Sweet Grandma Jen

by D.J. Vanas © 2007
News From Indian Country

I was traveling down lucky Highway 13 along Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin into the community of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Along the highway, I saw a small grandma walking with a purpose, almost marching. In the flash a few seconds gives, I saw curly snow-white hair and she was gone.

After reaching my hotel room later that evening I turned on the TV. As I flipped around, I saw a program done by the state of Wisconsin that honored citizens making a difference so I decided to watch. They had a feature on a small grandma with snow-white, curly hair and a childlike twinkle in her eyes – it was the same woman I'd seen on the roadside! I found out her name was Grandma Jen and she was a legend in her own time.

As her life story unfolded on the television, I learned she was born in 1920, married in 1945 but lost her husband only fourteen years later. Struggling as a single mother, she made a decision to get her college degree in Indian Art. She used these skills to teach others in her community traditional crafts, language and heritage. Later she went on and got her Master’s degree. The next day, I spoke at a community program and was surprised and honored with an unexpected gift. I got to meet this wonderful woman who was truly a leader by example, part grandma, part artist, part warrior, part teacher and all heart.

Grandma Jen is the kind of elder I want to be when I grow up because she’s:

Focused – She looks at life as a gift each and every day, focusing on the good in life and the world around her. She’s kept her eye on what she most wanted and has worked her whole life to realize it. Grandma Jen was a pioneer as a Native, single mother getting her education because she was focused on giving her children a better life. She was tenacious in her next goal of getting a Masters degree. She stayed focused and never quit, finally attaining her goal at age 74. She knows it’s never too late to fulfill a dream.

Fit – Years ago, a doctor told Grandma Jen that she had a condition that would cause her pain for the rest of her life. True to form, she refused to accept defeat in the diagnosis and instead went outside to walk. Each day, she walked farther. At the end of the month, she had no more pain and has been walking every day since. Grandma Jen understands you “use it or lose it” and that fitness of any kind, at any level, is truly medicine to our bodies. She gets the healing power of her daily walks along the shores and roads along Lake Superior. At 87 years old, she’s full of life and energy, proving this point.

Free – Grandma Jen has had a life of ups and downs. Though she’s had many victories, she’s dealt with racism, the death of loved ones, poverty, illness and much, much more. However, you can tell Grandma Jen walks lightly in this world, unburdened by carrying the baggage of pain, regret or anger that so many of us carry. She is free of these by choice and free to enjoy the blessings life offers us each day. Maybe this is what true wisdom really is in the end.

Fun – Because she’s focused, fit and free, Grandma Jen is a fun person to be around. During my community program, Grandma Jen was my anchor. I looked out into the crowd and was so tickled to watch her smile, laugh, poke the person next to her, nod her head in agreement and do all the things that strengthen you when you speak in front of others. She glowed in her brightly colored floral shirt and seems to be one of those special spirits that realizes life is too good to miss. After all, isn’t life supposed to be unconditionally enjoyed? Grandma Jen is leading by example, not telling us how to live our precious lives, but showing us instead.

At the end of the program, I signed a book to Grandma Jen with a heartfelt inscription. She looked at it smiling widely and leaned over the table, put her hand around my neck and kissed my cheek – she sent my spirit soaring to the clouds and my smile running ear to ear! I lost both sets of my grandparents many years ago, but found that familiar warmth and connection with Grandma Jen. She is a grandma to the whole Red Cliff community – and for that day, she was mine too.

D.J. Eagle Bear Vanas (Odawa) is a nationally acclaimed motivational storyteller, success coach and the author of the celebrated book, The Tiny Warrior: A Path to Personal Discovery & Achievement and audio CD series The Warrior Within. D.J. uses traditional warrior concepts and wisdom to inspire people to achieve their best in life, school and career and owns Native Discovery Inc., a company dedicated to “building the warriors of tomorrow… today.” He can be reached at (719) 282-7747 or at http://www.nativediscovery.com