Two weeks ago (June 9, 2010) my grandmother passed away. It wasn’t a surprise, we had known it was coming. She had been dying for probably the last 3 years, getting steadily worse until she was finally 1/3 of the weight she once was and unable to keep her eyes open for more than a couple minutes at a time. Her imminent death was awaited upon to end the suffering she was going through. But once it happened, the overwhelming sadness that came with it was inescapable. And I was actually surprised to be overcome with tears upon the news.
She was gone.
Grandma was a huge part of my cousins’ and my childhood. There were 10 of us grandkids (plus several step-grandkids she loved wholeheartedly) growing up, and most days many of us would populate Grandma’s house while our parents worked. Single-handedly she would take care of us, encouraging us to try new things like balancing on the jungle gym 7 feet up in the air or performing musicals in her front yard for the amusement of the neighbors and every single car that drove by. She let us roller skate through her house, her wood floors perfect for gliding from room to room. At night, we would all pile into her bed (5 or more of us at a time) while she slept on the couch. We would wait to hear her snore, a kind of wheeze-cough, wheeze-cough. And once she started sawing logs we would sneak out one by one, crawling behind the couch on our hands and knees until we had made it safely into the front room where my father had his office during the day. We would stay up well past midnight just to see if we could. Of course, if Grandma caught us we would all be sent back to bed with red bottoms, crying and wondering why Grandma was so mean.
Thing is, while Grandma was strict in keeping us in line, she was also very generous. All of her children were grown, yet she opened up her home gladly just to be able to spend time with us. She taught us how to curl our hair with an old fashioned curling iron (until my sister burned one curly lock completely off), how to make an apple pie (though I don’t think Mrs. Smith intended for the crust to be so black – just the way Grandma liked it), the wonderment of Velveeta, the magic of our imaginations, and the practicality of Muumuus and Smocks. She was the only grown-up in charge of us who actually let us walk to the corner market all by ourselves, as long as we stayed together. She bought us Easter bonnets and listened cheerfully as my sister and I clumsily sung songs on the way to church. She kept her candy dish full, and didn’t seem to mind when we ate all of the candy in a matter of minutes. When we got to the ripe old age of 12 (and for some of us, even younger), she even let us learn how to drive her car.
Grandma had been a single mother to my dad and his brothers and sister. She had been an artist who painted waves that looked like they could come crashing into the room at any moment. She loved songs from the 40’s, often singing them to us in her quiet, low tones. She thought that the music artists of today screamed too much, never failing to tell us so when we’d turn the television to MTV. She told us bedtime story after bedtime story. Even when her youngest son passed away in a car accident, she spent that morning reading stories to my 5 year old self from a book in a tearful voice. I didn’t understand why she was crying. And when I asked her what was wrong, she just told me she was very sad.
I’m very sad. But I’m sad in a way that I never could have explained until now. You see, I’m also happy in that sadness, and it was because my grandmother was such a wonderful lady. And I got to be a part of that wonderfulness. Because of her, many generations are living and creating life. Just this past weekend most of us were able to get together for a family reunion at my parents’ house. My dad and his sister and brother, my sisters and me, most of my cousins and their children, my own children… None of us would be here if it weren’t for my grandmother. And you could see snippets of Grandma in the lessons she taught us over the years, in the way we were now raising our own young families, in the conversations that traveled from table to table, and in the signature full lower lip she pouted so well in her 1940’s glamour shots with her sisters – the same mouth many of us inherited from her.
My grandma’s passing has also brought up thoughts about my own role in my family. One day that will be me, surrounded by the very family that I raised and created as I take my final breaths. And in the time before that happens, I hope to have taught my children well all of the lessons they need to learn in life, just like Grandma. I hope to have grandchildren to spoil and scold, and to be their escape from their parents. And I hope that when it is my time to leave this earth, I will also be remembered with as much love as my grandmother is.
A couple weeks before my grandmother passed, my family and I were able to visit her one last time. The dementia had placed holes in her memory so that most of the time she didn’t remember who any of us was. She looked so small in her bed and she kept her eyes closed, fighting sleep unsuccessfully. My aunt leaned down to her ear and told her who was there. She reached my name and her eyes opened wide.
“Well,” she breathed. And in that moment I saw that she knew.
I had been afraid that seeing her as frail as she was would erase the memory of the strong woman who had helped raise us in our youth. I had been afraid of being overwhelmed by this new image of her, helpless in a bed when I still remembered her as strong. But that one word, and the knowledge that even in the end she knew me, flooded back all the memories of my grandmother as I was growing up, linking the past and the present in a beautiful new way as I leaned down and kissed her soft forehead and laid my hand on her downy hair one last time. And that is the final memory that I am grateful to be taking with me of my grandmother.
Rest in peace, Grandma Estelle. We all love you.