This last two weeks have been ones to go down in the record books. My birthday was on the first of the Mondays and it was also the day that my maternal grandmother passed away.
It wasn’t a big secret that this was coming; she was nearing ninety and her health had been declining for some years. Several years ago, she moved into a nursing home and had had constant medical care available to her. There have been a few scares along the way. So not unexpected, but with any conclusion of a chapter, there is always sorrow.
There is also the largest family gathering that I’ve seen in years. I’ve arrived in Wisconsin on the Wednesday, having made rather sudden travel arrangements on Tuesday when I got the news. I’ve been blessed in being able to be involved in helping plan the ceremony itself and handle some of the details. I helped in putting together some pictures of her life into a tableau. It was a great honor to be able to be among the first to the wake and to be able to greet people as they came in. I think that particularly because of the distance at which I’ve always been from my family, this meant something particularly special for me. Family is a rare and cherished event for me.
My grandmother was an ambiguous character. She was at her best with small children and really spent her life with them. She gave up teaching when she was young to help raise her older sister’s kid. She married and had six kids, but when her own children were old enough, she went back to school and got her teaching certificate and spent her career teaching head start classes. Little kids were her thing.
She had a difficult life, raised in the Great Depression and moved thither and yon in order to survive and get an education. Her father died when she was two and her mother did what was necessary to support her four kids. My grandmother finished her primary and middle school years in a one room school house, then had to board with strangers in a bigger town to get her high school education. She worked for her board, helping take care of the kids and acting as a mother’s helper. But even though it was the 1940s, that level of education wasn’t good enough for her – she went straight into a teaching academy. My grandmother, in one of her most superhuman feats, raised six kids as a single mother. And then, when they were old enough, she went back to school to finish her education credits. Wowza.
My grandmother often frustrated her family with her distance. My memories of her all come from when I was very young and we did crafts together. As I grew older, our visits became more awkward. I remember her speaking to me frequently through my mother and resenting it. When she’d lost some of her mental acuity due to diabetic complications, she remembered me as “Merry’s daughter”, but couldn’t remember my name. And I think that’s how she thought of me – as a person that was intrinsically related to my mother, but not someone she really knew. I wished for years that I knew her better. I wished that I knew how to. I don’t know if it was on purpose that she was so distant, or if she thought she was protecting us, but I think most of us wanted to know her better than we did. I’ve been heavy hit with grief; more than I expected given how often we communicated over the years. I apparently took a lot more solace in knowing that she was there than I realized. I’m now the oldest in my direct maternal line and I am not ready for it.
I seem to come from a long line of remote and admirable women; women who don’t let their period of history limit them. I’m at least a third generation feminist, just one more fighter in a line of fighters. And my grandmother’s legacy was so obvious at the funeral – the room was filled with people that wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t made the choices she did. Goodbye Grandma – may we all live to die of old age, surrounded with the evidence of how we changed the world. You taught us to love music and crafts and education and to care about social justice. You done good.