Friday, December 21, 2012

In Memoriam. Grandma 1923-2012

Nearly a week ago, my grandmother died relatively unexpectedly at the age of 89.  She had been battling health concerns for quite some time, though right after Thanksgiving she was doing well enough to move into an assisted living room, up from a nursing care one.  It has been an emotionally exhausting week. We buried her the same day many of the funerals were occurring in another part of the country for the victims of Sandy Hook.  Our family is heartbroken to have lost our matriarch, but we were so glad to have had the chance to have her as the center of everything for so very long.  We all took moments to be grateful for a life so well lived that touched so many with such love.

What follows is the text of a piece I wrote to share at her funeral service.  It is long, so I cut out a few sections when I spoke, but I include all of it here for those that would like to hear some of the ways she shaped me into the person I am today.

When I was three years old and my brother was being born, my grandma came to help take care of me.  She had never been to McDonald’s on her own before, had no idea even how to order, and could not believe I wanted to have a Filet O’fish.  But that day, I had my Filet O’Fish.   It was small acts of heroism and devotion like this that marked my entire life as my grandmother’s granddaughter. 

On Saturday, when I knew that she was gravely ill, I went through the drive thru and ordered and ate a filet o’fish in her honor.

 Nearly everyone that met Grandma remembered her vividly and fondly.  Even friends of mine who have only met her once or twice, briefly, ask about her with true interest to this day. She was kind, sparkling, loyal, gentle, a force.  She was an excellent listener and speaker, and one of the strongest people I know. 

She persevered, though not quietly, through many moments of true hardship throughout her life.  A child of the Great Depression, she later became a young war bride raising her first child in the absence of her dear and beloved husband.  She lost siblings and parents. Later in life, when she became a widow and was forced into a life on her own, she did not do it without complaining, but neither did she shrink away from it, With the encouragement and support of her family, she made good friends and built happy memories in several homes after she left the one on Bedford Street where she built a life and family.  Even after the fire at Laurel View destroyed her home and possessions, which surely could have easily defeated many of her age, she continued on undaunted, tackling multiple heart attacks and other health concerns.  The women in my Monday night Bible Study have been praying for Grandma off and on for nearly ten years now, and we are always amazed at the way she has fought back again and again, never losing her strong spirit and personality. 

Speaking without a filter was not something that set only late in life for her.  She was always quick to tell you exactly what she thought.  I can still recall the time she said to me “You’re getting a nice little butt on you there.  I was always wanted one of those.  My sisters had them, but I always just had a chest.” 

Yes, you always knew exactly what was on Grandma’s mind.  Start a conversation with her one day and get interrupted, a week later she would pick right back up where she left off.  I used to tell Mom that she had an internal pause button.  She made sure everyone heard the same version of the story, too, nearly verbatim.  I believe she truly just wanted to be sure each and every one of her people was included in the conversation. 

The lesson I take from my grandmother’s approach from life is that it doesn’t do to swallow down the worst that it throws at you silently.  I remember walking along with Grandma one time when bug landed directly on her chest.  “Ack!” she exclaimed.  “That bug just shit all over me!”  Then she brushed it off and kept walking.  No, sometimes you’ve got to yell about it a little, maybe have a cry to acknowledge that what you’re going through downright stinks.  Then you’ve got to grab tight to those closest to you and figure out how to move on to the next day. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll discover you’re a little stronger and a little more able to handle whatever is to come.

Her devotion to each and every member of her family was unparalleled.  It was downright embarrassing sometimes the way she bragged about “her gang.” At family reunions, she’d always be counting up how many she had from her brood to represent.  At other gatherings, she’d list off all who were able to make it, and those who weren’t.   How blessed we were to be in the strong beam of that fierce fierce love and pride.  

It will surprise few to know that many of my memories of Grandma revolve around food: always food.  My brother and I still talk about one cold summer evening at the cottage where the beef stew and homemade bread have never had their equal in terms of comfort food memory. From the homemade noodles she and Pap rolled out on their kitchen counter and dried on the backs of the wooden chairs around their kitchen table on Bedford Street to the gobs she was famous for making and offering with love, there was always something good made with love.  At the cottage, we fried doughnuts and French fries, and she always made a big pot of oatmeal to share.  She made peanut clusters and raisin clusters and chocolate covered pretzels and carefully packaged them into white gift boxes every Christmas including last year. *  At Christmas, there were butterscotch cookies with red and green icing: I can still remember my cousins Jordan and Josh stacking them up from wrist to elbow for a snack in her apartment on Metzler Street.  Every time I came to visit, there was a pan of Tom Thumb bars, my favorite.  You could always count on Texas Sheet cake, ham and baked potatoes, bowls of popcorn, stashes of special potato chips and Cheezits, candy in every covered dish throughout her home, Klondikes in the freezer and Dutch Maid bread with butter on the table.  There were special tupperwares for onion, chipped ham, and swiss cheese, and she put them all out on the table along with a  sliced tomato for sandwiches at lunch. When I got married, and all the cousins were on the dance floor, drinks in hand, we tried to get her to join us.  She waved her cake plate at us, saying, “You drink your drinks.  I’ll just sit here and finish my cake and watch.”

(* I'm told I forgot to mention the strawberry jelly she made for everyone she knew loved it.  I hear it was delicious.  She knew I don't like cooked fruit, so I never got any. :))

Many of my best childhood memories took place with my grandparents firmly in the scene.  Floating down the crick in inner tubes, riding bikes to Judy’s market for a snack, collecting seashells early in the morning on a beach in South Carolina, dying Easter eggs at their kitchen table, watching television in the summer time furniture arrangement of their living room.  In my memory, Barney Miller or Hogan’s Heroes are always on.  The cousins always woke my grandparents by jumping in their bed far earlier than she would have gotten up on her own. 

Playing Fox in the Morning in their driveway. Drinking orange and lemon or grape and lemon by the glassful.  Christmases piled high with gifts, the largest pile usually square in front of Grandma.  Playing game after game of UNO, 500 Rummy and dominoes on long winter evenings.  Collecting pinecones in cemeteries, or playing among the gravestones as Grandma and Pap took care of flowers for ancestors.  Spending time on Aunt Jo-Ann’s porch with kittens.

When I first used Dreft detergent to wash clothes for my babies, I was transported immediately to the warmth of a big claw footed tub, where Grandma used to sprinkle soap flakes when we took baths. 

My grandparents, along with my parents, were my first models of what a good marriage can and should be.  Did they bicker?  Yes.  But they were both verbally and physically affectionate with one another.  I can still remember her giggling and telling him that his whiskers were too scratchy to be kissing her, though not too convincingly.  It was always clear they not only loved each other, but also truly liked one another, as well as understood each other. What a strong testament to the family they built together that their children and their children’s children still make a point to get together for a week’s vacation together each year.  There are so few extended families that know each other the way we do in today’s fractured and geographically separated culture.

I’ll never forget talking about studying the Bible with her, listening to her praise my children, and just sitting beside her as she listened intently to whatever I was telling her.  I’m so glad that my children got to know her through experience, not just stories and memories.  My daughter Nora, who shares her middle name, was especially close to her, always sitting next to her to color or chat.  When she heard she was ill this weekend, she said “Great Grandma is really my buddy.  I’m going to draw her a card.  Now what are her favorite things again?” 

Though Grandma’s failing eyesight has kept her from being able to send cards for a while now, it seems impossible that I will no longer be attempting to decipher a long newsy note from her written on the inside of a greeting card.  I’ve been reading her writing for as long as I can remember, on cards and in postcards, or reporting the day’s events and weather on the calendar hanging across from the toilet at the cottage.  She truly was my first and most influential model of one who writes.  She used to tell me that in school, her favorite thing was to write “themes.”  Of the possessions she lost in the fire, the ones I mourned most were the journals she kept of her trips to Florida and other travels. 

 As a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend, Grandma made all of the people in her life feel particularly valued.  I once bought a framed print for her that said, “If you love me and spoil me, you must be my grandma.”  That clearly summed up all the ways she went out of her way to make me feel treasured and special.  It is difficult to convey how wonderful it was to be the object of such sincere and devoted love, to have someone in your life be such a firm and clear member of your own personal fan club.

 At the cottage, she always got the top bunk above her and Pap’s bed ready for me with the reading light plugged in so I could stay up late to read and read. She knew, more than anyone except my mom, all of my allergies and food sensitivities. There was always a tin of banberry tarts without nuts just for me, or a bowl of five-cup salad without the pineapple.  She was absolutely the only person on earth who peeled the skin off of every piece of sliced apple for me, and cut and peeled each section of orange so that there was not one speck of white pith to make me cough as I ate it. 
In this room, especially, I do not think I am alone in the feeling of being the one most special to my grandmother.  She had the ability to turn her sparkling, twinkly eyes on each person she met and make them feel just as special.  I think the way my grandmother brought beauty and love to so many lives is a rare gift we are all so blessed to have received.  That’s why I know that the next time you play a game of cards or dominoes, eat a particularly good piece of cake, drink a good glass of orange juice over ice, find a hankie in your pocket, or wear something in that lovely shade of red she preferred, she will be with you, her distinctive voice in your ear, and her soft hand on your arm.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.
Grandma was so proud of you; she would have loved hearing this and would have wanted us to read it to her many times.
We love you. M. and D.

mep said...

My guess is your Grandma is enjoying this beautiful tribute from a better place. I don't think she could have been any more proud of you!!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Erin, what a wonderful, charming, caring spitfire of a woman she must have been. I'm so sorry for your family's loss.