Annique Rolande, June 20, 1933 – May 4, 2014
Many of you were close to my grandmother, Annique Rolande – or Neesha, as she was known colloquially. She never made it difficult to get to know her or to become close because of her giving nature. Neesha often went out of her way to learn more about her visitors and neighbors; occasionally to the degree that she startled certain strangers with her many inquiries.
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That was simply Neesha’s demeanor. She was open about her life and its many trials, and she hoped those she met would be equally open about their experiences.
Neesha always made people feel welcome. She was easy to talk to, a result of her being a devoted mother to her five children: my father and his four younger sisters. She loved them fiercely and supported them to the best of her ability, including saving incrementally throughout their lives to send each of them to college.
Perhaps her focus on knowledge and education came from her own background. Daughter to a working class French Canadian mother and an absent father, Grandma Neesha worked diligently for many years as a waitress to put herself through four years at St. Joseph’s College. She studied multiple languages and spent most of her working life as an interpreter for Monsanto Chemical Company. Many of you also know how proud she was of that degree and the efforts it took.
Her many years at Monsanto also resulted in high levels of involvement in related associations. For example, Neesha was a vocal member of the National Association for Interpretation. She donated a substantial sum of money to the association to help strengthen and support foreign language academic programs at all levels, including elementary, high school, collegiate, and even graduate.
Neesha went so far as to travel to multiple international conferences. She gave lectures and presentations in French, Spanish, and German in addition to offering her skills as an interpreter to other attendees.
Because Grandma Neesha placed great emphasis on education throughout her life, she was always there to provide kind and caring assistance to her grandchildren, including me, when we faced struggles in school.
I am going to tell you the story of one particular moment that stands out in my mind as quintessential Neesha. I was in the fourth grade, just learning how to do long division. Most of you know that math has never been a strong point for me.
Neesha never enjoyed mathematics, either. She always joked that she initially went into college to study physical education, imagining that she would simply play games for the rest of her life; instead, French, German, and Spanish took over. I never knew if this was true or if she was simply trying to make me feel better about the difficulty I experienced with many subjects in school.
When I approached Grandma Neesha with my long division homework and, I imagine, a concerned look on my face, she took me aside. I was expecting the same kind of lecture I often received from my teachers: that I needed to try harder, that I wasn’t working enough to understand the material, and so on. Instead, Neesha picked up my worksheet, held it to the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window, and said, “I have no idea how to do this.”
In the moment, it was very funny. Neesha was brilliant, highly educated, open, and generous; regardless, she did not know how to do long division. I suppose her proficiency with foreign languages did not extend to mathematics.
What was especially significant about Grandma Neesha, though, was that she didn’t send me away to find someone else to help. Instead, she worked with me for many hours, poring over the intricacies of solving problem after problem; ultimately, we both learned a new skill. What strikes me about this long, difficult math session with Grandma Neesha is her generosity – with her time, her intellect, and her own desire to further her knowledge and education.
We all know Neesha had a great deal of advice to offer, but she was also a good listener. She always wanted to know more. I still have no idea how she did it, but Neesha always managed to ask exactly the right questions, allowing her family and friends to be fully open about their lives and experiences at any time.
Neesha’s generosity knew no bounds. She taught me much of what I still carry today: grandmotherly skills like cross-stitch and cooking, but also how to be ready to take on new learning experiences. Most importantly, she taught by example that it is important to be independent, strong, and ever curious about the world. “Everything is a lesson,” she would say.
Her husband, Bruce, died at 59 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was very young, perhaps four or five years old. I never knew my grandfather well, although Neesha’s stories were enough to make me feel very close to him. I know her grief for him was overwhelming, but she always outwardly remained upbeat.
Once, many years after his death, Neesha and I visited his grave together. That day was the only time I ever saw her become completely silent. I thought I might cry, but she handed me a bundle of roses and said, “Oh, please don’t you cry. Bruce loved flowers.”
Our Grandma Neesha was strong. She never let her emotions overtake her, especially not in public, but she had a way of creating space for other people’s emotions in almost any circumstance. I believe her remarkable tenderness and generosity was Neesha’s way of showing how she felt.
After Grandpa Bruce died, she opened her home to a rescue cat – that one-eyed monstrosity she named Sweet Pea who seemed to hate everyone but Neesha. Sweet Pea lives with me now. Grandma Neesha taught me to love everyone and everything without expecting love in return.
We were all devastated when Neesha found out she had lung cancer just a few years ago. I think she hid much of what she was feeling about her diagnosis by reminding her family, yet again, “Everything is a lesson.” The lesson, in her case, was never to start smoking. She had quit over two decades prior, just before I was born, but she would tell me often that there was simply no reason to start. While I never expected that to be a major lesson from the woman who helped me learn the intricacies of long division, I am proud to say that I have never picked up a cigarette.
Even while she was in treatment, Grandma Neesha never lost her sense of humor. When I called her up every few days to check in, she was often out of breath from the cancer and exhausted from chemo and radiation therapy. She would say, “I’m sorry, darling, but I can’t talk long – and isn’t everyone so relieved about that!”
Neesha’s generosity of spirit and love for her family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers has had an enormous impact on me as a person. Her intellect has also influenced me as a scholar. While I have never fully grasped the concepts behind mathematics, I did go to college to study English. She was proud of me, and of all her grandchildren. As a result of her constant emphasis on education, every one of us went to college or has plans to do so in the near future.
When she was sick, Grandma Neesha wanted to spend as much time with her family as possible. I feel endlessly grateful that I was able to visit as often as I did, though I know many of you live far away and never had such a luxury.
Nevertheless, even those who were far from Neesha in distance were never far from her in spirit and in love. Neesha loved to remain in contact with her entire family across the nation, even when speaking became difficult. Each time I visited during her last few months, she handed me a stack of letters to stamp and take to the mailbox.
She wanted to stay abreast of what was happening, and I know she was thrilled with the many letters in response. I know, too, that almost everyone wrote her back – which is both a testament to the remarkable bigheartedness of her family and friends as well as to her own generosity. She had me file each letter and greeting card so that she could keep them close by.
I also kept each of her letters, and I look back at them whenever I need help during a bad day. I remind myself that Grandma Neesha had more bad days than I could even imagine. Regardless, she still offered so much of herself – her knowledge, advice, and open arms – throughout the hard times. I have endless respect for this trait, and it is one I hope to embody for the rest of my life.
Let Grandma Neesha serve as an inspiration to all of us. Let her spirit and warmth continue to guide our lives. Above all else, let everything be a lesson.