The funeral procession was very long. She was dressed in black - not the usual choice for this trim woman, known for her distinctive fashions. She walked slowly behind the coffin of the man she loved. A quiet strength and brilliant dignity shone through her sadness. The only word that came to mind was "class."
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a woman with class. But Jackie, one of my heroes, was from an advantaged social class, raised in beautiful homes, educated in the best schools, exposed to luxuries, and material treasures. But the woman I described in the first paragraph quit school and worked illegally at age eleven in order to eat. She was the youngest of eleven children, living without her alcoholic father, who left before she was able to walk. Raised in an overcrowded apartment, life experience was her teacher. This woman's "class" did not come from a social status; she taught me that grace and style were not related to money. Class is a quality that comes from within.
This incredible woman was my grandmother, Jeannette Rose Dooley Follmer. I wrote a poem about her in school last year that won a poetry contest sponsored by the Long Island Alzheimer's Association. I tried to explain to her that her poem won an award, but she no longer understands. Her later years, it seems, will be as difficult as her early ones. Alzheimer's has taken her away from me, but the lessons that she taught me will live on. The woman with class and an unending love for me has had a significant influence on my past and my future. Part of the reason that I want to be a psychologist is to help people whose lives have been turned upside down by such experiences.
She was only sixteen when she met and married an eighteen-year-old man. This was a true love story. They lived to raise four children together, teaching them lessons they had learned. They were devoutly religious and very kind. They moved from a level of barely surviving financially to one of comfort by working very hard, often at two jobs. But as my grandmother became more comfortable, she never forgot what it was like to be needy. She was heartbroken when she saw Geraldo Rivera's story about the terrible conditions at Willowbrook. At the time, my grandmother worked as a telephone operator for the Copiague School District. She decided to collect clothing at the school for the residents. I'm not sure how to describe it. Inner kindness? Inner strength? Maybe I'll just say that she was a woman with remarkable class.
In many ways I was very lucky. I was born after my grandmother retired. She didn't get to see my cousins so all that stored-up love was showered on me. She never missed a dance recital, soccer game, or school play. She didn't mind if I made a mess when we baked brownies; she was my nana. She had a smile and a kind word for everyone. Devastated by the loss of my grandfather, she would curl up with me on the couch and pour over photograph albums, telling me stories about our family.
My grandmother showed me class is about living a good life, working hard, and caring for others. I may have educational, travel, and financial opportunities that my grandmother never had. I only hope that one day I can have as much class.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.