My grandmother passed away today. She was 95 years old.
This was not an unexpected loss. What death of a 95-year-old woman is unexpected? My grandmother suffered from dementia for many years. I said my goodbyes several years ago when I realized that she no longer recognized me. Her health was reasonably good right up to the end of her life. The deterioration was mostly in her mind–which, honestly, I think was much harder to bear for those who observed it.
I have been thinking about both of my grandmothers a lot over the last several days. My other grandmother died of breast cancer at the age of 82. I have boundless respect and admiration for both of these women. They shaped my parents, and by extension, me. They were part of a generation that survived the Great Depression, fought World War II, watched media change from radio to televisions to cable and VCRs to satellites to Internet.
Most of all, they worked, these women. My Grandma M, the first one to pass, was a farm wife. But to say she was a “farm wife” minimizes what she really was. She rose every day at 4:00 a.m. to milk cows, feed livestock, and get breakfast on the table for the men on the farm. Her house was spotless. Barn boots were not allowed. She baked cakes and made coffee on the stove and could leave it all to go help pull a calf if need be, then clean up, put on lipstick, and be ready to attend a granddaughter’s school program. She adored babies of all kinds, animal and human. She tended a garden and flowers and grandchildren with equal ease and aplomb. She raised giant pumpkins, green beans, corn, carrots, and dozens of other vegetables. When blackberries ripened, she joined us to pick enough for a pie or syrup. It’s because of my Grandma M that I can make the good pie crust. Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and even random Sundays involved every treat imaginable. And because animals and gardens and fields don’t take holidays, she still managed to do everything else in the midst of baking hams, cookies, pies, and sweet potatoes.
I often wonder if there were actually three of my Grandma M and I just never saw them in the same room.
My Grandma J, the one who died this morning, was an altogether different woman. She raised five children as a single mother in the 50s and 60s. She worked hard to provide for them, unable to count on her ex-husband. But her children were loved, cherished, and supported to the best of her abilities. She worked full-time in a hospital kitchen until she could retire. And she was no slouch in the garden herself–in the backyard of her small suburban home, she raised record-setting squash.
Grandma J was dealt a very poor hand in life–a less-than-stellar childhood, an alcoholic husband, a divorce, cancer, the deaths of two grandchildren. A lesser woman might have become bitter, or might have lost her zest for life, or might have collapsed inside herself in perpetual depression. But Grandma J never let circumstances destroy her zeal. She was perpetually curious. When she read to us, we could always count on legends and stories and histories. I have always credited my father with giving me my love of culture and history and literature, but it was Grandma J who instilled it in him.
Beyond her curiosity and intellect, though, was a perpetual, optimistic kindness. Grandma J loved. She loved her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. She came to every piano recital I ever performed in. She remembered my birthday long after I quit recognizing it. Until her dementia fully set in, we could count on some small token from her every Christmas. Considering that she had more than a dozen grandchildren to remember, that’s really quite impressive. Even when her mind started to slip, she still embroidered. We have several sets of pillowcases embroidered by Grandma J’s hand–one set for each of my ducklings.
My grandmothers were extraordinary women. They were, in so many ways, products of a generation that just “got on with it.” They were too busy to be depressed, to wonder what difference they were making in the world, to question their parenting, to read blogs and books and articles that suggested maybe they were doing it all wrong. They just . . .
They just lived.
My mother mentioned to me today that two separate people have asked her about my writing–where I am, when I’ll be publishing something new. I admit that when she mentions this–indeed, when I consider sharing my work with even my own husband–I almost have a panic attack. My heart starts to pound, I get physically clammy, I start to stammer, my breathing gets rapid and shallow. (My mother doesn’t know this, and her comments were meant to reassure me that I did, indeed, have a small but loyal audience when I was publishing.) I have to remind myself that no, I don’t have to share again. I have to say, “there will be no more stories. Just tell them I changed my mind.” I have to say it, because if I don’t, I can’t be sure I can stop the physical response to even the mere mention of publishing again.
But I wonder what my grandmothers would have done.
They were extraordinary women. They didn’t have time to wonder if they were doing things wrong. They just kept walking, just kept acting, just kept moving forward.
I am named for my two grandmothers. I chose this name because I could not identify with the former writing name any longer. I wanted a name that would remind me of the legacy that has shaped me–a legacy of hard work, sacrifice, curiosity, kindness, love.
I say goodbye to my Grandma J today. I suspect she and Grandma M are sitting at the feet of Jesus tonight, reunited as sisters in Christ, bodies and minds restored . . . and quite possibly scoping out a little plot of Heaven where they can grow some really big squash.
Till next we meet . . .