have never felt that she isn’t there for me, even though she has a million other things going on. She knows what matters most is family. My grandmother’s compassionate nature shined through until the very end, as she waited for my mother to get the goodbye she rightfully deserved. They had been best friends too, and it gave my heart immense comfort to see them together one last time.
So, it’s been a year. And yet, it feels like it was just yesterday. So many things make me think of my grandmother. She was such an integral part of my life and over the last year, I have realized how much I am like her. I am her walking legacy and that brings me joy, but it also makes me miss the woman who made me who I am today. In an effort to carry on her legacy, I am currently in the process of legally changing my last name to Frahm, so her name will be with me forever. When we thought about her memorial, we decided to do a “celebration of life” versus a “funeral.” She celebrated every aspect of life as long as she could and she made it very clear in her final years that she didn’t want people to mourn after she was gone. She wanted her loved ones to rejoice, because now the woman who was an angel on earth had become an angel in heaven. So, we put together a celebration of life worthy of royalty, because she was regal in spirit.
I created a playlist for my grandmother’s celebration of life, so our guests who loved Alexandria Frahm could go home and connect with her through music. She loved Hawaii and came with us on many of our family trips to the islands. Her happy place was on the balcony, overlooking the ocean, with a book in hand, and a glass of wine on the side. On this note, I included one of her favorite songs “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole on her playlist. One of my best friends Yurie, who also grew up with my grandma, had her brother play the song live on ukulele at the event. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, because her spirit was so present, it was overwhelming. Since then, I have had many moments where I have felt her spirit beside me. Whether one of her songs comes on Pandora at work, or I get a free dessert while out at dinner, so many different things make me feel her, and connect with her. Though her physical body is gone, her spirit is stronger than ever. So, I suppose in that way, she is immortal after all.