Today is the third anniversary of my Grandmother’s death. July 25th, surrounded by her family, Quinn in her arms, she died. Below are the excerpts from my earlier blog and the words I spoke at her funeral. I miss her a lot, especially now, with Quinn. She would really like him. Today, William and I are walking to La Tarte to buy cream puffs because I would bring these to her each summer, once she got too old for the State Fair. The baker at La Tarte makes the best cream puffs in the universe, better than the fair anyway. We are toasting to you, Lolo, with whipped cream and powdered sugar mustaches and are hoping that somewhere you can see us and know that we haven’t forgotten this day:
Goodbye at 2:12
My grandma died yesterday.
The loloINK grandma.
No one called her Lolo until Luke was born and he couldn’t say Grandma Lois. It’s weird how that caught on. I can’t imagine calling her anything else now, but most of my life she was Grandma Lois.
She died at 2:12pm, which is the exact same time that I was born. That was a full circle moment for me and having her close our intimate connection in such a symbolic way was a very fine and sneaky and fun gesture. Three of my four children were holding her as she died. Luke, though, the one who named her Lolo, was camping ten hours north of her nursing home bed, in Ashland, which is where my Grandma grew up. Fitting, I suppose, that he, the child of mine with the longest link to her, the most time spent with her, would be honoring her on her old stomping grounds.
In fact, one of my favorite stories about Lolo is from her time in Ashland. She gave birth to my aunt Janice there, at home, on the floor. Worried about the mess she was creating, she asked her older sister to please hand her some newspapers. Her sister, mistaking the request for another kind, said, “You want to read? Now?!”
I have had the honor of being with both of my grandmothers when they passed away. Yesterday, I was struck by how similar their deaths were. My reaction to their dying though, has not been the same. When my grandma Jean died, I immediately wanted to celebrate her life, to tell stories, to talk at her funeral, but when Lolo died, well, I guess I just felt sad.
I did not expect to feel sad because she has been slowly dying for almost a year now. It was a beautiful death, a death I have been praying for. So I am surprised that I am sad and even more surprised that I don’t really want to talk about it.
Lolo is the entire reason why I wanted a big family. Her Christmas Eve is the reason I’ve worked so hard on my marriage and with my children. I want to grow up to be an old woman, with piles of presents on my lap. I want to grow up and cook a giant meal in anticipation of all of my children and grandchildren coming home.
Her influence on me has been enormous and subtle. My love of glasses, dishes, bathrooms lined with cute soaps…towels, nighties, coats, and beer, all link to her. She told me never to use the word hate or the phrase “pissed off.” She taught me how to love.
Last night I could not sleep. That is not unusual in the summer, because Sean turns our air conditioner off (because it is noisy) and then tosses and turns until the down comforter is twisted around me like rope. Last night though, I really, really couldn’t sleep. At four AM I walked downstairs in my underwear and spent the next three hours scrubbing the kitchen clean. I despise cleaning and never use it as a means to alleviate stress. I needed to not think, though, needed for my head to stop hurting, needed to sweat, needed not to wonder… and in some very weird and unexplainable way, needed my grandma to feel proud of me.
It felt like I was preparing the kitchen for a homecoming.
Lois’s Mass, Saturday, July 30, 2011.
My grandmother never went to high school, though she would have liked to, it was not an option. In fact, when it came time for her middle school graduation, no one even showed up. When I asked her why she eloped instead of having a wedding, she answered, “Well, you know, there wasn’t money, but anyway, who would have come? No one would have come.” So I hope she is watching over this church right now and she sees how many, many people are gathered together. Several of you have traveled from long distances to be here. You negotiated with co-workers to cover your shifts so that you could be here today. You gave up other plans. You showed up, honoring her in a way that she would never have expected or demanded, but in a way that would just delight her.
Windmill cookies, fig newtons, liver dumplings, pickled herring, martinis, sauerkraut and pork, beef with gravy, corn candy, circus peanuts, concord grapes, waffles with strawberries and extra whipped cream.
There are so many foods that always make me think about my Grandma. When we were going through photos for today’s service, I came across one of her grinning, wearing a red and white polka dot dress, in front of the oven, her immaculate kitchen behind her. It is the only photo that I have asked my family to let me keep.
There are certainly more lovely pictures of her . . . photos from way back where she is simply gorgeous, but to me the heart of my grandmother lies in that kitchen photo. She loved cooking for all of you. The finest days of her life, she would tell me, are when her kids were little and the neighborhood ladies all wore housedresses and would pop in for afternoon visits to swap recipes or stories or coupons.
I still dream of that house on 72nd street and in my dream I am almost always in the kitchen. Even now, I can smell that dish soap and feel the clatter of the pile mismatched old utensils in the spoon drawer. I can smell the cabinets that held all of her fancy glasses, and the cabinet below that one, which had candy in it . . . peppermint leaves, usually.
Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was pure magic to me . . . not because of the prepared meal or the tree, but because of the energy in that kitchen, where many of you would be . . . making drinks or egging one another on to try the herring. And always a kid or two, in the kitchen hallway, playing with the clothes chute.
The thing about dying slowly though, is that many of us said goodbye to that house years ago. We watched my grandma transition to Deer Creek village where she made a whole new host of friends. She always made friends easily and quickly and though she was never the leader of the pack, she was always sitting quietly among the group, always gently present, always open to all points of view. Even there, at Deer Creek, well into her nineties, my grandma made dinners for my entire family. She always burnt the rolls and there was a lot more salt than there was from the 72nd street kitchen, but still, it was lovely.
Lois spent the last several months of her life at St. Anne’s. She watched a lot of Martha Stewart. One of her hospice nurses told me that she’d always look at whatever Martha was cooking and say, “I used to make that, but I did it this way . . . I’m sure Martha’s is good though.” When the reality of being in a nursing home would set in, she’d beg my mother or me to take her home. Once I asked her what she wanted to do at home and she looked at me, a sad stare, and said, “I miss cooking.”
I don’t think it’s the cooking she missed so much, as it was the idea of being surrounded by all of you, sharing a meal, breaking bread, laughing. My grandma was not a woman of many words. She was occasionally shy. She was quiet, but she was also strong and brave. For a woman who was raised without a mother, she ended up setting the bar pretty high for the rest of us.
And though she had strong opinions, they were about simple things, like her insisting my mother make my brother and I wear undershirts. “It’s winter, Pat. They will catch cold. Where is her undershirt?” Or her insisting that I take Capitol Drive for my route home. I could have been in Racine and she’d tell me to take Capitol. She definitely had a stubborn streak and as far as the little things went, she liked it her way.
About the big things, well, I’m sure she had opinions, but those she kept to herself and in doing that she gave her children the greatest gift. She let you be who you are. She may have disagreed with you, but she let love win, every time. I have never met anyone with children so diverse. She let you find yourself in your own skin and then she loved you some more. And if you complained, she’d tell you it could be worse. And if you were really complaining, she’d tell you to “think positive.”
I think in the end, one of the saddest things to witness was her letting go of those two catch phrases. It was hard to watch her live in a situation where even she had a difficult time finding the positive. Even she didn’t imagine it could get much worse. It’s why in many ways, letting go of her now is easier than it might have been. She is free of that body and free of pain and we are free of witnessing it, which allows us to then really reflect on and celebrate the life she lead. I know she would want you to think positively about her.
She would want us to play cards or Yahtzee or bingo. She’d want us to gather. Months from now, she’d hope that you’d see a peony bush bloom and that the site of those big, pink blossoms, would fill your heart with happy memories of her. She wouldn’t want us to dwell on the little details of her life, but to celebrate her spirit, which, lucky for us, runs through each of our veins, gracefully, delicately, without a trace of bitterness.