My grandmother passed away this week. She was 101 years old. The sadness of her passing is tempered by the dementia she suffered the last fifteen or so years of her life. We lost the essence of Grandma long before her final departure. It’s an important distinction because of the woman she was and the influence she had on my life. Even as I write this, with plans to return to my hometown for her funeral, I know what she would say to me if she could – “What? Fly all the way up here to put me in the ground! No, no, no. Don’t do it, travel is dangerous, you’ll catch a pneumonia in this cold weather, I don’t want you going out of your way over me.”
That was grandma. If there was a Great Hall of Worriers, her portrait would be there on the wall. No one could worry like my grandma. She worried someone would abduct us, she worried that pinching each other caused cancer, and she worried that you’d catch a cold if you didn’t wear a tee-shirt…even on the warmest of spring days. My brothers and me were often accosted as she tried to confirm we were wearing a tee-shirt. Grandma was maybe five feet and maybe a hundred pounds, but she was quick and there was no escaping the tee shirt inquiry…even when we grew to outweigh her by sixty pounds. As a child, her worrying mostly made me crazy, although at her house I was never concerned that something might be hiding under my bed or in the closet…Grandma checked both before I went to sleep. Some of her worries were over the top, “Grandma you cannot go through every piece of Halloween candy I got – there are no razors in it!” Some were creepy, “Grandma do you think someone is lurking in the woods waiting to abduct me when I get off the school bus?” Some were just selfless, “Grandma you’re worried that I’m going to hurt myself lifting the very thing you just carried fifty feet?” As I said, when I was a kid they drove me crazy, when I became a father I understood them a little better, in her passing I miss her worries because I realize it was just how she “loved” us.
So she worried for us, but she was hardly a woman who cowered behind locked doors. Grandma fully engaged the world. I grew up with zero gender bias because in watching her, I had no reason to believe that a woman was any less than a man’s equal. Grandma was a great negotiator and she could at times be Machiavellian without having any awareness of Machiavelli. At times perhaps she showed a tad too much interest in business that was not her own. She used to say, “people only hate gossip when it’s about them.” In my experience I think she was mostly right about that. And I recall eavesdropping on some of the “great family wars” she had with her sisters and cousins – all related to gossip. When grandma was pissed you could certainly forget that this was a small wisp of a woman. Grandma was not afraid to tell you “what’s what.” But at the heart of it she was a cool diplomat, a good talker and an excellent story-teller. My love of horror may have been nurtured by my Mom, but my inspiration to tell stories was all Grandma. She would tell them with vivid detail and with the perfect rhythm of suspense and rising action. Okay so a lot of them ended with the story moral… “be careful” (she was after all a worrier) but still they captured my own desire to tell stories.
I can only recall her being angry with me on one occasion. I wrongly got mad at her and told her to “go to hell.” The expression on her face, a mixture of anger, hurt, and disappointment made me instantly regret my words. I apologized later, but those words have remained one of the few things in my life I would take back if I could. Whether my anger was justified or not, Grandma did not deserve to be spoken to like that. She forgave me – of course. She always forgave me everything. She always understood. She was always there for me. In life, we question many things, we at times may question the love of our family and our friends, but I never questioned Grandma’s love.
I often slept at her house. I was a bit of a night owl and usually the last to sleep. When Grandma finally got me to bed, I would try to delay sleep by asking for a cup of tea (it was the seventies we didn’t worry about caffeine or sugar). She never said, “it’s too late,” and she never said, “you’ll be asleep before I can make it.” Even though experience taught us both that the latter was true. She always went to make that tea. She could have just gone to the kitchen and waited five minutes and I would have been fast asleep, she could have saved herself the effort, but she never did. She went to make the tea and I went off to asleep. And every morning I would awake, and there on the night stand was that cold cup of tea. How many times that happened are too many to count. I believe it didn’t matter to her that I would fall asleep. I believe to her, love wasn’t about my actions it was about hers. It didn’t matter that the tea was made for a sleeping boy, it mattered that when I awoke I would see asleep or awake she was there for me.
It seems like a small thing, but what I learned from that cold cup of tea was unconditional love. Grandma did not define her love for me by the things I did or did not do, not by my achievements or my failures, she did not weigh her love for me on a scale of disappointments and successes. Her love was an unconditional thing. I was me and that was always enough. The testament of her love was nothing as grand as a proclamation or monument in the park. Her testament was to overly worry about my well-being, it was to forgive before I could ask for forgiveness, and it was a cold cup of tea next to a sleeping grandson.
There is no sadness in her departure from this place. The essence of my grandmother, the woman who so greatly influenced my life, the one who’s worry drove me crazy, but who’s love made me strong – she left me years ago and I have missed her for a long time. But there is no sadness in that either because life is like the heat in that cup of tea – even when it is gone, the love, the memories and the meaning still remain.