When I was born, my British grandmother, fondly known as Gramma J, was just 45. She was a young mother, as was my mother. By 50, she’d have three grandchildren and one on the way.
Gramma J is still alive in body, but her spirit has long since left this world. She suffered a stroke many years ago and has acute dementia. She lived independently, with the help of an aide, until recently. Gramma J has smoked since she was a teen, and Arizona’s recent record-breaking winter drove her smoking habits indoors. This was problematic for many reasons, namely that as someone with both dementia and a nicotine habit, she could easily burn the house down.
Her children decided it was time to find her a place in a memory care center where she’d be cared for. Gramma J and her late husband lived in their home for more than 20 years. It was a place where my brother and I loved to spend weekends. We’d play in our Grandfather Leonard’s workshop, chase the neighbor’s farm animals, and raid the pantry for full-size chocolate bars and whatever the Schwan’s man delivered recently.
Their house was decorated when my Gram was at the peak of her accounting career in the early 90s. The off-white leather couch, hutch full of cut crystal figurines, and cocktail carts spoke to their lives as adults with grown children. When we visited, my mom used to warn us not to touch anything. We didn’t want to be inside anyway.
Two weeks ago, my mom came to Arizona to both see my grandmother, and to empty her home of its belongings. We went through closets of clothing she hadn’t worn in decades. There were polyester suits, silk scarves, and heels, a stark contrast to the comfortable cotton sweatpants and slippers she lives in today. Leonard’s workshop sat dusty and empty, with a stack of wood still piled in the corner. Every inch and tchotchke reminded me of her, down to the Union Jack magnet on the fridge.
There is so much to say about going through her home and having to decide what to keep, sell, donate, or give away to neighbors. My mother wanted items she’d made for her mother — calico quilts faded from heavy use, and oil paintings she’d done in high school that still hung on the walls.
Eventually an estate company and a dumpster company were called to manage the minutiae that we didn’t know what to do with. Would someone want her towels? Surprisingly, yes. And the pantry full of old Corningware–dishes she’d used to serve us English peas, her favorite, for years? They’d sell too.
I knew what I wanted. It was the same thing I wanted when my Grandmother Maxine similarly developed Alzheimer’s and went into a care facility. Stubbornly, foolishly, and with all my heart, I wanted my grandmother back.
With Gramma J, I want to be 8 years old again, driving around in her pink 1976 Thunderbird to Tower Plaza before she married Leonard. We’d spend these weekends like two single gals out on the town. She’d let me stay up and watch whatever I wanted on TV while we ate pizza. For being a woman who never weighed more than 100 pounds, she always had the best ice cream in her freezer.
I want to go to Target with her on my birthday, when she’d let me load the cart with new school clothes and always sign our cards, “xoxo, Gramma.” I want her to take us swimming at one of the apartments she lived in before marrying Leonard. She’d sit on the deck, her capris pulled up to dip her toes, and we’d splash and scream until our eyes burned from the chlorine and her cigarette smoke.
While I’ll remember her for happy memories, when Gramma J was fully here, she was a complicated, stubborn, and generous woman. What she was incapable of giving to her children, she tried to make up for with my brother and me. It often left my mom scratching her head to see her emotionally constipated mum telling us how much she loved us.
Gramma’s mom abandoned her three children and husband when my grandmother was in elementary school. Her father, my great-grandfather, struggled. This single act profoundly influenced my grandmother’s life. I think Gramma lived worried that unexpectedly she’d wake up one morning and her children would be gone, just like her mother. Why she was able to put this worry aside when it came to loving her grandchildren decades later, I’ll never know. These are the things you don’t see as a kid, but come into ugly focus when you look back with adult understanding.
When we pulled away from her house for the last time, the car was loaded with the quilts and paintings. My mom cried quietly in the passenger seat. I took a spoon from Gramma’s collection, a bottle of tequila from the cocktail cart, and the Union Jack magnet.
What I am actually taking away from my grandmother’s life is this: our decisions influence generations. Our selfishness, kindness, or generosity may change the lives of those we’ll never meet.
Hold your children’s hands and tell them how much you really love them.