Today is my grandmother Roberta McCain’s 100th birthday.
If you don’t know about my grandmother, let me give you a little rundown. When people tell me that I must get my maverick gene from my father, they are only half right. My father and I both have inherited our rebellious personalities from Nana. She has always lived her life on her own terms, something that was once considered quite scandalous, given the times she grew up in.
My grandmother is a twin (her sister Rowena lived to be 99) and was born in Oklahoma on Feb. 7, 1912. In 1933 she eloped with my grandfather, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., at Caesars, a bar in Tijuana, Mexico, becoming daughter-in-law to my great-grandfather, also a Navy admiral. She was no average housewife, always outspoken and giving opinions to my grandfather, who was, more often than not, away from her on duty.
She was known for dressing glamorously and holding fabulous dinner parties on Navy bases, and also for not having a lot of patience for excuses, especially from my father when he was growing up and acting out. When I was a little girl and we would visit my grandmother whenever we were in D.C., she would always greet us at the door in elegant suits or gowns with matching pearls and earrings. Her house is decorated with treasures of the 1930s and '40s, from Oriental rugs to oil paintings, sculptures of Navy ships, trinkets from her world travels, and many, many pictures from her long and colorful life. During our visit she would serve tea in old china and tell us stories about my father when he was little. She once hit him over the head with a thermos in the back of a car because he was acting up so badly on a road trip.
I remember one time when she came to our cabin in Sedona, Ariz., she went fishing for trout in a Chanel suit, panty hose, and pearls. She baited the line and stood on the muddy bank in that outfit. She always told me that a woman needs to look her best and wear lipstick whenever she leaves the house. I should really heed her advice more often. I am sure she would be appalled that I even own Uggs.
There are many notorious stories about my grandmother, but I think my favorite is from a few years ago when she was traveling in Europe. She wanted to rent a car—and was told that, unfortunately, she was too old, at 90, to legally rent a car. So she bought one instead and drove around Europe in that car. She has spent most of my life traveling the world. After her husband passed away in 1981 and her children were grown, she spent most of her time on adventures all over Asia, Africa, and Europe. She was always on the go, always exploring new places, and always worrying my father as to her whereabouts and safety in foreign countries.
During the last presidential election, after my father became the Republican nominee, she campaigned on the road with the rest of my family as hard as anybody else. When she rode on my father’s bus, she had a tendency to grill his advisers on their strategy. And she had some advice for me too: stand up straight onstage! She was really our secret weapon, skillfully charming reporters and putting to rest any questions about what aging looks like in the McCain family. Voters adored her and ate up her every word at events. She appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, landed a spread in Vogue, and has a Facebook fan page. She still says controversial things in interviews, my favorite being the time she said Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer and “doesn’t represent the Republican Party that I belong to.”
At President Obama’s inauguration, she accompanied my mother and father and proceeded to flirt with Val Kilmer before the ceremony. And for the record, Val, she’s available and still brings up how handsome you are.
She insists on being informed whenever I am on television, and she gets irritated when I forget to tell her. But my favorite thing about my grandmother is her lust for life and how much she has shown me about living every day to the fullest. To say my grandmother has paved the way for me, and so many women out there like me, is an understatement. It’s because of women like my grandmother Roberta—women who have lived their lives fearlessly, on their own terms—that I am who I am. I’m grateful to have such an inspiring woman as a grandmother.
Happy birthday, Nana McCain. You’re the original maverick.