I’m 34 years old, and my last living biological grandparent died on Tuesday afternoon. I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have known grandparents into my 20s, let alone 30s, because frankly, they were really old. My granddad died in 2008 at the ripe old age of 97.5, and my grandma who died this week was 3 weeks shy of her 93rd birthday. They were parents late for their generation due to my grandpa being overseas in WWII. My dad was born in 1949 when his dad was 38 years old, and my dad was already 28 by the time I was born. My grandpa celebrated his retirement 5 months before I was even born.
So my dad’s mother passed away this week after about a year living in a nursing home. She had pretty much stopped talking, and definitely had some dementia. She’d forget who you were, but sometimes she’d know, and that was even before she was moved into the nursing home. On a good day, her eyes would light up when you visited and I felt satisfied that even if she wasn’t sure who I was, she was excited to have company. When I want to say goodbye to her on Monday evening, my mom announced my presence and she reached up and grabbed my hand. That was good enough for me.
She had a lot of pain. Her eyes had deteriorated long ago and she wasn’t able to read anymore. Her back ached from years of being bent over, top heavy and suffering from osteoporosis. She’s free from all of that pain now.
This woman was not an easy person. She was stubborn, so stubborn. Her tongue was critical–when I was an awkward teenager starting to get pudgy, she’d tell me I was getting fat then offer junk food. There was a bitterness about her, but there are also memories in the corner of my mind where everyone would get laughing about something and she’d laugh so hard she’d be bent over, tears in her eyes.
I have her body. Her sloping shoulders, shaped calves, top heavy. (I had a reduction, she never had the luxury.)
The happiest she seemed to be was telling me about how smart she was in school. Salutatorian of her high school class, she headed to Cincinnati from a small town southeast of Lexington a few years later to work as a maid/nanny for a rich family. The story as it’s been told to me, she met Walter at a YMCA dance. She was 22 when she married the 30 year old.
My grandma was fiercely independent, and she looked a lot like Julia Louis-Dreyfus. When my grandpa was deployed during World War II, she lived alone and walked to work at her salesgirl position at Sears on Reading Rd in Cincinnati.
I know bits and pieces of her youthful history, then it stops. My dad was born in 1949, and his brother in 1952. It seems my grandma stopped being social after she became a mom–something that might have been impacted by a husband working 2nd shift, or just the fear that people get that something might happen to their kids. I don’t know…but I do know that she wanted a daughter so badly (remember, she had 9 brothers) but she didn’t get a girl in the family until I was born to her son in 1977.
My grandma and I weren’t really close. When I was a kid, I was always afraid to ask her to go upstairs and get the toys out of the closet for me to play with when we were visiting. I didn’t have any cousins until I was 10 years old, so I entertained myself at my grandparents’ house. They lived across the street from a park, but I wasn’t allowed to go there without an adult because it had a pathway that connected their neighborhood to a housing project. She was brusque, and that made it hard for a kid to know where they stood with her, but she showed her love in her cooking. I really don’t like anyone else’s carrot cake recipe.
Grandma didn’t really like to tell many of her own stories, but she’d correct my granddad when he’d tell stories–interrupting him to correct who was there, or the year it happened. I have a video of them, taken probably in 1998. I was really broke–I had just started a new job after a long depression post-firing and I needed a birthday gift for my dad. My mom and I cooked up the idea that I’d go over to my grandparents’ house and just film them talking about their life. My mom helped me convince Grandma that it wouldn’t be a hassle. Grandpa was stoked from the get-go.
I arrived at their house, and my grandma had taken the slipcover off of the couch and they were dressed up. I set the camera up on the tripod and basically said “tell me about your life.” My grandpa spoke. “I was born April 3, 1911 in Lee County, Kentucky” and then they both talked for about 90 minutes. At the end, I was trying to get my grandma to say something profound about how much they love all of us or something, and all I could get was a “SHUT THAT THING OFF!”