After a whirlwind three day trip back to Buffalo, I’m sitting in the Philadelphia airport, about to board a plane back to Rome. Again, I’m leaving the country and resuming my adventure abroad, continuing another chapter of my life that finds me living far away from home. North Carolina, Texas, and now Italy.
However much I’ve learned about life through living in other places and immersing myself in other cultures, a fundamental truth cuts through these experiences. It’s a concept I first learned about during my first summer in South Africa in 2008, and one that’s been stuck in my mind ever since. It’s called “Ubuntu.”
We become human—we achieve greatest fulfillment in life and become most alive—through our relationships with others.
It’s taken several trips abroad and almost 8 years away from home for me to only begin to come to terms with this truth and what it fully means for me in my life.
But I know someone for whom it came a bit easier, and with a little less travel. Someone who, although she never knew it, embraced and embodied Ubuntu better than anyone else I’ve known: my grandmother, Ann Kieffer.
Grandma was born in 1929 in her family home (a former inn dating back before the Civil War) in Bennington, NY, a rural town about 30 minutes outside of Buffalo. She lived in this historic home in this quiet town for 84 years, marrying the love of her life, my grandpa, and baptizing their six daughters and one son at Sacred Heart Catholic Church right across the street.
Her life was deeply rooted in her family and in her community, and through her simple kindness and deep well of giving and self-sacrifice, she quietly and humbly touched the lives of everyone she knew—and even those she didn’t.
She cared for her father and her seven children and toiled away cooking and cleaning for a house of ten. She made lunches for students from the school across the street when they forgot theirs. She made extra meals for the neighbor next door. She grew beautiful flowers and sold them at a roadside stand, brightening the lives of passersby.
More than this, grandma was gregarious, fun-loving, and the social butterfly of Bennington. She could point out who lived in every house within 5 square miles, and a trip with her to the grocery store often meant an introduction to at least three of her friends. With friends and with family, she loved to kick back and enjoy a whiskey sour, dance the cancan to “New York, New York,” and randomly pull a party popper in the middle of her kitchen. You could always count on grandma to get the party started and put a smile on your face.
From her simple home at 1245 Clinton Street, she saw decades pass by: The rise of political leaders and the undoing of regimes; Global conflicts and times of peace; Social unrest and the dawn of racial equality; The rise of indoor plumbing and modern technology.
Through all of this, though, she never lost sight of what mattered most in her life: her relationships with others. She didn’t need to venture far and wide to discover this key to happiness.
Grandma passed away peacefully on February 15, surrounded by family, in the house where she was born, the house she always defiantly declared that she would die in. A truly remarkable, American life—full of kindness, love and joy—come full circle.
As I head back to Rome after saying goodbye to Grandma and celebrating her life with her family and friends, I do so with a heavy heart saddened by our loss but inspired by her example.
I do so, also, with a new perspective
Where ever we are—Rome, Cape Town, or Texas, or a quiet corner of Bennington, NY—there is so much to learn, right in front of us. We don’t need to travel far from home; we just need to open our eyes and see, to open ourselves to others.
Thanks, Grandma, for this one last lesson.