This Nov. 20, I celebrated my 40th birthday. Only this year, something was missing; something I usually dreaded, but now in hindsight, utterly took for granted.
Every year on my birthday, I’d inevitably receive a phone call with the caller-ID, “Grami.” I knew better than to answer it, instead letting it go to voicemail. As touching as it may seem, it’s pretty embarrassing having your 84-year-old grandmother sing “Happy Birthday” to you.
Still, I’d listen to the voicemail while tolerating the singing and awaiting her words of pride and love for her first grandchild. The sincerity with which she spoke as she expressed how much she loved me and how proud she was of the work I do was unmistakable in her voice. She always spoke straight from the heart; with honesty and love.
I know the call would have been extra-special this year, something about her disbelief at her grandson turning 40 and how it “seems like only yesterday” she was changing my diapers. My phone remained silent this birthday because I lost my Grami on Oct. 14, 2019.
Marna Shreves was “Grami” to everyone my age and younger; and not just to family, but to in-laws and friends of family, too. This past April, I had the honor of bringing Grami as my guest to a training presentation I gave to a mental health hospital in San Pedro. She introduced herself to the other professionals in the audience as “Nathan’s Grami,” because that’s who she was. I am so very lucky to have had the opportunity to have her see me lecture. She beamed with pride and hung on every word as I spoke.
Grami was an advocate for mental health awareness and policy. She subscribed to various mental health-related newsletters and would share links with me via text messages. She participated in NAMI walks and had a passion to assure our government took care of its people, especially those dealing with addiction and/or mental illness.
She enjoyed learning about the field and I enjoyed sharing my views on child development, attachment, trauma and play therapy with her. I’m usually quite asocial and not very talkative, but Grami and I would chat for hours about these things as we shared a few cocktails. Although she had no formal higher education, she was very intelligent and insightful. She’d listen to me intently and then reflect on her life, our family as a whole and on society, making perfect sense of the topic at hand. Grami understood these things because she herself had a very rough life. She related deeply to those hurting and in need.
Despite having endured her share of tragedy and hardship, Grami was a hopeless optimist. She saw the world through rose-colored glasses, always seeing the good in everyone. She made the best of whatever life threw at her. She was a farm-girl from London Mills, Illinois, determined to live a glamorous life in Southern California.
She made it to California, but her life was never glamorous. She scraped by financially, working into her 80s. Still, she loved to party, dressing up in costumes and risqué outfits with wigs. She was beautiful, a spitting image of Elizabeth Taylor. She even belonged to a nudist camp.
She had tons of friends, meeting new people everywhere she’d go. She was a very likable person with an infectious spirit and a wicked sense of humor. She’d delight in telling me horribly offensive jokes. I can hear her laugh now as I recall some of the jokes I told her, hoping to somehow make her blush.
As our family gathered to celebrate her life shortly after her passing, I was informed that Grami left $3,000; a modest sum of money (which was a lot to her) in my name to be donated to It’s About T.I.M.E. (Trauma Informed Movement in Education), a program of The Guidance Center. She was so proud of and believed so deeply in the work we do at The Guidance Center.
I feel so grateful to have had such a unique, cool and loving grandmother. I am grateful to see her legacy live on in tangible ways, through her donation to The Guidance Center. Grami’s gift will provide therapeutic regulatory equipment to help little brains and bodies feel safe. Her love prevails and will reach children in need.
Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, has worked as a Clinical Therapist at The Guidance Center for more than 10 years. In 2016, Swaringen helped develop and launch It’s About T.I.M.E. In partnership with Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), It’s About T.I.M.E. continues to partner with new schools each year, with the goal of reaching every school within LBUSD.