11 Lessons Learned from my Grandmother
It is hard to believe it has been over one year since my grandma, K&J’s tenacious and lovable co-founder Sharon Koch, was called home to heaven. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. Whether it's remembering something funny she said, or knowing exactly how she would react to something I was doing, or watching one of her expressions cross the face of my own children.
Luckily for me and our family, she lives on in our hearts through the many colorful stories and wonderful lessons she taught us; ones that will surely be passed down for generations to come. Today, on her birthday, I celebrate just a few of the many treasures she left with me.
1. Be proud of who you are and where you come from
If you knew Sharon for any length of time, you most definitely heard her say: “If you are lucky to be Irish, you are lucky enough!” She did, in fact, mean this quite literally as she believed the Irish were a step above the rest. But I know she also believed the underlying meaning as well: be proud of who you are - and from whom you came - regarding both your ancestors and God. Her Catholic faith was the foundation of her life, and she worked hard to build a company that reflected those values.
2. Traditions are a gift
Every Christmas Eve, after Mass, my entire family would gather at my grandma’s house for a spaghetti dinner. A recipe that, legend holds, was passed down to her grandma from a famous chef in Italy. After dinner, but before opening presents, we would sit down and she would read the Christmas story from the Bible. We would then pass around a stocking and say out loud what our gift to the baby Jesus was that year, which was always in the form of a Christian resolution.
This tradition, and others like it, help bring us out of the routine of our daily lives and ground us in our faith. Simultaneously embodying the past, present, and future, it provides a sense of belonging and nurtures our relationships with each other. The strong memories we created help us remain connected to a time, a place, or, in my case, a person. And the gift of these traditions far outweigh any physical gifts we ever received on those Christmases.
3. Great ideas can come from anywhere
Many years ago, my grandma went shopping with her daughter Shelley (who most of you know is K&J’s current fearless leader). While in the fitting room, Shelley heard shrieks coming from the room next door where my grandma was trying on swimsuits. The cries became more and more distressed and finally she exclaimed, “Help me! I’m stuck in this swimsuit and I can’t get out!” When Shelley went in, my grandma was completely entangled in the swimsuit’s straps and bound by the tight material. After Shelley stopped laughing and my grandma stopped hyperventilating, she was finally freed.
Incredulous, she exclaimed: “This is ridiculous, don’t they make long-sleeved swimsuits for women like me?!” Shelley affirmed that, no they do not make long-sleeved swimsuits and assured her these were the best options. In the end, she chose the one that she disliked the least and they continued their shopping trip.
And here we are, 15 years later, and what type of swimwear does my daughter wear? You guessed it: a long-sleeved swimsuit! My grandma was ahead of her time with an idea the world wasn’t ready for yet. I think of her every time I get my daughter ready to go swimming and smile.
5. It’s important to stand up for what you believe
My grandma was a woman of many opinions. But no two things got her blood pumping quite like the pro-life movement and her thoughts on daylight savings time. For over 30 years she worked tirelessly to defend unborn children while running the Respect Life program at St. Mary’s Church, who honored her as a “Champion of Life.” She also made sure each K&J trailer had a sticker on it that read “A Child is a Gift from God” so everyone across the country knew we were pro-life and proud of it.
Almost as strong as her pro-life viewpoint was her opinion that daylight savings time was stealing an hour from her every day. Yes, she believed that every single day during daylight savings time was an hour shorter than other days of the year. That is, of course, why she was so much more tired when the time changed - she had one less hour in her day! And the hours compounded to quite a deficit by the end of daylight savings.
She had a well-thought out argument and no amount of debating could persuade her to see it any differently. I’m sure at some point she realized the error of this calculation, but by then she was too committed to the cause to admit it. And so she stuck hard to her guns, dug in her heels, and had a hilariously fun time driving us all bonkers trying to convince her otherwise.
6. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself
Often referred to as a Koch women curse, all of us ladies spectacularly mishear what people are trying to tell us. What we hear is typically nowhere near the original word said, and often the mistake is so funny we laugh until we are doubled over and tears are in our eyes. But no one was as proficient in this skill as Sharon. To this day, when we confidently repeat the word we think we heard, whoever we are speaking to will laugh and say, “No, Sharon, I said…” But none of us are ever embarrassed about these mix-ups, we just laugh at ourselves and remember the lady who started it all.
7. If you love someone, tell them often
Never once in my life did I doubt that my grandma loved me unconditionally. She told me so frequently to alleviate any doubt whatsoever. Every time we were ending a phone call, every time we were saying goodbye after a trip to see one another, every time I was leaving her house - sometimes even mid-conversation just to be safe.
Even when I was speaking to someone else on the phone and she was nearby I would hear her yell emphatically, “Tell her I love her!” Moral of the story: If you love someone, tell them so often that it becomes part of the fabric of their identity. I can still feel her love all the way from heaven.
8. Be happy with what you have
My grandma was born into an upper middle class family, went through a long period with very little money while starting out with my grandfather and raising their family, and then settled into a more comfortable life later on. It didn’t matter to her; she was the same person regardless.
She never complained about holes in her clothes or even when her illness rendered her homebound. This is not to say she wasn’t sad when she missed important events or couldn’t do certain things, but she never whined about it. She was always grateful for what she had and happy with her life. When it feels like the world is preaching the message of never being satisfied, all I have to do is look to my grandma’s example of acceptance.
10. Eat cookies for breakfast
For as long as I can remember, my grandma’s breakfast consisted of Milano Milk Chocolate Cookies and black coffee. When questioned, she was unapologetic about her choice and said it was what she liked so she was going to do it and that was that. Sometimes it’s okay to break the “rules” and do what you want. And who made up the no cookies for breakfast rule anyway? No one I need to listen to. In fact, every year on her birthday, I will be eating Milano cookies for breakfast in her honor.
11. A little Irish Catholic guilt gets results
Sharon employed this tactic frequently as a means to a desired end. This could range from soliciting a phone call (“You wouldn’t leave your poor grandmother who loves you more than anything in the dark about what’s going on in your life, would you?”) to ensuring safe travel on a road trip (“I know you would be way too smart to ever speed or drive when you are tired. You would never make your grandma worry the way these other grandkids make theirs worry!”) Somewhat annoying, but effective!
I feel truly blessed to have had a grandmother as spectacular as she was, and her impact on me and our family cannot be measured. While we miss her everyday, we know she is in heaven drinking Irish coffees with my grandpa and keeping an ever watchful, protective eye on us all as we diligently keep her memory alive in our hearts and in the company that she loved so dearly.
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