My paternal grandmother, who insisted we always call her Grandmother, died when I was 17, so I never got a chance to really know her and vice versa. While I think that, as adults, we would have gotten on very well, have lots in common, and even enjoyed traveling together, I can’t say that she was my favorite grandparent growing up.
For most of my childhood, it felt as if she preferred my brother, and I found her to be very frustrating. When I would ask her what a word meant, she would make me look it up in a dictionary instead of telling me. When I’d hand her a story I’d written, she’d correct my grammar and spelling instead of praising my creativity. Of course, looking back on these instances as an adult, I see her in a different light, because those are things I would also do — though with a less blunt approach.
Perhaps the thing that drove me craziest about Grandmother was a phrase she would repeat whenever my brother or I would complain about something. Whether we were standing in a long line, stuck in the car on the way home home, or waiting on her to take us to the pool, her response was consistent: patience and fortitude.
Nothing more. Just those three simple words. No explanation. No discussion. Patience and fortitude. Simply stated with clear expectations.
I *hated* this phrase. I would sneakily roll my eyes and mumble complaints under my breath. How annoying.
Except… it’s a really great phrase, and one that I’ve found myself using as a mantra in the last several years. I’ve especially been leaning on it lately, during these strange days of lockdown tedium.
Patience and fortitude.
The other night, I was repeating it to myself as I read the depressing weather report for the next few days (more rain, so much rain), and I wondered: why have I never heard anyone else ever say this phrase? Is this a common phrase? Was it something my grandmother made up? Where did she get it and why did she say it so often? So for first time ever, I looked it up. And what I found surprised me.
Firstly, there is a famous quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I’d never seen before (probably because I’ve never read any Emerson): Patience and fortitude conquer all things.
But more interestingly, and more relevant to my Grandmother, Patience and Fortitude are the names of the lions that guard the front of the New York Public Library.
This piece of information seems very significant to me, probably more so than to anyone reading this blog. New York is a big part of my family’s mythology and history. It’s where Grandmother had a thriving career in radio and met my grandfather; it’s where my dad was born and raised; it’s where my parents’ love story began; and it’s one of my favorite cities in the entire world, fueled by my love for musical theatre and feeling anonymous in a multilingual crowd.
In the dozen times that I’ve been to New York, not once have I ever seen the public library. (An abomination, I know!) Not once, has my dad ever mentioned that his mother’s famous phrase may have originated with the library she lived near. Not once, had any of us drawn a connection between Grandmother’s patience and fortitude and the place that made her who she was.
It turns out, that the Lions have had many nicknames over the years, originally named for the founders of the library. But during the Great Depression, the mayor dubbed them with traits that he felt New Yorkers would need in order to get through those dark days. And since then, the lions have been known as Patience and Fortitude.
This reasoning struck me as poetic, and particularly meaningful today, as the world struggles through this Covid crisis. With all global economies in recession, many people out of work and wondering how they’ll pay their bills, and a pervasive sense of doom and gloom, our current situation is not unlike what our grandparents experienced with the Great Depression. (Some articles are already referring to this time period as the Great Lockdown, for comparison.) We’re going to need that same sticktoitiveness and tenacity of spirit that they had if we’re going to come out of this with our heads above water. We’re all going to need a little more than our usual stock of patience and fortitude.
I’ll never know when or why Grandmother began saying what I always think of as her catch-phrase, but I like the idea of her passing by the Public Library on her way to a party or on her commute home from work, seeing the regal lions’ heads held high, and feeling a sense of solidarity. As a woman navigating the male-dominated radio world of the 1940s, she would have needed an arsenal of patience and fortitude to succeed.
One day, when this whole pandemic is behind us and we are allowed to travel again, I will make my way back to New York, to the greatest city in the world, and I will finally go see the Public Library in person, in all of its glory, and I will take special notice of the lion guards and imagine the impact they must’ve made on my grandmother when she was young and new to the city.
Until then, I shall remain locked down with my family, dreaming of post-quarantine travels, and repeating Grandmother’s words of wisdom to myself to make it through: patience and fortitude.