My Grandmother passed yesterday. I found out today. I’m a mess of different feelings, mostly sad. But that is a bit selfish. She was 97 years old, and in the last month, all she wanted was to die. She was tired. She had quit most medicines and had quit eating. She was ready to go. I knew she was ill and ready, but I wasn’t. I live very far, but I tried to call often. I just assumed she would always be here, even as I knew she was leaving.
Last time I was home, I visited everyday. But that doesn’t seem adequate now. I loved her stories, especially the one about taking her horse to school. She went to school at a time when there weren’t any school buses, or even many cars for most people. She rode her horse to school everyday because, well, that was just the way people went. She had lived through the great depression, and raised not only her children but many foster children. She lived through WWII and the 50’s and she lived through all the changes of the 60’s and the landing on the moon, and all the changes that are going on now.
My grandmother had a difficult life, and in many ways she was a difficult woman. She was a farmer’s daughter who married a farmer and had lived most of her life on the razors edge of poverty. Yet she baked the most wonderful pies and cakes and cookies. And until after my grandfather died, she brought them to the church every Sunday. Looking back with aged eyes, I think she was much more generous than she was given credit for.
She was often stubborn and argumentative, but those are the qualities necessary to keep a farm in the great depression. When I was young, we would only go back to the farm on Thanksgiving and for a few weeks in summer. My grandmother would bake all our favorite cakes. Mine was Texas cake, a super rich chocolate pan cake. We would help set the table, and my grandmother would talk while cooking dinner and tell my dad all that had happened while we were gone. After dinner we would watch some TV, and I would hole up in a corner and read one of the few books on her bookshelf. I also loved the seed catalogs that she always had, and would daydream about the kind of garden I would have when I grew up. ( When my dad passed away, I was sitting in the living room, and someone asked where I was. My grandmother’s response? “She’s sitting in a corner, reading a book” – I wasn’t but apparently that is what I would do most of my summers back on the farm)
This is the family lore: When my grandmother married my grandfather, it broke her father’s heart. He didn’t speak to her for 7 years. Seven. She was fierce in her determination that no one child or grandchild would be a favorite,and we would all be treated equally, and that the door would always be open if we wanted to come home. All her children and grandchildren knew this. She had my uncle, her first child, on a table in the kitchen of the farm my grandfather worked on, far from her family. Yet when she talked of her father, although she was a bit angry, she wasn’t bitter. There are photos of her when she was young, and she was quite beautiful, although I don’t think she ever defined herself as that. She had polio when she was younger, and walked with a limp, but I always thought she was one of the strongest people I knew.
These are the stories that define my grandmother in my mind:
On my grandparent’s 50th anniversary, the family had a party for them. I asked who the other, non family members were. They were all the foster children that my grandmother had taken in. She took in many kids, some for a week, some for months, some for years. And they all came back to help her celebrate her anniversary. All of them. I was so proud of her.
This was after my grandfather retired from farming. We were coming back home from church on Sunday. My grandparents were in the front seat and I was in the back. Grandpa was complaining about the dinners, because mostly my grandma was making soups and sandwiches, and wasn’t cooking the big dinners she used to. Grandma said to him, that if he got to retire, so should she. And she was retiring. I admired her a little for that.
When I came to the farm, my dad would drive us. We usually arrived after dinner. We didn’t need to ask “are we there yet?” because on the way there would be a series of signs, “Pass” Don’t Pass” that we would read off, and when we turned on to the gravel road that lead to the farm we would get very excited. There were always cookies in bright blue tupperware bowls, and snacks for us. When we woke up in the morning, my grandma would make us cinnamon toast. Toast with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top. I know it doesn’t sound particularly special, but my mother and her family never made it, so I only got it at grandma’s house. I would wake up, and she would make cinnamon toast and I would eat with the newspaper like a real grown up, while everyone was else where. My grandma always let me stay in the kitchen as long as I wanted. I never seemed to be under her feet.
Grandma collected salt and pepper shakers. They were everywhere. I don’t know when she started, or even if she meant to start collecting salt and pepper shakers, but they soon over-ran the house. They were on every shelf in the living room, on shelfs of glass by the window, on special shelves on the walls. Everywhere. I loved looking at them. All of them were so different.
My grandmother quilted. She stitched everything by hand. She didn’t use a machine at all. Most of the quilt I remember weren’t fancy. They didn’t have a lot of patterns, just squares of material from old clothes that had worn out. She had some from blankets and coats. She would sit in the living room on her chair, next to grandpa’s chair and stitch while she watched “All My Children” after lunch. She had turned what was supposed to be the dinning room into a quilting room. I remember bits and pieces of quits almost finished on the big table, and quilts folded and stacked on a cot to the side. It was also my favorite room, because there was a bookshelf with Reader’s Digest condensed books and a big comfy chair, and I would sit and read as grandma cut and sewed.
I won’t be able to go back for the funeral. I live too far away. I’ve always lived far away. Sometimes I’ve felt one step back and three steps to the side of everyone else in the family. I will go back in February and I will say my final good byes to her gravestone. She will finally rest, and I hope it is in peace.