My Grandma died in May, just about exactly two years after my Grandpa died. (I never called them "Grandma" and "Grandpa," but that's what they'll be for purposes of semi-anonymity in this post.)
I miss her presence in my life.
That is what she had become. For the past 10 or 15 years or so, she had not wanted visitors. Maybe it was too hard, any more, to cook and clean and be the gracious hostess. She was a bit of a pack-rat, and so maybe it was hard to present a clean home for guests. Maybe it was partly because when her son, my uncle, killed himself in the mid-90's, it just made her feel less open to the world. Too much hurt out there, or something... Or maybe it was too hard for her to contemplate clearing away the clutter of her books and papers, the manuscript she was working on, only to have to pull it all back out later, in the loneliness after the guests left, and reorganize her papers, and her thoughts. Maybe she felt she had earned the right, in her 70's and 80's, to be a bit of a hermit, to hang up her "hostess" hat and put on her philosopher hat, to see the world on her terms, and her terms only. She never said why, she only ever said it was "not a good time to come... maybe next year." Only next year was never a good time, either.
So, she was a presence. A voice on the phone. A pretty face in a photograph. She would call occasionally to talk (not so much to listen, really). She sent occasional letters or handwritten cards, presents for the kids... my Grandpa used to send occasional pictures, but I got no more of those, after he died two years ago.... He always saw her as beautiful, and she was. She talked with my Mom daily, and so I kept up with her life, her triumphs and troubles, her ... self. But I had not seen her for years before her death.
Still, I miss that presence dearly.
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I visited my grandparents each summer when I was a kid. Some of my favorite memories are from the time when they lived in a fantastic house in Florida, near one of the best beaches in the world. I posted a photo of me in front of the house with my bike, here (scroll down to number 4). I think I wrote in that post that I never quite forgave my grandparents for selling that house and moving to Atlanta. Well, I've forgiven them now. Atlanta opened a whole new set of opportunities for both of them, and they shared its delights with me, just as they had shared the delights of small-town Florida with me when they lived there.
My Grandma was young, though she seemed "old" to me at the time -- she was only about 40 years older than me -- and in Florida, she would take me to the beach, and shopping, and out to fun restaurants for lunch, or out for ice cream, or for walks around the neighborhood.
She taught me the value of neighborliness and caring for others, as she took small baked treats and brought me for short visits and lively conversation with the elderly woman next door, who was confined to her bed.
Although my Grandma was what they called, at the time, a "housewife," she also devoted a pretty large chunk of time to helping my Grandpa with his insurance business. He was very successful in his chosen career, in part because of her good advice and savvy business skills. She had her hands full, between my Grandpa and that huge old house. Also, two of my uncles still lived at home, attending high school. But more than any of the titles you might give her based on her day-to-day life -- wife, mother, secretary, office manager -- she preferred to think of herself as a philosopher. She loved to contemplate ideas, to think about the deeper meaning of things, and of life in general.
In high school, my Grandma's guidance counselor had told her that it was "too bad" she was a girl, because otherwise she "could have gone far" with her intellect. In her later years, she really resented the fact that she had been discouraged from pursuing intellectual interests based on her gender, but at the time I think she accepted it as "the way things are," and so she married my Grandpa when she was 18. They were married for 67 years, until he died two years ago.
They had a sometimes difficult, but very devoted, relationship. He struggled with alcohol off and on throughout his life, and that caused a lot of stress in their marriage. He often was not a happy drunk. But despite the difficulties, she always cooked and cleaned and cared for him, and helped him make his way in the world of insurance sales. He, in turn, provided well for her and his growing family, financially, and respected her for her intelligence.
I remember sitting in their grand old kitchen in Florida, and later in their smaller kitchen in Atlanta, or riding in the car with them, while my Grandpa would read articles from the paper and ask to hear her thoughts about things. Sometimes he would share things he thought were amusing. Other times, he seemed to want to spark a debate with her. And still other times, he just wanted to know her opinion.
She shared her opinions freely and forcefully, on any and all topics. She was not a shy, retiring person, but a force to be reckoned with. If you disagreed with her, you had best be prepared to make a good, logical argument about it. Usually, it was easier to just do what she said.
She wanted the best for those she loved, and she had a keen memory for details, and this often came across as a controlling nature. If she were your boss, you'd say she was micromanaging you. It could be frustrating to deal with her, because she always thought she knew the best way to handle a situation, and would be angry if you didn't do it "her way." But given time, she always got over her anger and returned to loving you, even when you didn't do things her way -- and regardless of whether your way worked out ok for your or not.
She loved to take me places and show me new things: the beautiful and/or controversial art at Atlanta's wonderful museums; the joy of music in the park at dusk, while watching the fireflies blink on and off; the view from the top of Stone Mountain; the varied treasures one could find at flea markets and antique shops... and she would have my uncles take me to "kid places" like Six Flags Over Georgia, or a baseball game, or the Star Wars movie. She encouraged a broad range of interests and activities, but did not feel compelled to participate in all of them.
She was a wonderful cook, and always a gracious hostess. Whenever I would visit her, she would make her latest favorite recipes for me and my Grandpa to savor, and would offer up a selection of books she thought I might enjoy (she knew how much I loved reading), and would have the softest bedsheets on the bed, with the TV remote on the nightstand... heaven, for a kid. One could become quite spoiled, visiting my Grandma.
She and my Grandpa also were adventurous in their choice of restaurants and would patronize everything from fancy fine-dining establishments, to local "hole-in-the-wall" family-owned ethnic restaurants, and even chain restaurants. The only requirement was that the food be delicious. And that requirement could be overlooked on occasion if the place was fun for a kid.
She and my Grandpa took me out to enjoy some of the finest food and most-fun restaurants Atlanta had to offer. Everything from the best-ever home-style BBQ, cornbread, and collard greens at a small diner that was always crowded on Sundays after church, to virgin daiquiris at the revolving restaurant at the top of the 76-story tall Peachtree Plaza hotel (a very exciting experience for a kid from a small town in Florida), escargots at a fine French restaurant, or curry at their favorite family-owned Thai restaurant down the street.... And, let's not forget Morrison's cafeteria, which has since closed its doors. How I miss Morrison's. They had the best macaroni and cheese, and always good fresh fruit like watermelon, and great fried chicken, pot roast, prime rib, or broiled fish, veggies cooked perfectly (not overcooked and mushy), and delicious chocolatey desserts.... I loved Morrison's, and have never found another cafeteria that comes anywhere close to the quality and variety Morrison's provided daily.
I think I mentioned already, my Grandma loved to read and to discuss philosophy. But she wasn't above enjoying popular culture, either. I remember sometime in the mid-'90's, she was delighted to discover old re-runs of "Cheers." And she became a devout Atlanta sports fan in the early '90's when Deion Sanders was making headlines playing for both the Falcons and the Braves. She was fascinated by his abilities, and her enthusiasm for his achievements and for sports in general was contagious.
* * * * *
One of my uncles has been charged with finding a publisher for the philosophy manuscript she worked so hard on during the last years of her life; it was the culmination of a lifetime of studying and dissecting philosophy, religion, scientific thought... The thing she wanted most was to be remembered for her ideas, her philosophy. I can't wait to see her words in print, to learn what her final thoughts were on the meaning of life.
* * * * *
She died a harder death than she had to, I think. She fell and hurt herself a couple of times over the past year, and refused to go see a doctor or go to the hospital, I think in part because she did not want to leave her writing, her life's work, until it was done. None of us knew how bad the injuries really were until she finally admitted that she had taken to bed and started hiring people to come help her with various things. She'd pay someone to get the mail and do her shopping, another to come by and bring her food and help her to the bathroom and back, another to care for the dogs... By the time she decided to go to the hospital (I started to say, "by the time we convinced her to go..." but that would be inaccurate. No one ever "convinced" her to do anything; she was determined to be in control of her own actions at all times), it was too late. She was too weak to withstand the surgery she needed in order to save her life. So the doctors sent her back home, with hospice care, to die.
It is not the death I would have chosen for her, if I had a choice.
When my uncle and his wife (my wonderful aunt) appeared at her bed side, my Grandma first fussed at them for coming and tried to send them away, but later she told them she was glad they had come. Thank God for small miracles. Thank God they were available, and able to come and care for her. Thank God she accepted their gift of time and love.
* * * * *
My Grandma told me a story once, about her riding the "Lady Bird Express" campaign train [fn 1] in the '60's across the South, and filling in as a "body double" for Lady Bird Johnson when Lady Bird was tired. She would wear one of Lady Bird's outfits and stand on the back platform of the train waving at the crowds as the train rolled slowly through towns where no stop or speech was scheduled. I have no way to verify if this is true, because of course the official campaign staff have never stated that anyone filled in for Lady Bird, but I suspect it is true because it is the kind of thing my Grandma could have pulled off.
* * * * *
For over 30 years, I've been able to say, "Atlanta? Yeah, my grandparents live there." Well, I can't say that any longer. They are both gone now, and Atlanta will never feel quite the same for me again.
* * * * *
Sorry for rambling so much. I am having a really hard time with this one. I just can't capture my Grandma's spirit and essence quite the way I want to... It's too mixed up with too many losses. The loss of ... My Grandpa. My uncle. My Florida Childhood. Atlanta "back then." Family harmony (see my prior post entitled "Write a Will. Please, Write a Will."). And of course, my Grandma herself, in a way lost slowly over time as I was able to see her less and less over the years; but in a way, suddenly gone forever...
... it's just too hard.
* * * * *
I'll always remember my beautiful, challenging, smart, kind, difficult, adventurous, controlling, charming, graceful, and wonderful grandmother. The world is a worse place without her.
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footnote 1: Here is a link to a short online blog post about the Lady Bird Express campain train. Johnson had passed the Civil Rights Act, which was hugely unpopular in the South. Nevertheless, Lady Bird Johnson campaigned on a "whistle stop" train tour for her husband across 8 Southern states - without him - in an effort to drum up support for Johnson and for his domestic and civil rights policies. She faced many hecklers and jeers, but she delivered her message calmly and gracefully.