Remembering Grandma, her advocacy and her stubbornness

The most tense exchange I had with my grandma was when I was deciding where to apply to college. She wanted me to go to art school.

“You’re talented,” she insisted. “You should go to school and hone your skill.”

“I’m not going,” I countered. “Art will always be there for me. I want to do something else.”

What was that something else? I didn’t know yet.

It was an unpleasant and ongoing argument between us in the year leading up to college decisions. That’s what being a teenager is though, right? Asserting independence and locking horns at times with people I love and respect in order to come fully into my own. It wasn’t lost on me that the situation is typically reversed — the young person stubbornly insisting on getting a degree in the arts, the adults around them urging something more pragmatic.

My grandma was stubborn, though. She kept on me with her view even when I was clear on mine.

She stubbornly lived into her 90s until late last week, when she died peacefully in her sleep. For her, it — death — was a relief she had been talking up for years. I mean years. The fact that she kept going in life for so long was a simple testament to her will; not to live but maybe more to stay the course. She made our business her business, in the best way; up to speed on what her family was up to and how we were doing.


I’d get on the phone with her, she’d confide that “getting old is for the birds,” and tell me she loved my laugh. Then she’d catch me up on all the cousins and their whereabouts/activities. She often knew family news well before I did.

I knew Grandma as a world traveler. The home she shared with my grandpa was rich with relics of where they’d traveled. He had a map with shiny red-tipped pins blurring the world, indicating where they’d adventured together.

Their travel was a generation and resources away from my version. They were able to do lots of guided tours. They went in, as the expression goes, “comfort” until at some point their ability to travel well waned and instead they settled into their home, full of knickknacks and art that were coveted at varying levels by me and my cousins.

(That wooden dish. The stuffed animal giraffe. The cityscape).

But their curiosity, openness and intrepid commitment to seeing the world exposed me early to the idea that there was a place to explore beyond where I grew up in Massachusetts.

When I decided to go to school in New York City and major in urban studies, my grandma finally let the art school argument go. She seemed sad about it, like something she was begrudgingly giving up on. Not that she was giving up on me, but a dream she had for me.

I went to NYC for some years, and ultimately moved to Alaska.

“Alaska!” She breathed. “I can’t understand wanting to live there, but I will never forget the flowers in Anchorage. There were so many of them! They were gorgeous.”

Whenever we talked about life in Alaska, she kvelled — Yiddish for mooned over — about the “flowahs,” East Coast for flowers. I noticed them for the first time thanks to her.

They are, indeed, beautiful.

She, like others in my family, would note my outdoor exploits and lovingly tease me that they weren’t sure where I came from.

When I was trying out a stint of van life with my husband last year, I called her from the road. “You enjoy that?!” She asked, not even trying to hide her incredulity. “Living in a van?!”

“Yes,” I said, feebly, not sure what else to say. It was like trying to translate my experience and love of something into a different language, but in English. I couldn’t find a way.

I tried: “Wes and I are loving this. We want to move into a phase of our lives where we have more freedom, and this could enable us to do that. We’re having a blast.”

She gave me a trademark, “Well,” in response. That was it, just a “Well,” with a hint of a question at the end, but mostly resignation coupled with grudging benefit of the doubt that my strange tastes might actually make me happy.

“You’re good kids,” she would say, about my generation of our family. “You’re keepahs. A little strange, but we love you.”

Grandma’s message on the side of the Mobile Art Studio I picked up earlier this year, a bold life move toward enabling that freer lifestyle my husband and I imagine for ourselves, said simply “Drive carefully. Love, grandma.”

In the end, when it comes to my life, she won and I won. I’m pursuing art in earnest, just taking a different path than she wanted. Maybe I inherited some of that stubbornness, too.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.