My Grandma Donna died last week. The words are simply impossible. I feel blind and brokenhearted.
I don’t know many people who know their grandparents like I knew my grandma. Most people know some stories and recognize photos from the hallway frames, appreciate a few signature recipes, and remember visiting their grandparents on holidays and birthdays. I grew up one mile from Grandma’s house and even as my travels have taken me far from home, Grandma’s house is a cornerstone symbol of home to me. Crackers and cheese in Tupperware, a mess on the kitchen table and counter, and AM1430 KEZW in the background…I can’t think of anything more homey right now.
Some of you knew my grandma as a sweet little lady, a silver “Q Tip” as Dustyn has called her. Others remember her as a sour apple. She was both. But, there are a lot of flavors between sweet and sour, many of which you may never have tasted.
After living with Grandma as an adult, I learned some things that I am honored to share. There is a “correct” way to hang sheets on the line…and Martha Stewart does not know what that correct way is. It’s just smart to put your car key and house key next to each other on your key ring so you don’t have to fumble around to find one after the other, especially if you come home after dark. Buying Tide on sale means you could be set for a long time, possibly years, after just one wise purchase.
One time, I found 41 bags of chocolate chips in the basement. When I asked her why she had so many, she told me that they were on sale and that she thought she’d make chocolate chip cookies. I asked her just how many cookies she planned to make and she laughed. She actually giggled at the ridiculousness of it all. Her intentions were as sweet as the chocolate itself. Right now, there are six boxes of Chex and a few tubs of mixed nuts in the basement…
Grandma really missed Grandpa Harry. She regretted that she didn’t watch football games with him, something he often asked her to do. Halloween was especially meaningful to her, their anniversary. She missed him with a deep longing and cried quietly when certain things reminded her of him. I once told her that she should get a boyfriend or hang out with Vic or something, to which she quickly reminded me that Vic had a girlfriend, one he went dancing with each week. One of her fondest memories was of she and Harry dancing on a dance floor in Las Vegas after they were married. While not a big deal to many people, taking the dance floor made her feel pretty, loved, and special.
Grandma treasured thank you cards and people who didn’t send them hurt her feelings. She appeared angry at their disregard for propriety, but really it just hurt her feelings. Grandma remembered working hard from a young age and giving material things wasn’t always easy in her lifetime so gratitude for gifts meant quite a lot to her. In her younger years, she itemized the grocery list down to each dozen of eggs and gallon of milk because each quarter mattered. She worked as a waitress at Mickey’s Inn as a young woman and was proud to be a highly accurate postal worker for 27 years. It was hard for her to learn all the streets in order and zip code parameters, but she didn’t stop studying until she could recite the information accurately and quickly. She prided herself on never giving up and on knowing the streets in order for years after retirement.
I wrote lots of letters and cards as a little girl and delivered them to Grandma to send out. I didn’t know until years later that the post office required stamps to send mail. She’d just happily take my stack of mail and send it for me. Looking back, it made her feel needed and that’s what made her smile.
She showed love by giving food, socks, and instructions. Grandma didn’t really know how to show love the way she wished she could, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t try. My grandma drove me nuts and made me crazy. She also doted over me when my heart was broken and hugged me hard for no good reason when she knew I’d been crying. A small stack of carefully folded laundry on my bed when I got home from work, clean towels in my bathroom, and unexpected probing questions were all ways she knew to offer love. She made me tea and cookies from the can on the white cupboard, and we’d sit at the kitchen table and talk about the news, the weather, and what Lacie did while I was at work. She loved my LacieMae, despite a general disregard for people’s pets. They both knew the UPS man by first name and looked forward to his periodic visits. And, when we lost Lacie, she cried hard, too.
She clipped coupons and Betty Crocker box tops and stored them under the microwave. She always went to bed with a tissue in her hand and she slept best on her side. She was nosy and bossy and stubbornly certain about the right way to put the dishes in the dishwasher, the plates in the cupboard, and washcloths in the linen closet…among other things. She really had a thing for Tupperware and could tell you at least five unique uses for each piece. Deviled eggs were always made for Easter, but never for the Thanksgiving table.
Grandma wanted to be a nurse. Her earliest memories, much like mine, were of terrible ear infections and she remembered that the punch of a penicillin shot at four years old made her ears feel better. She taught me the importance of face cream and a good quality bra.
Grandma thought herself as ugly her entire life although she took a lot of pride in rolling her hair nearly every day of her life, whether anyone saw her or not. She graciously and humbly enjoyed compliments when someone noticed her wearing beautiful earrings or commented on her looking good in the color red because it was in those moments that she felt truly pretty. She thought John Wayne was the most handsome man on the silver screen and regarded my mom as the strongest woman she knew. She liked musicals and listening to baseball games over the radio because they reminded her of being a young girl when radio was all they had. Grandma never learned to skip as a young girl and was dreadfully afraid of the water. She loved the bird of paradise because her dad brought it to her as a young girl, but her favorite flower was the amaryllis.
We took her to see Vice President Biden when he visited Colorado a few years ago. As he swept through the crowd, he stopped, waited for her to stand up out of her wheelchair to hug her and thanked her quietly and directly, for her support. She said, in tears, it was the highlight of her entire life. My grandma’s patriotism was unparalleled and over her little porch on Ivy Street proudly flew the American flag on Veteran’s Day and Independence Day. She’d tear up at the very mention of a fallen soldier.
So many of us work hard our entire lives to make our mark on the world, move up the ranks, be a renowned something. Grandma’s goals weren’t worldly. She worked hard to keep her house plentifully stocked and the yard manicured. She valued honest work, reliability, and regard for tradition. And, my grandma was generous. She was so generous…a quality you may never have had the opportunity to experience. I know there are people in this room to whom Grandma extended herself when no one else would have done so and we know she was a generous person under a tempered outer shell. With a ninth (?) grade education, she never expected much of her own legacy and so looked to each of us as evidence of her own craftsmanship.
This tough lady lived through world war, the Cold War, broken families, the women’s rights movement, segregation, cross country moves, economic rations, and the birth and death of the drive-in movie and American car culture. She loved her big band music, but really liked Michael Jackson, too.
My grandma was secretly scared of the dark her entire life and nothing brings me more joy right now than knowing she never has to fear the dark again.
When you know someone — authentically — it means knowing the best and worst parts of them. The real trick is loving them anyway. And, if you’re fortunate to know a person between the Kodak moments of their life, somehow along the way even the simple mention of their name is like flipping through the pages of an epic novel of memories, lessons, mental movie reels, and sentiments laced with joy, sadness, and everything in between. I have deeply joyful memories of Grandma…and some bitter ones. It’s a funny thing how one phone call can turn vinegar to honey.
I am really, really sad. The only thing I know to do that offers any sense of peace is to pray. Over the past week my Prince of Peace, who authors breath and heartbeat, has reminded me of wildly wonderful things about my grandma and scribbled “forgiven” over others.
Grandma believed in God and she prayed every night. I found this out in a funny way. I had started sneaking out of the house early on Sunday mornings to go to church. Each week, she’d work in a question about where I was going or where I’d been. I told her I was meeting my girlfriend for breakfast or that I was going to mom and dad’s house. Then, when mom started asking about where I was going, I wasn’t sure what to say! I realized one night that for the first time in my life, I was lying to my family and sneaking out of the house…to go to church of all places!
When I finally told Grandma about where I was going, she asked to go with me. Grandma was lost and broken in many ways, but she prayed and held a slow burning hope in her chest. We talked a lot about God. Grandma really liked listening to Gil talk about how Jesus came to comfort lost and broken people. She stood up straight when she met Gil and about fell over backward. She’d have been “tickled pink” that this dear family friend is here today.
In this room are stories and memories covering ¾ of a century of life with a mom, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a neighbor, a grandma, and a friend. I’m not sure how you go on when you lose someone who’s always been there…easily found on the other side of 303-288-9156 or at her little brick house behind a locked screen door. More times than I can count, I walked up the lawn to the door and knew she’d never hear me coming in because she had Glenn Miller Band turned up so loud, the entire neighborhood was swinging.
I love my Grandma. She was a hard person to love at times, but overwhelmingly lovable and caring, too. She taught me many, many things, but this last lesson will make me a better person. Once someone is gone, it’s easy to count the times you should have said “I love you” in word and deed and it always adds up to more than you actually did. My prayer is that the family she built her life around remains a monumental legacy for generations, that we can learn and live forgiveness, kindness, humor, humility, and that in our dance of life, we include a little swing in her honor.