This post is based on a post that a friend wrote (an ode to his grandmother).
I never had the chance to know any of my grandmothers. My mom’s mom (Eulalia) died when she was 35; my mom was adopted, and is still on a search to know who and what family is. My dad’s mom (Jean) died when I was 5, so I never grew to know her, though I recall the walks she took my brother and me on to hunt for pussywillows and colorful leaves to press between wax paper.
The grandma I remember best (Leona Gertrude) was an old, cranky, woman who lived her life pessimistically. She scouled perpetually, her beady eyes calculated others, and she was curt. Her sparse, iron-grey hair was cut short, cropped close to her scalp, and curled.
It was in later years, as I learned about migraine (and other medical conditions) when I worked as a technical writer for a medical education company, that I realized she had gout. Her legs were like swollen sausages, encased in the thin nylon stockings she still wore. Her toenails were yellow and pointed like small claws. Her legs bruised easily, and her ankles were not to be seen. Her feet tilted under slightly so she could not walk comfortably; rather, she hobbled. She wore plain loafers.
She always read the newspaper, even if she didn’t read it all the way through or on time. She would work on the crossword games, which my mom would later finish. She and my mom loved to peruse thrift stores, and often cruised town throughout the week (every week) to find useless junk; she never made use of any of it, but collected it. (To this day, I cannot stand the smell of a thrift store. I also don’t like to buy used items.) She also kept plastic wrap… and reused it. Tin foil, too.
I was in high school when I took two Civil War in Missouri courses during my junior year. I asked my gradmother about the Civil War when she recalled her own grandmother had lived during that time, that Union soldiers had stolen her grandmother’s chickens.
She was 93 when she died, though I believe Death hovered around her from about the the time I knew she’d turned 85, when I was small. Her vicinity always just looked “dark” to me. She was depressive, a young woman trapped in an old woman’s body; I saw a picture, once, of a young version of “Gerty”.
It wasn’t until she was bedridden in a nursing home that I took interest in her life. I knew she was born in 1914 – what she must have known! Even as she passed her nights in the nursing home paranoid about the government’s plots on her life as the senility of the dying set in.
It was in college, when I was with my mom to see her because I was home for Thanksgiving Break, that I actually spoke to my grandmother about her life. The next, of two topics, I ever asked her about was The Great Depression (1930s to 1940s), and suddenly I could understand why she saved plastic wrap and tin foil, and why she shopped at thrift stores like they were going out of style.
I remember that I looked back longingly as I walked out of the door to the room she stayed in that nursing home. I wished I had not squandered so much time not knowing her the way I wanted to because she was never important enough. That second time I asked about her life, I began to understand that she was a person, with reason for her behavior, and that I could have done so much more than to watch passively her years of age between 85 and 93.
I was with my first husband in 2006, before he became my husband, and he and I had just finished discussing whether we would break up. I chose not to, though my life now would be so, so different had I done so. But as we finished that discussion, I received a phone call from my mom. She told me that Gerty had died. All I could do was cry for not having known her.
The lessons I gained: appreciate those around you, always learn the lessons of those around you, know those around you for the human people that they are, and know that life is precious. Whether or not there is purpose, there is preciousness in living.