I lost my grandmother this week. She was 100 years old. That’s an entire century of life. I couldn’t help but thinking of all the things she must have experienced in her lifetime. In 1915, when she was born, electricity was a thing some people had in their homes, but many people still used iceboxes, hand-washed laundry and lived much more simply. Electric vacuums and refrigerators were available but were brand new, and not everyone would have one. Cars being driven looked a little something like this Dodge:
She lived through The Great Depression, when drought and poverty were rampant and many people starved. She lived through two World Wars, the civil rights movement, would have known about Woodstock, and would have seen 15 presidents (mostly) through their terms. She would have remembered the advent of the technology that has become so important to my generation. Maybe she didn’t remember a lot of these things, but it was amazing to me to try to grasp the entirety of a life lived so long. Even more amazing to me, however, was thinking about her life in terms of what she did. She had a Master’s degree in English, was a teacher, counselor, mother, wife, traveler, gardener, baker, and so many other things. Among those things, she was my grandmother. And though she was the oldest to pass, she was not the first grandparent to go. Her husband passed when I was young, a man I remember mostly for his constant smile and catching laugh.
In the last few years, I lost both of my grandparents on my step-father’s side: my grandmother, the best cook I’ve ever known, who owned a restaurant in her life, who pressed love and sharp wit into every thing she cooked, and my grandfather who drove a semi-truck a lot of his life and traveled to too many places to name. He was a handsome man with white hair and mischief in his eyes. She was a beautiful woman, with a cynic’s eye and stories to tell. I lost my grandfather on my mother’s side just a few years ago, a man who dedicated his life to others, who was a minister and missionary, a seminary professor and a scholar. He had a mind that went and went until the end, until he forgot a lot. And that was sad, but it was not him. He was his lively mind and his generous spirit and that’s what I tell my children of him. My grandmother on my mother’s side is my children’s only living great grandparent on my side of the family. She’s a fun woman, with a fondness for sugar, painting and knitting. When she was younger, it was juicing, Richard Simmons workouts and dress up with her grand kids. My children will never know these wonderful people, these huge pieces of my life. Their lives will not be directly informed by their smiles, gifts, mishaps, knowledge and care.
These thoughts are not new to me. I lost my father before I lost most of my grandparents. I remember hearing my late grandmother, his mother, lament the fact that a mother should not outlive her baby. And he was her youngest, only 52 when he passed. I know my own mortality and I know that it is natural. But none of that matters when grief hits. When you realize that those who made you will have no say in the making of your children’s lives.
Until you realize that they do because they helped in the making of you. I am a child who is both like her mother and her mother’s mother and father and her father and her father’s mother and father. I am little pieces of my aunts and uncles, the care they showed to me, the things they passed on. I make a mean pie crust, love the sound of birds, delve into research with the passion of a woman in love, sip tea and think about the days when I will be able to travel. I pray, I empathize, I teach, I rage, and I do all the things that those who’ve passed did. Yet I’m me. I do not remember my great grandparents well. But I remember the stories my parents have of them. My great grandma formed the woman my mother became. And she is my rock. I am saddened by the losses piling up so quickly. They bog me down with their weight.
But, like Gerald Vizenor says, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” I believe that we are made of a series of stories, and, without the stories that compose us we would be nothing. So to make my grandparents live, I have to talk about them, I have to teach my kids their recipes, the calls of birds, how to press flowers, how to make baked pumpkin seeds the “right” way. I have to create my grandparents again, through my words. I have to speak my father into being for them, so that they don’t forget that they come from stories, too. So that they know they need to make great stories for those who will come after them.
I can’t compose something entirely hopeful for you, but I’ll leave you with the story of my Roots. The snapshots that became them in my mind. The things I will tell my children. I hope your stories are just as beautiful. If they’re not, they’re still important.
It always felt bright in your house,
maybe the sun lit it special,
caressing gardens cared for meticulously;
other kids would go to grandma’s for TV,
but your world was more fantastical;
you knew every plant by name,
like old friends,
squirrels danced for grandpa’s grin,
the basement was a maze of hanging flowers,
a musk of floral, cardboard puzzles and cinnamon,
wake up each morning to the sound of a train,
and butter melting on confection,
my plate warmed by oven and sun’s rays.
Too little time spent in your presence,
moments so clear to me:
“Ketchup on meatloaf is like ketchup on ice cream,”
I’d giggled at that, until I tasted your cooking,
and you were right, your work needed no assistance.
I wish I’d known the woman who
studied English, traveled the world, led a classroom,
these things I am or want to do…
I am sometimes a reflection of you
of all my Roots—
what a wonderful thing
of a sprawling ancestry
and just you, the great you,
bounding across a century.
Wishing I could know your stories,
from your point of view
before they fell away with you;
In eternity, maybe, we will
have the chance to be still
where you can guide me,
hand in hand, through the gardens
and tell me their names.