Cross-posted to Offsprung.
The town is small. One main road, at the head of which sits the high school. As you go east, you pass four or five bars until it comes to an end at the Baptist church, the biggest building in town. I've been coming to this rural Illinois area for my entire life. The last time I was there was nearly three years ago.
The occasion then was my grandparents' 65th wedding anniversary. It was a surprise and we packed the fellowship hall with the entire family, including 10 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and the latest arrival, the baby, the first great, great grandchild. As we waited for our grandparents, ages 86 and 83 respectively, to arrive, we joked that we shouldn't yell to loudly when they enter, lest we scare 'em to death.
They walked through the door and my grandmother's face crumbled. She seemed to see every face at once and her reaction was something I'll never forget, the image I chose to remember as I got on the plane to return.
My entire family was there again. My grandmother, Sarah, passed away last Monday at 86 years of age.
A few months after the anniversary celebration, my grandma had a stroke. She made it back, but not all the way. For the past year, she's been in a nursing home. The last few months, she's been wanting to die.
None of us could begrudge her that. Her life had been full. A devoutly religious woman, she wanted to see her Savior. As the pastor said during her funeral, "She was not afraid to die."
Grandma grew up the only girl along with a handful of hell-raising, hard-drinking brothers. She, herself, never took a drink. A popular story at all our get-togethers told about the time she got into a car accident with a police cruiser and the officer, chagrined that it was his fault, locked her up for being “drunk.” What she really was was terrified. The image of grandma in a holding cell always brought laughter, but I don’t remember her even smiling at the memory. Even decades later, she was indignant at being accused.
She loathed alcohol, once threatening to leave my grandfather after the war, taking his girls away if he didn’t stop taking his paycheck down to the corner bar on Fridays. The ultimatum delivered, he stopped, smoking, too, right then and there.
Whenever I’d visit from the coast, she’d warn us to behave ourselves. Myself, my brother and my other two L.A.-based cousins. “You California Boys,” she’d say. “Life out here isn’t what you’re used to.” The subtext was that we shouldn’t corrupt our Midwest cousins. We’d carry that weight, regardless of whose idea it was to hit the after-hours roadhouses just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. More than once, we slunk back as the sun rose, our only goal to not let grandma see or hear us come in.
When I was in high school, my grandparents came to live with us in California. That was difficult for a couple years. I was just entering my Teenage Jerk phase and their presence was akin to adding another set of parents, when one was plenty. I wish I’d appreciated that time more, having them close, something my other cousins had the luxury of for most of their lives. Still, I have some great memories of that time. They got to see me play sports. I spent long hours talking baseball with my grandfather, who's now 89 himself and showed uncommon fortitude last week. We were all most worried about him, but he gave us no outward reason to be. A Cardinals fans since birth, we suggested he'd be fine once spring training came around.
My Aunt Judy sang a song at the funeral. She did so without accompaniment. It was unreal. She decimated all of us. Not a crack in her voice or a botched note. Not a single falling tear until she’d finished. By then, we were all reduced to quivering husks. My cousin Paul said he thought it was raining; the tears bouncing off the padded shoulders of our suits. We were awed by Judy’s strength. I asked her how she’d done it. “Mother asked me to,” she said.
The pastor who officiated had known my grandma his entire life. She was the only person who still called him “Ricky.” The only person who could “get away with it,” he said. My grandmother changed his diapers in the church nursery forty years ago. He spoke of her faith, embodied in her lack of fear about dying. And of her faithfulness, how she devoted her life to her family and her church in equal zeal. All of us sitting there attested to it. I was reminded of that anniversary celebration three years ago. When all calmed down, I got a chance to sit with my grandma. I asked her of what she was most proud in her life. Her eyes got all teary and she said, “The people in this room.” Us.
I’m comforted knowing she knew how much we all loved her, how much we all needed her and how much we've learned from her example. I'd laughed at her across the generations, rolled my eyes at our different ethics, but I am not so different. I have her blood coursing through my veins. I have her lessons etched in my DNA. I have her eldest daughter, my mother, repeating her words for as long as I remember. We are products of our past, better and worse, glorious and despairing, and all we can do is exalt in the times we've had, be thankful to have possessed her as long as we have and never forget her strength and radiance. Her faith and faithfulness.
Friday night, a bunch of us grandkids and spouses went out for dinner and drinks. What always happens at these reunions is a seamless melding. Though I don’t often get to see my Midwest cousins, we fall into easy and familiar patterns. We’re bonded, untroubled by time or circumstance. I told a friend back home that everyone was responding well to the pain of the occasion because we were making fun of each other again, like always. That is grandma's legacy.
After dinner, we laughed over beers at a nearby bar. Told grandma stories with smiles on our faces. At one point, I said, “What do you think grandma is saying watching us right now?” Everyone responded simultaneously,
With reproach and love. But mostly love.