My grandmother, Joan Carolyn Shuda, was born on May 1st, 1937. Today would be her birthday.

She passed away on January 8, 2009 when she was 71 and I was in sixth grade. Shortly before I was born, she underwent a highly experimental treatment for cancer that saved her life and allowed her to be part of my life for 12 years.

I decided to make some time today to remember and honor her. Here are some of the comforting memories and qualities I remember about her that I carry with me.

My grandmother.

She was dedicated to her community and to advocacy work.

She was devoted to people. She had one sister, married once, and had two children and six grandchildren. She was a passionate Christian, mother and grandmother. Throughout my childhood, she would call multiple times per week and would talk to my mom and I each for hours. She was active in church and was the president of an art society.

She fought and conquered four separate occurrences of breast cancer. Throughout her life she devoted time and resources to support others with cancer. I remember watching my grandfather ride in the American Cancer Society Bike-a-thon in Philadelphia every year.

As someone focused on building and finding community, as well as finding my voice in advocacy, I appreciate her example. She was engaged, connected, and respected, and I hope to follow in her footsteps.

Living in Boston.

My grandmother received a BFA from Boston University and became an art teacher and a professional artist, specializing in pen and ink and watercolors. My mother is also an artist.

She and my grandfather met at Park Street Church in Boston. My family attended church there the Easter after she passed away. I used to walk by the church every morning before work. I feel a strong connection to that building and to Boston as the place she began her career and her family.

I am a self-taught photographer, and one of the first places I started taking photos and learning about photography was Boston. My grandmother used to take many photos that she would later paint from, and my grandfather gave me her film camera when she passed. I like to think I follow in the creative footsteps of my grandmother and my mother, using my own medium.

Boston Garden, 1960.

Memories made in New Jersey.

My grandmother grew up in Audubon, New Jersey. She later lived in New York and Massachusetts, and eventually returned to New Jersey.

Whenever we visited, I would sleep on a blow-up mattress in my grandmother’s art studio, surrounded by photos, paintings, and drawings. She had two large filing cabinets filled with art, papers, and journals. This was such a special place for me.

She used to keep a jar full of encouraging sayings in her kitchen, all on purple and green papers. I would always be excited to pick one out when we would visit her. Now, I place quotes all over the place as encouragement.

She had many items containing lavender around her home. Now, I surround myself with the scent of lavender.

Every time my family would visit, we would take day trips to Amish country. My brother and I would wander between the handmade sheds pretending they were our tiny houses, and getting soft pretzels. I love soft pretzels to this day and can’t pass one up.

In the summer, we would drive from my grandparent’s house to Cape May for a day. My grandmother’s sister used to work at a store downtown, and she owned a tiny beach house that formerly belonged to their parents. It had an outdoor shower in the back, and we would walk back to the tiny house after playing at the beach and rinse off. I also remember the beautiful pink flowers growing everywhere, and the feeling of the sun. That was one of my happy places as a child.

Her camera.

When my grandparents visited us.

I remember my grandparents driving from New Jersey to Massachusetts to visit us. They always stopped at the same deli in Connecticut, Rein’s Deli, and they always brought leftovers that would end up in our fridge. My dad and I started going to the same deli on the way to and from my college in Hartford.

My grandmother would often paint at our kitchen table. One time, she painted my brother and I each an animal. She painted me a fox.

My grandparents would sleep in the guest room above our family’s garage when they visited. The room would smell like her perfume for days after they left. It was a strong, slightly musty, and comforting smell. Although it is not the same scent, I take comfort in a slightly musty amber perfume I put on every morning. I have found that scents like lavender and perfumes can be incredibly comforting and produce memories.

Her name.

Recently, I realized how powerful my grandmother’s name is. It now has a special meaning to me. Her name was Joan Carolyn. Joan means “God is gracious” and Carolyn means “joy.” My mother carries her middle name, and it is also my partner’s name. The first word that comes to mind to describe my grandmother is “grace,” and to find out that was the meaning of her name was incredible.

I am still exploring my faith and my connection to names, especially biblical ones, as I consider having children in the future. I believe names are gifts and that they are not a coincidence. The meaning of my grandmother’s name is powerful for me, and the fact that I have people in my life who share her name is special.

Moving forward.

When I was in elementary school, I had a tape recorder and made all of my family members, including my grandmother, participate in interviews. I have those tapes somewhere and hope to preserve them. They were silly questions, but I am happy I was able to preserve her voice and presence in some way.

I regret that I cannot know my maternal grandmother today and share my life with her. I wish I knew more about her, and I hope to be able to talk more about her with my mother. I now have a strong connection with my paternal grandmother and do not take that for granted. She actually knew my other grandmother well and recently told me she drove her to and from chemo a few times.

I am so thankful I knew my maternal grandmother for twelve years and have so many comforting memories of her to carry with me. I hope to be half the woman she was someday.

Featured image from @tim_arterbury.

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