08/10/2010 01:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Woman I Never Knew

Growing up, my grandmother always seemed like this distant, strong figure that I wasn't privy to know. She lived in Iowa, while my family resided in Pennsylvania. I felt such a disconnect that I even called her Grandma Cetta. Cetta being her last name.

Every summer we would visit her for a month in July. I would watch her as she walked through her garden, pulling weeds, killing bugs and small rodents with no hesitation, tending to her favorite rose bushes, dirt caked under her nails, a sense of immense satisfaction on her face.

We didn't say much more to one another than, "good morning" and "good night", but I wanted a relationship with her desperately. I just had no idea how. I lived so far away, and these months together seemed far and few between, with much of her time being out in the garden and my time being at the community pool up the road.

As I got a little older, I started paying attention to more of her habits. She was unbelievably artistic, an amazing cook and seamstress, and incredibly intelligent. My Grandma Cetta never talked much about her life and I never questioned much about her. She was extremely private, never complained about anything, and rarely expressed emotion. In fact, many of the stories that I discovered about Grandma Cetta I learned through my mother.

Her life was interesting from the beginning. She was born February 6, 1915 as a twin, but her brother was over 10 pounds and a still-born. They didn't even know she existed until they sent her mother home, with my Grandma Cetta still inside. When she was born, the nuns that took care of her could fit her in the palm of their hands. They kept her in a shoebox at the home and fed her sweetened condensed milk through an eye-dropper. No one expected her to live.

Well, live she did. She was self-reliant, fiercely independent, and her own woman. Growing up in abject poverty didn't stop her from having adventures as a young, single woman. Instead of following the rules of society and getting married and having children after high school like most women of her time, Grandma Cetta decided to put herself through nursing school.

She moved to Arizona, and began her nursing career taking care of women and children on a Native American reservation. I remember at the age of 14, she gave me a turquoise ring from her times there. I relished in this tiny trinket. I felt like she had opened her world to me and given me a gift; a link to her energy, her spirit, her past. The few stories she told me about her travels there showed me what a compassionate woman she was. She was an advocate for those less fortunate, for women, and always shared what little she had.

She continued her journey by serving her country in Europe as a First Lieutenant in the 91st General Hospital Division of the U.S. Army from 1943-1946. Here, she met my grandfather, Tony Cetta, who was one of the wounded, during a card game where he had won a lot of money. She made a lasting first impression by taking his gambling winnings out of his hands and giving them to the charity, instead. Their relationship grew strong and evolved through the months she spent with him, taking care of him while he recovered, and they eventually married when my Grandma Cetta was 33.

After she passed in May, 2006, I remember being in her bedroom, taking in her scent, looking at her photos on the nightstand, trying to find ways to connect with this woman that I now, as an adult, wanted to know. Feeling it was too late, I sat on the edge of her bed, dejected, frustrated, feeling lost.

But then, I noticed an old brown album sitting on the floor. Could this be what I had been looking for all these years? A way to humanize this woman who seemed so other-worldly and far from me? As I opened the pages of the photo album, tears welled into my eyes. Here she was. The woman I had never known.

The pages were filled with photos of my grandma in her early twenties, sitting inside fighter planes, laughing with girlfriends, seeing the sights of London with my grandfather. Her perfectly coiffed hair, her beautifully tailored dress (sewn by her hand, no doubt), her sweet smile. These images of this young, vibrant woman startled me, and yet, excited me at the same time. As I flipped through the pages, I could feel laughter, joy, and love surround me. Then, to my surprise, a page fell out of the album.

Growing up, you never think of your grandparents as being sexual creatures, or having any sort of past. They are these ancient, wise people that frustrate you with their seemingly out of touch sentiments, that only make sense to you later in life. But, in this moment, I felt as if I knew the woman she had been all along. Her hazel eyes had always twinkled, but I had never known why. Apparently, that fire never dies.

In that page was a poem. A poem that had been written at the army medical base and had been printed in their newspaper. It was about my grandmother. The poem celebrated her femininity. (Something that I rarely saw indulged.) The poem was about her body, the way it moved, how happy the men were my grandmother would come around to visit them at the hospital. It wasn't vulgar, it wasn't explicit, it was lovely and charming.

I finally realized in that moment, that every time I celebrated my femininity, every time I stood up for something that I believed in, every time that I followed my desires and goals, she was right there with me. The energy of those before us never truly dies if we begin to acknowledge and respect the gifts that they brought to our universe. I may not ever have truly gotten to know her, but now, as an adult, I can finally understand her, which is a much more satisfying feeling.

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