Posted by: Kate | January 16, 2009

Grandma O

My great-grandmother was, hands down, my very favorite person on earth. Until age 85 or so, she was still living at home, spending summers at her camp in the Adirondacks (where I joined her every year from age 6 to 17), and was just so full of life and humor and love. My summers with her were, no matter what was going on in the rest of my life, a sanctuary of safety, routine, and relearning how to just sit and watch the lake.

This is a woman who filled a fairly traditional role through her early life. Born in 1913, she had seen so many changes in the world, worked when she had to, raised two children, and doted on her husband – until he died, in the late ’70s. Suddenly single, though not alone because her adult son had returned to help her keep house, she strengthened her friendship with her daughter’s mother-in-law – another of my great-grandmothers, Grandma B – and they embarked on a series of adventures. Once there was a trip to Hawaii, and another time found her in Myrtle Beach. There were lots of drives to Turning Stone casino “because it’s like a circus, without the animal poop, and with free beer.”

My favorite of their stories, though, is when they got kicked out of an Irish pub in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day. That time, they went to New York City on a bus chartered by the assisted-living apartment complex Grandma B lived in. Once dropped off, they were free to play the tourist at their own discretion. While walking down a sidewalk in a particularly posh neighborhood, they noticed a long line of people waiting to be let into a building. They seemed to be holding little slips of paper of some sort, and Grandma O noticed two just lying on the ground. So she picked them up, and they ended up crashing an exhibition at some high-end, private art gallery. Neither of them had any idea what the style of the art might have been, who was hosting the party, or even where it was on a map. This is partly due to their basic cluelessness in that particular branch of culture, and mostly due to the free champagne being passed liberally around.

From there, they wove their wobbly way to an Irish pub around the corner. It being St. Patrick’s Day, and both women being just a step or two removed from Irish roots, they knew they needed proper food and libation to celebrate. Somehow, it ended up with Grandma O back in the kitchen, alternately scolding and educating the cook on the proper methods of preparing corned beef and cabbage, and Grandma B demonstrating her once-famous skills at Irish stepdancing… on top of the bar. They were escorted, carefully but firmly, off the premises, more for reasons of safety and crowd control than actual shocking behavior, but still. Grandma O was deeply proud of that time they almost called the cops on her in a bar in New York City.

Lest you be envisioning a couple of haggard, inappropriately dressed, garish women, let me tell you that my great-grandmothers were always carefully and properly dressed, always sweet, always pleasant and grandmotherly. They just knew how to hide a wicked sense of humor under the serene exterior, and knew when to send caution to the wind.

Grandma B died in the summer of 2000, and Grandma O’s adventuring days, without her favorite traveling companion, were over. She seemed content with her knitting, her cooking – I swear to you, the woman could have a potato, a bag of frozen peas, and some milk, and she could throw together a meal to serve 20 with fifteen minutes’ notice – and her phone calls and visits with family.

She started to have a decline shortly after I was married, and it went downhill fast – cardiac issues, TIA’s, generalized weakness… it became too much very fast, and she needed to be moved into a nursing home. I rushed there then, to spend a weekend with her to just sit by her bedside. That is when I learned how to knit. I bought a random ball of yarn and cheap aluminum needles, a plastic tablecloth and dollar-store toys, and Emily and I set up in her room: me sitting with Grandma O and slowly, awkwardly fumbling through those first uneven knits and purls, the tablecloth spread out on the floor to provide a space for Emily and her toys. She taught me an unusual style of knitting, which I later learned is called Combination knitting, as opposed to Continental or English; it’s rare enough that I wish I had known to ask how she had learned it in the first place.

Grandma O hung on, and we visited when we could (we were two states away), over the next few years. Then in June 2005, we got the call: she has days or less remaining, if you want to visit her again, now is the time. This call came through a week before the closing date on our home, so we threw the kids in the car for a whirlwind, overnight visit to upstate NY. She looked entirely different than the Grandma O that I remembered: frail, cloudy, lethargic. At one moment, she grabbed my hand with a surprisingly strong grip, made clear and direct eye contact, and whispered, “I’m so tired.”

My heart broke a little. I rubbed her arm, and kissed her cheek, and whispered back, “I know. I can see how tired you are. It’s OK to let go if you need to. We love you so much.” She didn’t speak again, but she found ways to communicate with both of the kids – a touch, a brief smile, even a bit of playacting when Emily showed her a wooden snake. It was worth every mile of that stressful, sad drive.

She died four days later, on the morning of both of our closings – one to sell the old house, the other to buy the new one. The movers met us at the house to literally throw furniture and boxes in the general direction of the rooms they were meant to inhabit, and we dug through clothing boxes to find appropriately funereal outfits. Then we drove back to New York.

The funeral was a nightmare. Completely personality-less, soulless, boring, literally just some random old guy flipping open a dark book and reading a few pre-scripted funeral passages, then a reconvening at the graveside for another faceless regurgitation of cliches. I was appalled, and outraged, and hurt beyond belief, because those who were in charge of the funeral had failed at such an epic level. I wished I had known, before the funeral was done, that it was going to be so empty and unsuitable for such a seriously amazing woman; I would happily have risked the scorn and resentment of the rest of my father’s ineffectual family to stand up and say a few words in her honor. But I didn’t know, and realistically there never would have been much I can do, and now it’s all in the past anyway, because we are estranged from the rest of my father’s extended family.

But there was one bright moment, while Willem and I were standing with the kids next to Grandma O’s casket. We had done our best to explain the concept of death in age-appropriate terms for a 5-year-old and an 11-month old, and now we were all taking a moment to tell her good-bye. Jacob, at this point, still did not speak – his first spoken words didn’t appear until after he was 15 months old – so we expected him to wave good-bye, or perhaps to ask for milk, because those were his two favorite bits of sign language. So, when Willem said, “Jacob, can you say, bye-bye, Grandma O?” none of us was expecting a verbal response.

So it was a little bit amazing when he leaned over, blew a kiss with his fat little baby hand, and announced, “Bye-bye, Gra!” We all heard it, and a good thing too, because no amount of asking, trickery, or begging could get him to repeat it, then or in the coming months.

We went home, and went on with our lives. She didn’t leave anything in terms of material wealth, at least not that I am aware of, but I inherited her recipe books, many of her knitting notions, and the apron from her kitchen at home. I hope I have also inherited some of her spirit, her joie de vivre, her ability to redefine herself when life changed around her.

Just musings for a day when I’m not likely to be up for much blogging, given a root canal on Thursday. Someday, I will schedule some quality time with my scanner, because photos really are in order here.



  1. Those are beautiful memories and beautiful stories. I would love to see pictures.

  2. What a wonderful soul to have crossed the earth and shard her spirit with many. I think there is a bit of her in you, though there may be more after 4 Vodka and Cranberry. 😉 I would love to see pictures of her as well.

  3. Kids understand in a special way. They just can’t talk like we do. Iam sure yor great-grandma’s soul would have blessed your kids.

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