Today my grandmother died.
In many ways, I want to stop the post right there, but I can’t quite because grandmothers die all the time, and though loved, I’ve never known one quite as exceptional as my own. I’ve loved all my grandparents and have been lucky enough to have known them as an adult myself, a privilege many do not have. But this lady? Living proof that being a strong, independent woman doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your jewelry or fashion sense.
She lived through a kidnapping, an upbringing in a convent during extremely lean years, a reunion with a mother she thought was dead, a child she would give to her mother to raise, a marriage, two kids in her late 30s and one at 40 (!), a broken back, two broken hips, the mental illness and death of her son, the decline and death of her husband, and the ruin of the house she and her husband built together (black mold), and at 88, she was still shopping, telling me not to bite my nails, and logging on to check her email.
A nurse for many years, she gave out shots, and some of my parents’ friends still remember her chasing them down to inoculate them. She and my grandfather helped several Vietnamese families after the war, teaching them English, helping them find work, and looking for homes for their families. All week, the children of the families they helped have been in and out, adding their own memories and stories.
Three weeks before she died, she asked me when I would finish writing the novel I’d begun on her fascinating life. She had a stroke days later, and her left side was immobile. That didn’t keep her from kicking that leg and exercising her left arm. It also didn’t keep her from nicking my straw fedora or fingering the earrings I wore on each visit (she also loved her bling).
Though she wasn’t a reader until the last few years, my MawMaw loved stories. She told me again and again about our family, passing down our history so I would remember. She especially loved sharing the odd family names, from nicknames to real ones – Mary Ottago, Sally Mustgo, Alfrus Jefrus Lounsy Warwick, and Raspberry Greene Newman.
We’ve been in hospice for the last week after a rapid downturn in her health, and my sister and I spoke on the phone one of the evenings after our nightly visits, talking about how grateful we are to know about our grandparents’ lives, and we talked until our cell phones gave out, about our Uncle Tiny who sent us $5 each Christmas for the movies and just where one or two second cousins fit in the mix. She assigns her 4th grade students each year an interview with their grandparents, telling them they may not listen now but that one day, they’ll appreciate having asked their grandparents about themselves.
They’re the keepers of stories. I’m grateful I was allowed so much time with mine.