By Sierra Voorhies
My grandma Paula Rios died a couple years ago. She and I were pretty close and she had a few core tenets that she instilled in me.
One was the importance of a higher education. Paula got married and moved out of her home when she was about 18, and then she had kids, moved to California with her husband, and they raised my dad and aunt together. It turns out my grandpa wasn’t faithful to my grandma. She was sticking by him “for the kids” as people say, but when he started taking advantage of her financially, and his girlfriend reached out to her, my grandma finally called it quits.
At this point, they had moved back to Missouri, and my grandma decided to go to UMKC to get a degree and a teaching license. She specialized in special education and taught for over 20 years before she retired to a home she paid for by herself. She didn’t get married again. She chose to remain unmarried even though she had a long term live-in partner—maybe because she had been burned by my grandpa.
She is the person who taught me how to write my name—on a dry erase board in her living room, leaning up against the ledge of the fireplace. One thing she said to me then, which I probably didn’t understand, was that I was going to go to college straight out of high school. “No breaks,” she always said. When I was older she was proud of me: I went to college just like she wanted.
One day when we were hanging out, I told her I was spending a lot of money fixing up my old car. The next week, or maybe two weeks later she gave me a call right after class and said she was going to buy me a new car.
That happened during the school year. We stayed close that school year, and that summer I studied abroad in Seville, in Spain. I got a call in the middle of my program—she was in the hospital. I didn’t think anything could ever happen to her. She didn’t want me to know, but I later learned that she was struggling with brain cancer.
When I came home from Europe, I remember she asked me for a drive to the hospital. Towards the end of her life, I took her to get meds, and hung around the house with her, and tried to help her partner manage all of their finances, which she had been the main organizer of.
Her dying was the first major grief I had ever been through. She lives on in me and my brother and her children, my father and my aunt, in her siblings and in all the people she impacted as a teacher. Education and higher education were the most important things to her, because she saw them as a key to independence. If I had ever been reluctant to get a higher education, she would have thrown a fit, because she never wanted me to be vulnerable to financial abuse, or be dependent on someone else, like she once was.
She was one of the strongest, softest, smartest people I knew, and I love her. I hope you all can think of your elders and see some of the lessons they taught you, even if their history or your relationship isn’t perfect.
This story is part of Her Life as Art: Coming Together Through Grandmother Stories, a unique, multi-dimensional, week-long series of events celebrating the wisdom and legacy of the grandmother figures in our lives, taking place Nov. 6 – 12, 2021 at the Kansas City United Church of Christ, 205 W. 65th St. KCMO, 64113. We invite you to view the art exhibit and attend other related events. For details, please visit www.kcucc.org.