Grammy Lill’s Chicken Soup
My Grammy Lill was one of my favorite people in the world for all of my life. Born in 1913 or 1914, no one knows for sure, she probably belonged in a different time. Tough, loving, smart, capable, and fiercely independent, I loved spending time with her. She was the one that passed on her early-to-rise gene to me so when she would stay over on holidays, it was always me and her up with sun, chatting about anything, just enjoying each other while the rest of the house slept. I loved her spark. I can remember as a child being mesmerized by her energy and power. She just had “something,” and it always drew me to her. Looking back, it was a combination, a perfect storm of multiple character traits making her special and extraordinary, with a rare versatility for a person of her generation, let alone her gender.
Opportunity was very differently defined for a woman of my grandmother’s age. Learn to be a wife and a mother and marry the man they picked for you. But boxes of old pictures and long, lost letters to her twin sister tell an opposite story, a story of a brave, bold young woman, seeking adventure and loving to play. By the time she was my Grammy Lill, the escape to New York City as a twenty-year-old from a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, seemed impossible. The dances, the parties, the cruises, preserved in black-and-white, all tucked safely into her memory and only cajoled out when she allowed herself to slip into those magical moments of reflection and longing. Perhaps they were painful in some sense, so long ago, so young ago, so healthy ago. Perhaps keeping them tucked away like an old keepsake protected her, no, protected them, and kept a pilot light glowing, just in case.
College was across the country for me, so our bond was kept close by our calls and my visits between semesters. We had a routine, me and Grammy Lill, and it was the best. Homemade root beer floats slurped noisily in her sitting room, while she kicked my butt in Rummy 500 with the tv on in the background. I can still see her glowing skin that she so meticulously tended to in her long and careful morning makeup sessions. Her hair was always perfect and beautiful, having aged white, not gray, it would be angelic with the light behind her. Being fair-skinned, she drew her eyebrows each day in front of her “beauty mirror” and asked if they were straight. One was always higher than the other, representing the mental work she constantly engaged in, and as a granddaughter, I never had the courage to say they weren’t perfect. See, to me, they were. As was she. As was her love for me. Tears join me again as I type and her love flows through me, with me, like always, even though her body has been gone for two decades.
In between sips of root beer and a deficit in my Rummy column, a weekend sport event was on tv. Not paying much attention, Gram continued to whip me handily and smile cleverly. So competitive. At one point, both our attentions were grabbed by an interview of Olympic ice skater, Peggy Fleming. An icon in grace and beauty, Grammy Lill was transfixed immediately. It was a lifetime since her gold medal, her presence had simply matured. The man with the microphone asked her what winning a gold medal had meant to her. An impossible question, I thought, and one that sets the scene for inauthenticity and jargon. But not for Peggy Fleming, her answer flowed from a different place. “I believe that everyone is the best at something, and I was lucky enough to discover what my something was.” Boom. Silence in the middle of an earthquake. I looked at my Gram and could see the parallel impact on her. “What are you the best at, Gram?” I asked and then waited. A long pause, a distant look in her eyes for a moment, and then her magical smile took over her beautiful face, “Chicken soup!” she exclaimed. We both burst into laughter and I jumped up and rushed to hug her, letting her love and passion for her excellence envelop me.
Grammy Lill’s chicken soup is famous in our family and it truly was the best thing in the world. Being Jewish, it was part culture, part tradition, and certainly part healing. Secretly, the best part of getting sick was chicken soup. I can remember asking my mom to dial for me so I could call Grammy and tell her I was sick. Her response was indescribable. Her excitement was wonderful, “Well, I will make you chicken soup right now,” and you could hear the pots clanking in the background. “I will be over right away. You just stay tucked in bed and I will be there before you know it.” She lived a half an hour away and the soup took hours, but it didn’t matter, her love was already there.
“The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why,” Mark Twain. In 2011, I met Dr. Jim Loehr and learned the true power of purpose. Sport psychologist turned corporate trainer, Jim pressed hard on two otherwise untapped issues: the body is business relevant, and your purpose in life is your greatest source of energy. He calls it “getting home.” We are all trying to find our way home in the middle of a storm, with pressures constantly pushing us off course. Sometimes, we get lost for years, but that doesn’t matter because home is always there, just waiting for you to rediscover it. Re-discover it. As I learned his material and way and was mentored to teach his “Ultimate Mission” to the masses, a pattern became clear. Somewhere along the road, we all forget why we are here…in other words, we all lose sight of home. It is at this point that the confusion sets in as we discover we are lost and need to get back on track, urgently. You know what I am talking about, the seemingly unanswerable question to self of what is my “why”? Is it this? Could it be that? Should it be that? What about so-and-so’s why and how much more important it is than mine? In the words of Grammy Lill, “Oy vey!”
Teaching someone to write or declare their purpose in life is ridiculous when you think about it. Take this pen and pad and commit to it your deepest, darkest desire for yourself as a human being as part of this collective universe. Okay, so that was a bit dramatic, but the frozen faces as I set them off on this confronting task were consistent across a decade. The struggle is real and pervasive. Writing down what you declare as your purpose in life is mountainous. I have done it countless times with multiple iterations and versions, with each one provoking the same fear in my pen: “what if I can’t?” But this is the wrong question. The true question is more like, “what if I can?” It is the connection to our power that scares us more…and secretly. And this is why I love my Grammy Lill’s answer of chicken soup. Taking care of us was her purpose, where she was home. It was pure self-expression and passion, and it gave her more meaning and value than she could ever calculate. It wasn’t saving the world or forging a path to peace on Earth, it was for me or my sisters or my brother, her family, her loves. And that was her world and made all the difference in it. That is finding home, finding that place that is not about you but sourced from you and in a way you just can’t contain. It creates that feeling of belonging, worth, contribution, and most importantly, connection. When you are home, everyone is invited.
We are somehow stuck in the idea that our purpose has to be this gargantuan task with enormous repercussions and impact. This is where we fall into the trap of “what if I can’t?” Every time I told the story of Grammy Lill and being the best at making chicken soup to a room full of very important executives, the frozen faces would soften, defrost, and realize that sometimes the simplest act or expression is the most powerful. These tender beings, all wanting to contribute and connect, were instantly given permission to re-discover that feeling, that essence, that motion of purpose that drives us home. For me, it was home every day, like in my Gram’s sitting room with a parlor glass in my hand and a smile all over my body. As you read this, perhaps your journey “home” is coming into light or even a new light. Jim talks about the two navigational coordinates in life that are necessary to know in order to get home: where we are now and where we are going. You have to know them both to be on course. It is the best kind of work, re-discovering these places, so if you haven’t been there in a while, consider a visit soon.