The first tears I shed after John proposed to me came about an hour later, as we started to dream of our wedding day, at the thought that Grandma wouldn’t be there. I had so wanted her to be there for that shining moment, to hold my hand for a photo, to give me a kiss as I waited to walk down the aisle, to make a wisecrack about our awkward first dance, to enjoy the company.
Better than her being there, though, were all the jokes and glances and secrets and dessert we shared over the years.
Better still was the impact of her life on mine, and that in the end we both knew how very much we loved each other.
Grandma’s life story is one of quietly defying conventions, and succeeding at almost everything by her wit and grace. She grew up in the
Midwest during the twenties and the Great Depression. She
was a precocious child and her mother was ready to get her out of the house, so
she was sent to school a year early. She skipped another grade later and graduated
from high school before her sixteenth birthday.
Apparently her only options in college (as a woman) were to study Home Economics or Sciences. Like my mother and me, she was really more of an arts-and-humanities kind of gal, but there was no way she was going to college for Home Ec, so bacteriology it was.
I will say that if she had majored in Home Ec, she would have completely dominated it, as she had the magic touch in home décor and in the kitchen. Her homemade spaghetti sauce was our Christmas Eve staple, and her Easter dinners of roast beef and twice-baked potatoes and jello were always flavorful and served in china and crystal. When I was a child, I admit that an overnight at Grandma’s excited me as much for the twenty-one types of cereal I would get to pick from as for the perfectly-timed dinners, but gradually I began to see the virtues of her more refined recipes. Now, I wish I had spent more time as an apprentice in her kitchen.
After college, Grandma moved to
Washington and worked at NIH for several
years before starting a family. She met
my grandpa through his sister, who was a friend in the local alumni sorority
group, but the story goes that she continued dating other men until the day he
asked her to marry him. When he asked, she said yes, and then added, “But I’m
still planning to go on this date I have planned for Saturday.”
They must have worked through that, because they were happily and lovingly married for 49 years until he died in 1997.
Later on, when her kids were grown, she got a real estate license and worked thirty years as an agent, helping each person she worked with find a good home, insisting that all people, regardless of race or background, should be able to buy a home in a decent neighborhood, treating all her clients with thoughtfulness and care. She never retired. She sold her last house at age 86, two years before she died.
These are the outlines of her life, the facts that make it in an overview, a humorous summary. But there is so much more nuance inside the lines. Some of the details, the depths, the fullness of her person, I discovered in her dying, and in her death.
Grandma carried her sharp wit, intelligence and competence with her even into her final weeks, when her body was beginning to go, racked with pneumonia and too weak to walk without assistance. Even then, when she wasn’t loopy on meds or low on oxygen from the pneumonia, her mind was with us 100%, and for that I will be forever grateful.
For ten months, she was in and out of hospitals and rehab and then home with my mom or my uncle until she fell or caught pneumonia again. I knew it was a gift when I went to visit her every week, when I lay next to her in a hospital bed watching Jeopardy or took her outside for a walk, when she asked me to share my latest thoughts on career and life plans and then listened intently and thoughtfully as I spit out confused thoughts on jobs and relationships. I knew it was a gift that last Saturday we spent in the bright living room at my mother’s house, plunking out favorites from the Presbyterian hymnal and flipping through a book of Chopin preludes.
Grandma was a devout Presbyterian, one of the founding members of her church. After she died, my mother found a document she had written for church, describing her faith. In lovely prose, she wrote of her almost constant conversation with God throughout every day, and of the peace her faith had given her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her fifties.
The perpetual spiritual awareness was a part of her life she hadn’t talked about much. And yet I had always known by the way she lived.
We gathered for her funeral and the sympathy cards poured in, and one cousin wrote, The summer I spent at Aunt Ariel’s house is the summer I learned about acceptance. Others remembered her frequently opening her home for dinner parties or bridge games. My mom recalled her love of hosting foreign exchange students.
I thought of the way she was always reaching out to people—her interest in the life story of her Latina cleaning lady or the new Ethiopian woman at church; her insistence that we walk around the nursing home with the apple pie I had just brought, giving pieces to her new friends; her mission to get me to play the piano in the nursing home dining room—though she could barely hear by then—because she knew it would please old Mr. Baer, who never smiled.
I know that she made me feel adored, with her valentines and attendance at all my concerts and chats over coffee. She didn’t always have to say it—like her faith it was bubbling up under the surface in the way she looked at me and pried about my love interests and begrudged me to spoon feed her at the end when she wasn’t eating. I always knew that I was one of her most special people.
This post is a part of my Women’s History Month project, “Honoring Women’s Stories.” You can read more about the project and see other women’s stories here.