My husband's grandmother passed away last night.
I would say peacefully into the night, but that wasn't her style. She fought death every step of the way. Because that's who she was- a tiny, spirited woman who was full of life.
This Saturday she would have been 95. Instead of cake, we will be celebrating her life at her funeral.
I have always enjoyed older people, so it's no surprise that we had a very nice friendship- not just the required family stuff, but I considered her a friend.
Ever since I was a kid, I enjoyed hearing my grandparents' stories about the good ol' days. And the bad ones, too. I learned history through our family stories. My great uncles who fought in WWII in every branch of service. My grandfather's jobs in the mines. My grandmothers' stories of cleaning houses, working at Woolworth's and of course, all the family dirt. That was the good stuff. I wrote letters to my grandmothers starting after high school, all through college and into my post-college life. They were openly jealous of all the neat things I got to do that they couldn't do "in their day." Their letters are the most valuable items I own. Period.
Mary and I obviously didn't correspond because we were near each other and she was always there. I almost wish we had so I'd have those letters to cherish.
Shane first introduced me to her after we had been dating a few months. He knew we would like each other. He said she could be blunt, so be prepared. She was absolutely, positively baffled by the fact that I went to Cornell. His cousin went there-- he was really smart-- was I that smart, too? The Cornell in New York? Yes, the Cornell in New York. And my sports coupe threw her for a bit of a loop. To be honest, it was a better fit for her and I was a better fit for her Camry. Let's just say she liked to drive fast. Very fast. And I drive like a grandma. That's YOUR car? Yes, it is.
We were from different times.
I think it took her awhile to figure me out. I always joke that Shane's family was terrified the first Thanksgiving that I was supposed to cook. He knew I could cook. His parents knew, too. The rest of the family didn't know what to make of this outsider- this stockbroker from New York.
That's when they realized I really was a small town girl from the mid-west.
The turkey was fine. Mary was impressed.
She watched my son when he was 6 weeks old. I had a client meeting for
about 90 minutes near her house and she loved babies. When I came back
to pick him up, she met me panicked at the door. Apparently he had been
crying and the only way he would calm down was to put him on his
belly. She knew that "you girls today don't do that" so she had sat on
the bed and watched him sleep. I laughed and told her I had no idea
what I was doing, she had had 5 kids so I trusted her. She laughed and
said she had never known what she was doing either. So we both sat
there, on the bed, and watched him sleep, making sure he didn't die. It
was pretty funny. She had also used Desitin from the 1950s because she
couldn't find ours in our overstuffed diaper bag. She liked to keep
things until they were empty. She was frugal. I don't know what the
shelf life is on Desitin, but my son has survived the past 11 years, so I
guess it was okay.
After I had my son, I scaled back my practice. I usually took Fridays off. I would shop at the Whole Foods near her house. I swung by fairly regularly for some coffee. Not because she was my husband's grandmother, but because I genuinely enjoyed her company. We'd talk about everything and anything.
During one of our chats, she got me a cup of coffee. The baby cried, so I fed him, changed him and then went to drink my coffee and it was cold. She laughed and said "Honey, you'll never have a hot cup of coffee again." Truer words were never spoken. I laugh when I try to have a cup at home and it inevitably gets cold.
She would share these great stories of old Las Vegas. Of the family- all the good and bad. We also talked a lot about contemporary topics and she was quite opinionated. We also agreed about 90% of the time. She was very proud that I worked and still managed to be a good mom (or at least try).
She called me one day- she had a question on something-- and she noticed I was out of breath. She asked if I was okay. I actually started cracking up. I confessed that what I was actually doing was chasing my 18 month old son around the backyard. He had taken his diaper off and was covered in poop and I couldn't catch him. I can still hear her laughing. She'd had that happen more than once as well.
She was a devout outdoorswoman. She loved to camp and fish. She would tell fish stories and just get giddy. I made a photo montage for her 90th birthday. During the fish sequence, she started talking over the video and telling the story of this one really big fish that had been in the sequence. It was as if she had just caught it.
She loved her flowers and gardening- we shared that interest. I would bring both my kids over and she would walk her backyard with them and let them smell the flowers. Or she would find a lizard with them. Or point out a bug.
And speaking of flowers, my allergies were really bad one spring. We had stopped by to say hi-- we tried to when we were in the neighborhood. I told her how awful I felt. She agreed that it seemed really bad this spring. She had a huge olive tree in her front yard. As we were leaving, she started shaking it to show us the pollen. We got in the now pollen covered car in our pollen covered clothes and I looked at my husband and said "I thought she liked me. I think she is trying to kill me." And we just laughed. And then I took some benadryl.
She always asked me how I made something when I would cook dinner. She loved my stuffing. In fact, I started crying in the grocery store when I was buying the pine nuts that she loved. She would pick through the stuffing and eat the pine nuts like she was a squirrel.
She never tried to tell me how to live my life-- which was unusual because from what I could gather from everyone else, she always had suggestions. She did give me a diet book once. To her credit, I've put on a lot of weight. She didn't mean it to be mean but rather because she cared. I thought it was quite a nice gesture.
Most of the family feared the Wrath of Mary. She would openly rip you a new one if she thought you were screwing up. I very seriously think my husband quit smoking because I threatened to tell his grandma. You may laugh, but he begged me not to tell.
She adored my kids. The first time she held my son was at the hospital. We were alone in the room and she looked into his eyes and cried. I asked her what was wrong- she looked up and said "He's so beautiful. He's not all white and pasty like our babies." My husband's people are mostly tow heads or redheads. It still cracks me up.
She and my daughter had a special connection. Mary had a habit of squealing when she saw the kids and squeezing them very tightly. You could see them cringe- - even as adults-- tightening up as she approached preparing for the hug. My daughter, on the other hand, would run right to her and melt into her arms. Mary was always well coordinated and my daughter loved all her baubles and brooches. My daughter loved the delighted shrieks of joy from Mary- the more dramatic, the better. They also shared a love of art- Mary was a wonderful painter.
She had a group of girlfriends that lunched together into her 90s. Family and friends were always important to her. She nurtured relationships. She always treated me like a good friend.
She never stopped learning. She was always reading something. She was up to date on everything.
Watching her die was one of the hardest things I've ever had to see. She fought it every single step of the way. She couldn't remember me at Easter. She tried. She knew she knew me and she tried to fake it valiantly.
The last afternoon we sat around her bedside and told stories. We were all laughing at the practical jokes and the fun family stories. The hospice nurse pointed out that she was trying to make facial expressions. I'm sure it was to add her two cents because that was probably NOT exactly what happened and she wanted to clear the air....
My husband commented that losing someone like his grandmother wasn't just losing a person, it was losing a treasure. She had so much to share- so much history.
I feel very fortunate that we were there to hear so much of it. It's hard to explain but because of Mary my children feel part of a larger whole. They are part of Las Vegas history. This is THEIR hometown- not just some retirement community or a place to live because California is too expensive. This is our family's home. On Mother's Day two years ago we ate at the Springs Preserve. Mary used to swim in the springs. She stood on the balcony and pointed out where she would play as a kid. Where the family ranch was. Where her childhood friends lived. My children listened to every word.
I surprised myself with how much I've cried in the past 24 hours. She was my husband's grandmother. Not mine. She was nearly 95. It was time. Etc. Etc.
The night she died, before she passed, I was tucking in my children. I told them to send happy thoughts to heaven so they would be there waiting for Mary when she got there. We were sure she wouldn't make it through the night. She died about an hour later.
The next morning I told my son. He was his stalwart self and teared up a little (he cried more later). My daughter told me, with big tears in her eyes, that she had wished a house for Mary. It had a big yard with flowers. Her paintbrushes. Lotsa dogs. And my daughter went on and on including all the things her great grandmother loved. I lost it. It was beautiful. She truly knew her. And I'm sure Mary was happily surprised by her lovely imagined home when she arrived.
She died surrounded by her family. They are exhausted. They were all amazing. I could only hope to "pass through" as my daughter called it, surrounded by my loved ones.
Mary, I will miss you. I love you very much. Thank you for making me part of your family and being such a strong presence in our lives.