Wednesday, January 16, 2013
On January 3, my grandma M passed away. She was 97 years old with a birthday coming up in April. Every year for as long as I can remember, I've gone to her house on Christmas for the afternoon, and this past year was no exception. But this year was different. I knew as soon as I saw her that this would be the last Christmas with her, the last time I saw her. She was alert enough to receive my kiss and give me one of her own and to see her great-grandson wave at her. I unwrapped our gift to her, a framed piece of J's artwork, and put it on her dresser where she could easily see it, placed in front of the brilliant red amaryllis someone had given her. She commented on how lovely it was and how she'd never had one before. When we had to go, I hugged her goodbye and told her I loved her. She did the same. A little over a week later, she closed her eyes at home in her own bed, which was what she wanted.
As I said at her funeral, as a kid, I didn't appreciate her. What did I know; I thought she was kind of fun but old. But as my mom reminded me, she regularly took me to the art gallery: as an artist herself, she wanted me to appreciate the colors and shapes and various forms that art took. I realize now that my love of that art gallery started with her. I also remember going to lunch at a little place near where I used to live that had land and a pond in the back, and we'd always take our Saltines to feed the ducks.
Growing older, I began to see that Grandma, while still old, had a razor-sharp mind and a quick wit, which she often used to tease my father with. I didn't call or visit as often as I should have, but when I did, we always had fun and good conversation, and I knew I better brush up on current events because she certainly knew and had an opinion about what was going on in the world. She read avidly, even teaching literacy classes to adults, and we discussed books often, a trait that I believe has been passed down to J as he grabs a book and plops himself down in my lap with increasing frequency. Before I met T, I had a relationship with The Wrong Guy. At the time, we lived together in Kentucky, I had no job, and I was trying to make something work that I really just needed to walk away from. I know Grandma worried about me and wanted me to break it off, but she never quite said that. What she did say, almost every time she talked to me, was that I needed to look in the mirror every day and tell myself, "You're a good person." Although my parents might argue with me, at the time she was my biggest fan and advocate. I'll never forget that.
She raised three children alone from 1963 on, never remarrying after her husband died of a heart attack (yes?) at 42. They met during WWII in North Carolina, and as a veteran, she received a beautiful and powerful military send-off at her burial that will remain etched in my memory: The sunshine, the cold, and the silence as we watched two young men in dress blues solemnly and properly fold an American flag and hand it to my father along with three bullet casings representing Duty, Honor, and Country. The three-volley shots echoing on a January day.
At her funeral everyone spoke about Grandma's intelligence, her interest in and love for others, and the fact that she had absolute principles that didn't waver. And she'd let you know: She would always support but sometimes say, "Just so you know, I don't approve of this." I suspect I may find myself saying the same one day to my own child...and I'll have to try not to smile as I realize Grandma adds one more part of herself to me.
I will always miss her, but I will make sure to follow in her footsteps in terms of the life she lead: Unwavering principles, love of art and literature, and support of her family. Right around the time of her death, I came across something stating that instead of fearing growing old, as our culture seems to, we should embrace it: It is a gift to live long enough to grow old. It means a long life, hopefully filled with many experience and memories and loved ones to share in it all. Grandma had that in spades, and she recognized that gift every day.
Christmas will be different next year, but I know we'll spend it remembering her and making new traditions, which she would have loved and appreciated. As long as we celebrate together, she'll be a part of it all.