The memories of beloved individuals in my family seem to be filled with the brightest colors and light. They are cherish and nurtured, the flame kept bright, and through these memories I find joy to tend to my sorrow, as well as love to keep their lives ongoing.
My beautiful grandmother passed on Saturday, September 30, three days after her 90th birthday. Born to a German father and a Swedish mother, she lived just outside of Chicago and had a Dickensian childhood. Between relatives dying at a young age, her own stay in a tuberculosis hospital as she suffered from TB, and then becoming an orphan by her teens, she somehow found herself in New Jersey and living with her older brother as her other brother had lied to get into the service. It was there she worked as a telephone operator, plugging the various cords into the right slots to connect calls and recalling that the light from the plugs hurt her eyes. A coworker there invited her to a party and that was where she met my grandfather.
Here is this pale woman with pretty, thin, light hair and light eyes being thrown into the utter chaos of my Sicilian family. Such a family is often large with multiple aunts, uncles, cousins and extended family surrounding you. It’s deafening as they speak loudly and even louder to be heard over one another. My grandfather’s family were known in particular for their booming laughter and their overflowing tables of food. All of this, and my grandmother was in the midst of it all.
They married when she was twenty and my grandfather was twenty-one. They settled into a great old house where they raised their three daughters and years later, when their daughters had children of their own, would sacrifice their quiet retirement for the chaos of a house full of rowdy children.
Each summer we would meet at my grandparents’ home and play in the pool or create curious games in the expanse of their lawn. My grandfather would tinker and my grandmother would keep an ever present watch over the grandchildren as we scampered about doing our various playtime activities. Some nights, our mothers would be so tired they would let us night swim and count that as a bath. They’d dry us off, brush our hair, and we’d get kisses from grandma and grandpa both before being tucked into bed.
Thanksgiving was much the same for the earlier years of my life and I adored meandering from room to room of their home and dancing in the light cast by the front door’s stained glass. I learned to tell time on their grandfather clock that rang for each hour, I drank pink milk by the glassful, I would sit with feet swinging off my chair, I would be scolded gently for too much rough housing–or rather, my eldest cousin would be scolded for rough housing me, one of the youngest. But there were always fleeting memories of books and quiet corners. My grandmother always seemed to present that, peaceful solitude. Quiet moments. Reflection. While all around her there was chaos, she was the quieter of the bunch and often so still.
After they sold their home and moved permanently to Florida, we saw them less but they were still such a presence in my life. They visited for important events like graduations and family reunions and I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before they arrived. Those were quieter weeks in the summer, as it was just my tiny family and grandparents, but they were still so precious. In between my grandmother and grandfather, I would walk hand in hand with them along our country roads to the great big lake and back. I always felt it was such a long walk and was only allowed to take it with them, that when I was in High School and free to go as I pleased I was surprised to discover how close it actually was.
We also visited the same restaurants and retired to our porch in the evening summer light. Grandma would watch her crime shows or read a book and I would busy myself with my own entertainment, but always close by to get every moment I could out of the visit.
When my grandfather passed five years ago, I was reminded of how fleeting our lives were. I had countless memories of my grandfather from my childhood years but very few as a young adult. All of that time I hadn’t the money to go to Florida to visit, but each time they came north I would be sure to see them. Still, it wasn’t enough, and I felt I missed out on opportunities to know my grandfather, to really know him. I swore I wouldn’t let the same thing happen with my grandmother.
So I began to visit. At first it was nine months after my grandfather’s passing and it was painful to return to their home and discover he really was gone and my grandmother was the only one left. We cautiously spoke in circles, nearing topics of my grandfather but never quite broaching them, yet I began to learn about my grandmother all the same. She would watch tv and I would sit by her side reading a book and we existed in companionable silence.
Then, I returned two more times with my boyfriend. I knew the moment I met him, he would be my husband, and I felt no qualms in rushing to make plans to visit my grandmother with him along for the ride. Seven months into my relationship we were there, and again a year later, and then… our yearly visits stopped. We got engaged, my grandmother was thrilled, but I informed her with a breaking heart that we wouldn’t be able to visit her until after the wedding. We were paying for the wedding ourselves, after all, and we needed to save our funds. It broke my heart, I felt like I was letting her down, but she told me it was fine and we kept in touch.
Then her heath began to decline. Already we had seen her age catching up to her. With grandpa gone, she found life less appealing. Each visit I made we would give a report to my family members who lived nearby of what differences we had noticed as people who did not see her all the time. We worried, we all did, that her life in her house by herself would be her downfall.
By the start of this year, she was battling a rare skin disease, similar to lupus, that was leaving her weaker and weaker. But we still had hope, we planned to visit her after the wedding no matter her condition; it didn’t look good but it didn’t look grave. But by June, we were more concerned. Her health was declining quickly and we wondered if she would make it to New Years, still, we put off visiting her. It wasn’t the time, not quite yet, and the cost for flights were atrocious.
At the end of July my great uncle died, another great spark in my Sicilian family’s life gone, and my grandmother commented, “I’m one of the only ones left.” And she was right. Since my grandfather’s death five years prior we had lost five other relatives–most in that year alone, and the rest generally following on the trail to heaven during the course of this year. My heart broke to see another family member gone and my worry for my own grandmother came out, it was then my now-fiance announced we needed to make the trip. There was no more putting it off, it was time to go, and go we did.
For four days we visited my grandmother and told her stories and made her smile and laugh. We saw the twinkle in her eye when she found something funny or wanted to share her sarcasm and at the end of each visit she would reach up to us, cupping our cheek, and leaning forward to give five kisses in a row on the opposite cheek–her classic kisses.
I was eager to memorize each moment spent with her during that weekend. To remember the way she moved her hands, the look in her eye, the sound of her voice. I sobbed loudly when we took off to fly home, knowing deeply that I would never see her again and I sobbed loudly a week ago when I found out how right I was.
I’ve always appreciated the bits and pieces of my grandmother that I shared with her. We have such a wide family with such strong genes and most of my cousins have siblings to joke with, “well we got that from mom,” but I have no siblings to joke with, I have no way of really seeing how strong the genes are between my mother and father to create me. So I would look at my grandparents, searching their very being in an attempt to find a little bit of them in myself. My grandmother’s hair, her arms, her dry sarcasm I adopted from her and also a special edition–her desire to read.
My memories of her reading are vague but my mother said she used to enjoy it and, if anything, the solid wall of books in my grandparents’ home was a good indication. Upon visiting two years ago, I looked over the bookshelf and found a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from the year of publication. I took it to my grandmother, excited by my find and trying to convey how special that particular copy was to her. She seemed to not catch my excitement, instead being more amused by my reaction, and said with a smile “Keep it.”
“Are you sure??” I looked down at the book, shocked by its quality and importance and that she was offering it to me.
“Yes, of course. Take any books you’d like.”
I only ended up taking three books, not capable of claiming more because I felt I was getting away with some crime, but those books are so special and so important. They’re just things, no one else will see them and have an immediate, heavy weight of emotion by their sight, but I do. When I’m dead and gone, they may be tossed or given away, their importance lost, but at least for the time being I have them and I know their importance.
The books outlived my grandmother but through their paper pages I still feel the weight of her love and her adoration. Through the neat cursive indicating the date she received the book, I can remember her handwriting and follow the movement of her pen. Through this hand off of property, she still lives, and that means so much right now when the time without her grows and my missing her deepens. I have the books, I can hug the books, it’s not her but it’s something, and I can tell the tales of my beautiful grandmother to future generations even when the time without her outnumbers the time with her. In my book-obsessed world, it’s the perfect way to be remembered.