Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Remembering a Long, Beautifully Imperfect Life


Nine months shy of 90 years old, my paternal grandmother died this afternoon.

In a seven month period marked by cancer death after cancer death, her death marks the only one that ‘makes sense’ to me.

In fact, of the almost two handfuls of people we have said goodbye to in the recent past, she is the only one who, in my opinion, really died. The rest were killed. Mostly by cancer.

My grandmother had 10 children. She was raised in a big Italian Catholic family and she and my grandfather created their own big Italian Catholic family. She and my grandfather (who died just over 20 years ago) were not perfect parents but they did the best they could to feed, clothe and educate all ten. Every one of her children has gone on to create their own familial units and she has quite the gaggle of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

My brother and I were the most remote geographically so my interactions with her were mostly limited to summer vacations and a few trips I took as a young adult. And letters. We wrote real, live, paper letters to one another. When we did gather together, it was usually for a wedding. As the oldest child of the oldest child, I attended many of them and have fond memories of ‘boogieing’ with my grandmother on the dance floor until the reception closed down.

She was a fabulous dancer.

She was also a beautician. She had her own salon in the basement of her Ohio home. The cousins and I would play in the swivel chairs and old school hair drying chairs. Sometimes she would paint our nails. Once she gave my poker straight hair a perm. I bore a shocking resemblance to a brunette poodle for the next six months.

She was a keeper of memories.

Lots of things found their way into cigar boxes and, as I reached adolescence, my grandmother would take me into her bedroom and show me old photos, the ones that meant the most to her. She would tell me stories of those long gone but not forgotten. She never let the dead be forgotten. At the time, I didn’t realize how important it was to keep those memories alive. I was a bit concerned by what I felt was a macabre focus on the dead. Now I understand as I strive to do the same with those who have so recently gone. The memories keep them close. Sharing those memories feels good.

The last time I saw my grandmother was nearly 10 years ago at a family reunion. She met and held my children and, for the first time, I could imagine how incredibly difficult it must have been for her to try and raise ten children while my grandfather worked two and sometimes three jobs to put food on the table. I felt an empathy for her I’d never felt before and a strong desire to learn from her mistakes. And her successes.

And then dementia began. (While my memory is sometimes spotty, the dementia was hers, not mine.)
Alzheimer’s took much of my grandmother’s vim and vigor nearly a decade ago, and so, in the scheme of things, I felt as if I had already said my goodbyes. She was no longer the vibrant woman I remembered as a young child. She no longer remembered me although my father swears she had moments of clarity for her ‘favorite grandchild’. I’ll take that. I hope that when she remembered, she thought of our long walks across the train tracks. I hope she knew that she was the only adult I would hold hands with long after I’d deemed myself ‘too big to hold hands’. I hope she knew that I learned things from her and that I have fond memories of our time together.

One week ago, I was told she was put under hospice care. On any other day, this may have upset me but just one day prior, I was told a young friend of my daughter had been killed in an auto accident. Killed. Taken away too early. Just like cancer. Another senseless death to explain to my children. Another death that made me angry and sad and scared.

So while today, and for the coming weeks, my family mourns the death of a woman who is directly responsible for so many of us being on this planet, I feel very much at peace. My grandmother lived her life. A full life. A beautifully imperfect life. She touched us all and there was goodness there. We shared dances and butterfly jewelry and photos of long gone, but always remembered, loved ones.

Tonight, I will dig up my own pictures of the past and honor my grandmother as she honored those that went before her. And, after a few tears, I choose to share the good memories with my children and hope that I am so lucky as to live a long, beautifully imperfect life.



Family Reunion 2004