Grandma four months before her death
I dreamed that I was in Grandma’s room, helping sort through her stuff after her death. I was standing next to the sewing machine, and had just given the tray filled with brightly colored spools of thread to my mother. When mom left the room, Grandma came in.
“What are you doing here?” I asked in surprise. She murmured something noncommittal and lay down on the bed. “Are you comfortable?” I asked, and she adjusted. She looked the same, but younger; her body seemed to have a fleshy solidity that it had lacked in her last months, as she became frailer, tiny and brittle-boned. I watched her on the bed. Then I woke up.
The one thing Grandma always said about her eventual obituary was that she didn’t want anything in there about her sewing. But there it was, in my dream. What’s a girl to do?
Grandma didn’t talk about God, much. Oh, she would show you the poem about prayer that her oldest daughter, my Aunt Kathy, had written as a teenager, just a few years before she died in a car wreck. But she never showed us the letter Kathy wrote to her unborn daughter a few months before that wreck - the letter explaining that she believed in God because he had been her strength when she was at her weakest. Grandma didn’t talk about God.
Grandma talked about people. As an adult, I grew to love our gossipy lunch dates, where we talked about people: their pretensions (Dad), mistakes (both my parents, chiefly in regard to homeschooling - her opinion, not mine), charms (my youngest brothers), surprising changes (my middle siblings), and hypocrisy (all Southerners - Grandma was a staunch Yankee).
These conversations used to make me uncomfortable. Grandma had lived in the same town as my family from the time I was nine years old. Before that, my memories of her are vague, as dreamy as scenes from a Terrence Malick film: feeding seagulls by the ocean when Grandpa came to Texas for cancer treatments, running in their front yard in Kansas City, filling coloring book pages with Grandpa. When Grandpa died, Grandma moved to be near us.
I never felt that she was quite the right sort of Grandmother. I think my imagined ideal Grandmother was something out of a television version of the Victorian age, with white hair piled up in a pompadour, long skirts sweeping the floor, a jar full of freshly baked cookies, and lots of hugs and cuddles and compliments and silly gifts. Grandma wore sensible shoes and had short, salt and pepper hair. When she made cookies, they had healthy things in them, and she kept them in the freezer, not in a cookie jar. She could be a bit stern, and she didn’t talk about feelings.
When I was in highschool, Grandma helped me sew. She wasn’t pleased with my methods; I wasn’t meticulous, and I skipped steps. I didn’t always pin and iron. Grandma laughed at the pajama pants I made without a pattern, but she helped me construct a grey wool skirt that I still wear to this day.
I have a few vivid memories of the trip we took to Scotland when I was a teenager. I remember being awake in an Edinburgh hotel room at midnight, while Grandma snored loudly. I looked out the window and wished I could leave and explore the streets on my own. I remember being annoyed by the fact that every time we passed flowers, Grandma would say, “Do you see those flowers, Amy? Aren’t they beautiful?”
Yes, of course I see them, they’re right in front of me. I don’t have to comment every time. I can enjoy them quietly
, my angsty little teenage mind would retort. I remember slipping outside when the haggis was served, and napping on the tour bus with all the retired folk from the church (did I mention we were on a tour with older people from her church?). I remember loving the castles, and walking along the rocky beach of Iona by myself in bliss.
I suppose we didn’t connect well. I was too quiet, too bookish and dreamy; Grandma was too practical, too concrete and -- well, she thought books were a bit of a waste of time. But Grandma kept takingme on trips. Kept inviting me to lunch. Kept quietly depositing money into my college savings account. Kept supporting me when I made decisions she couldn’t comprehend (like moving to Southeast Asia). She may not have been the type to say “I love you,” very often, but her love was there, in her actions, steady and reliable, just like she was.
I know most people don’t get to have an adult relationship with a grandparent, but it’s one of the greatest things in the world. As an adult, I decided to reject my anxiety about our gossipy lunches and learned to enjoy them. Finally I understood her smart, sarcastic humor. Finally, I allowed myself to be amazed by the heartache she’d experienced in her life, and her resilience, loyalty, and love.
Finally I started asking for the stories -and I could never get enough of them - the stories that gave me insight into who she was, what had formed her, and what part of her was in me. I asked her to write them down, and she wrote by hand, even when her hands were barely working. This is how it begins, remarkably:
My Great Grandma lived in Missouri and was orphaned during the Civil War. She was rescued by a soldier from Colorado who took her home with him and raised her. She married John Paul Jones who had been a settler in this area. They had 7 children - Dan, a cattle rustler, Ralph and Ray, ranchers, Paul, a sheriff, Alice, Emma, + Etta (my grandmother). Etta had 2 children, Nellie (my mother) + her brother, Bill. She was married to Carl Stoddard. Carl had a race horse who was the cause of their divorce. (Do you call a horse who?) Anyhow, after the divorce Carl moved to Salt Lake City. At age 18, my mother went to visit him, and they travelled for a year from Alaska to Glendora, California.
My father, a son of immigrant German parents, grew up in Michigan. He was the youngest of 7 children. Henry, Herman, Bill, Mary, Minnie, Anna, + Albert. Mary took care of him as his mother did not want him. She fed him unpasterized milk from their cow.
Nellie (my great grandmother) met Albert (my great grandfather) when he worked as a ranch hand for her father. Albert called her on the phone when she had moved to California and proposed marriage. She didn’t have anything better to do... (which is how Grandma describes both her parent’s decision to get married, and her own). Al’s siblings cheated him out of his share of the inheritance, and he and Nellie were so poor that they lived for a while in a neighbor’s ice house. Then, he worked for 60 years at a Chevrolet factory.
When Grandma was in college, she used to go dancing every weekend. A different boy every time. A big band would play, and they’d dance till midnight. She married Grandpa in September 1942, and he headed to army training. She and her army wife friends made a cross-country road trip to California to be near their husbands, an epic journey of flat tires and gas rations and desert heat.
Grandma stayed with Grandpa until he died of cancer in 1988. They stayed together through the war, the post-war prosperity, the free-loving sixties, the loss of their oldest child, Grandpa’s alcoholism and manic depression, and his celebration of five years of sobriety. She stayed with a bipolar alcoholic, and not because she was a doormat.
Grandma found a lot of joy in life: in dancing, in flowers, in sewing, in finding a good sale, in traveling and in staying put, in watching her grandchildren sing and dance and grow up. She never talked about the hard parts, and she rarely talked about God. She didn’t speak much about love. But I'm starting to think that in her quiet generosity, her steadfast endurance, and her reliable presence, maybe she was actually preaching about God and love all the time.
Eileen S. (Cross) Lepine,
October 22, 1920 - March 22, 2013