Saturday, October 24, 2015


I learned from my mother yesterday that my final grandparent, her mother, had a heart attack and stroke and would pass in the coming days. My pragmatic mother asked me to alert one of my five siblings as she was preparing to fly out to see my grandmother in her remaining days. My last grandmother at 90 years of age was wrapping up her life, and all I could think was that I wanted her passing to be as swift and painless as possible. I then thought of my mother, how sad she was when her father passed nearly 30 years before. I asked her if there was anything I could send along to be of assistance, as I am also pragmatic. My thoughts turned to how I should process the upcoming loss.

I wasn't close to my grandmother. I was under the impression that my parents' union was undesireable to my maternal grandparents. My father was a troublemaker who became a cheater. My grandparents were very middle class people, seeming to be the perfect television family of the mid-century. I spent most of my life living at the opposite end of the continent from them. The narrative from my talky father was that my grandfather was pissed about their union. It was implied that we were the lesser grandchildren because our father was "undesirable." I know most of my siblings grew up with this in mind, thinking we weren't considered good enough or worthwhile to my mom's mom and dad. We were never invited on vacations with my grandmother, didn't have snapshots of fun weekends with them, didn't even really have phone calls where they asked about our lives. I'm sure it was the distance, but it didn't help the narrative that we weren't good enough. I didn't even bother telling my grandmother about my wedding because I figured my young age would predict failure in her eyes simply because my father wasn't what they wanted for their oldest daughter. How do you process the life and loss of someone you felt had only a polite interest in you because of half of your parentage?

In a fast chat with my brother, I realized he probably wasn't sure how to process the end of our grandmother's days. We grew up under the same impression. We didn't want our mother to experience grief, but we felt disconnected from our grandmother. My youngest brother didn't really spend more than a few hours with her beyond his infancy. He didn't know her beyond Christmas cards with money and visits every few years. He has fewer memories than I do.

I decided to indulge in a narrative of the positive experiences I had with my grandmother so my younger siblings can know a little bit more about what she was like, and how she influenced my life a bit more than one might expect from a long-distance relationship. As my father's daughter, I felt challenged to impress my grandmother all the time. (My grandfather had resting bitch face all the time as if he could never be impressed. That's where I got mine.)

My grandparents had concrete deer in their front yard. I loved climbing on them. When I was a little thing, I could only climb onto the fawn. When we visited for their 40th wedding anniversary, I could climb the buck. She never told me to stop because I would potentially break them. I didn't have to sneak onto the deer. I could freely pursue something small and simple that made me happy.

When we visited my grandparents, I would go on daily walks through the neighborhood with my grandmother. We'd pass through a perfect suburbian neighborhood, passing the town library and the post office and that yard that had a totem pole. There was at least one mulberry bush on the path, and she knew I was drawn to mulberries as a moth to a flame. She didn't discourage me from indulging as long as we kept moving. There was no time to pack a lunch from the mulberry bush, but I could grab a couple berries as we passed. It was important to see an undertaking through to the end and not get too distracted along the way.

My grandmother was a school teacher when I was a child. I wrote to her after we moved away, and she used my letters full of childish importances to instruct her first grade class. It seemed I could be a good example for someone.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother busied herself with new pursuits. She took up the flute and violin, learned to tap dance, went to Europe with her sister a couple times. She made a point of having at least one meal a day with someone so she wouldn't feel alone. She was a firm believer in continuing education, and she never seemed to feel she was too old to learn how to do something new.

Two of the best holiday cookie recipes I have (candy cane cookies, cherry coconut bars) came from my grandmother. Holiday cookies are best made in large batches intended for sharing. Holiday baking is a ritual that was passed to me from my mother that I passed to my younger sister, and we still use those recipes. You have to share the best stuff because you want other people to have some awesomeness.

She had a prize box in her basement. If the grandchildren were well-behaved, they could select a prize from the prize box at the end of the visit. I got a battery-powered draw poker machine from that prize box that entertained the hell out of me on the train ride home. I love rewards that are actual rewards, and I'd still like to get prizes when I behave.

Once when I visited her, the neighborhood kids and my cousins had a bicycle race. I didn't learn to ride a bicycle until I was twelve so I kept time. My schoolteacher grandmother made blue ribbons for everyone who participated. They weren't lame "participant" ribbons; they were "first place" blue ribbons. On the back of each ribbon she acknowledged the individual talents and contributions. There were things like "First Place Cyclist - 10 Year-Old Division" and "Coolest Shoes." I got a blue ribbon for keeping time. It was pretty cheesy at the time, but I recognize that she wanted everyone to feel valuable and worthwhile. 

My grandparents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary when I was ten. I hung out in the bar of the VA and chatted with the menfolk when I took breaks from passing out drink tickets at the door. I flipped through the photo albums of their married histories, albums I'd never seen previously. I was fascinated by these people whose pre-me lives I had never known. I'd love to get my hands on those albums today. It was curious that they were celebrating their 40th anniversary when the 50th was supposed to be the big one. My grandfather died of cancer within a couple years of the celebration. The lesson I took away from that was to celebrate every moment I could, commemorating what I felt was important because the celebrations carry you through the tough times you'll face.

I know I'm not the only person to face the death of a relative, and I know I'm not the only person to not know what emotions and experiences are appropriate in such a situation. Maybe I should keep a box of blue ribbons around to celebrate people's lives as they pass from mine. Maybe I'd write on Ellen's ribbon "Best Educator" or "Best Mom's Mom." Maybe she'd get "Best Attempted Redhead" or "Most Patience." 

Maybe most fitting for me to write would be "Challenge Accepted."