Grandma

How do I grieve such an important person as my Grandma Gladys? I’ve felt a little disconnected from her death, as if her passing was an event that I hadn’t been invited to. We aren’t having a funeral for her…most people who she was close to are long gone (she’d have been 88 at the end of November) and are planning an immediate-family-only memorial early next year.

It’s very anti-climatic.

She's in heaven

This is my grandma with my son in 2006. She was 82 and still living a completely full, independent life all by herself on the farm.

I don’t deal with death very well. My mom died, suddenly, tragically, when I was 14 and my sister was 11. All sorts of bad shit ensued after that, including my sister just fucking falling off the deep end. For a long time. Some could say she’s still there. Though, I am reconciling myself to the fact that she’s doing the best she can with what she’s got. Just like the rest of us. Her human-ness doesn’t look anything like mine does but that doesn’t make her less valuable or less precious or less responsible for her own station. In mind-blowing lesson after mind-blowing lesson, I realize that I love her no matter what. No. Matter. What. And I still strive to have connection and meaning with her even if she still keeps herself as loosely connected as humanly possible.

I’m getting off track.

You see, mom’s death threw us into chaos that still swirls. Still effects generations of us.

Death is serious, crazy shit and I think my gut and my heart just want nothing to do with it. Period. Which is why I check out when people are dying. My mom’s dad died (of old age and lots of senility) and I mostly didn’t visit him in those final years. His wife, the only grandma on that side that I ever knew….barely saw at the end. My dad’s long-term girlfriend (who was twice widowed after two 20 year marriages, then was rewarded for her struggles with panceatic cancer around her and my dad’s 3rd anniversary)….I totally checked out. Then, my grandma. She was one of the best friends I have ever had. I barely saw her in the 5 years that her senility arrived and her body slowly departed.

I’m not shaming myself when I say this, though there are plentiful puddles and ponds of guilt laying about with regards to people I’ve loved and lost. I’m no psychologist, but my heart tends to know the truth most of the time, whether or not I listen to it. I step in those puddles, wade through the ponds and try to do better. Last year I had an elderly aunt (my mom’s sister) fall ill and pass away. I was grateful that I’d identified that whole “fear of death” thing by that time so I could just lean into it, go visit her and then be with her and other family as she faded and left. It was surprisingly profound to have that “let’s gather around to love and support each other” experience.

With my grandmother, though, it was really sad to see such a vibrant woman fade into a shell of what she once was. All of us were shocked to see the course of her life in the last few years. We figured she would live to be 95 and die of a heat stroke because she continued to mow her own lawn (she really did mow her own lawn with a riding mower until she was about 82). Or because she got bit by a snake (she kept a shotgun for snakes and other unwelcome visitors perched up above her back door).

It was selfishly uncomfortable for me to be around to see the bizarre decline. Her bizarre decline came during my own bizarre decline from a “happily married” to “enthusiastically divorced”. There was only so much my heart could take during those first couple of years and by the time the magnet was back in my compass, she was gone. Here… but gone. It sucks and I will forever feel guilt for all of the above. She started fading away but I faded from her faster than she faded from herself. Bleh. Death and dying sucks balls.

Let’s talk about other stuff about her. Let’s not talk about ways I failed her, but ways in which she gave to me. Ways in which I hope to give to my kids and grandkids.

  1. She taught me how to sew.
  2. And how to bake.
  3. She kept a few drawers of old dresses and slips for us 4 granddaughters to play dress up. And a big plastic shoebox full of retired costume jewelry (which I inherited and is one of my prized possessions).
  4. When she’d make a pie she’d let me work up the crust scraps with cinnamon sugar into cookies (kind of)
  5. She babysat me and my sister nearly every single Wednesday night for years. YEARS.
  6. She loved to watch M*A*S*H at 10:30pm and mostly fell asleep before it was over.
  7. WTH?! Does that mean that she was letting me stay up until at least 10:30pm on a school night? I just now realized that.
  8. Her pantry was this closet without a door in her kitchen and where the door should have been there was a bamboo curtain that I used to play with constantly. I’d lean against the door frame with the kitchen to my right and an insane amount of canned goods to my left (no, really) and fiddle with that bamboo bead curtain.
  9. She kept a big ceramic tea kettle (ornamental) on top of the fridge and it was full of quarters. I still don’t know why.
  10. For a very long time the running water in the house was hard well water and salty. So, they’d have to haul drinking water in and there was a shelf adjacent to the kitchen that held a enamel bucket full of fresh drinking water and enamel ladle from which to serve it. Sometimes I’d drink from the ladle just like my grandpa did, not realizing it was rude.
  11. I’d give my eye teeth for that bucket and ladle.
  12. She was somewhat of a food hoarder, as many people who survived the depression were. A coat closet-sized pantry full of stuff, a fridge and two deep freezers full. Plus a cellar of canned stuff she’d put away.
  13. She loved to compete. Every year she’d enter into the Lincoln Country Fair and win oodles of blue ribbons and a little prize money. The money helped her try to break even. I think she just liked the purpose and activity and competition and recognition.
  14. And I mean she’s enter over 100 categories with her GAME FACE ON. I loved August because it meant her house was loaded with all kinds of confections.
  15. She made perfect pecan divinity. It was “her thing.”
  16. When I make toffee and people love it I feel close to my grandma because now I have a thing like she had a thing.
  17. But she was a homemaker for 60 years. She had a LOT of things.
  18. She loved to play cards and, when I was little, she and grandpa often had friends or family over to play. I don’t remember which games but I’d guess gin and spades.
  19. She’d serve sliced kielbasa and cheese and crackers and pickles and I’d think that was the greatest thing ever.
  20. She made the best Swiss Steak.
  21. And the best mashed potatoes.
  22. And HOLY LORD, the best potato salad. With American cheese chunks, tomatoes, red onion, bacon…everything.
  23. A cornbread salad that was very similar and to die for.
  24. When I read The Pioneer Woman I am often transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen and that’s one reason I love Ree. She’s keeping that part of Oklahoma alive.
  25. She always, ALWAYS gardened. I mostly remember the tomatoes.
  26. She’d grow these big, beefy tomatoes and would serve them at every supper. She’d peel, then slice them in 1″ rounds. Sometime they were still warm from the sun and I get weepy that stuff like that exists in my memory and not in my present.
  27. She made great hot rolls. One Thanksgiving I made hot rolls that were killer and everyone raved. I think she got jealous and I took that as a huge compliment. All I did was follow a recipe and I wouldn’t have even known how to follow a recipe if it weren’t for her. AND the recipe was in a cookbook she’d given me as a wedding gift.
  28. She inscribed it and had the most beautiful penmanship.
  29. I have her edition of that same cookbook and it’s totally beat to hell.
  30. I also have a clean and unused edition of that cookbook that I’d like to give Gabi or Tanner when the time is right.
  31. She used to help me throw tea parties for me and the baby dolls when I was a preschooler. I still have the tiny table on which we’d dine.
  32. She wrote my name on a tag on the bottom of the table 10 years before she started declining.
  33. I hope I’m that thoughtful when I begin thinking of my end and who gets what.
  34. She helped run a dairy farm and I can remember walking out to the barn in the late 70s/early 80s to watch her check on “the girls”.
  35. I can remember her lifting me up to look over into the massive vat of milk in the big silver holding tank thing.
  36. She used to pack picnics for us (me and the other granddaughters) and we’d eat creekside on a small offshoot of Deep Fork Creek.
  37. Mostly I remember sandwiches and baked beans served out of a mason jar. Chips, too, I’m sure.
  38. She sewed my freshman winter formal dress.
  39. She sewed my junior and senior prom dress. (Same dress. I loved it so much and just did one modification between the two years to make it “different”.
  40. I was SO overweight that she really had to alter the pattern to make it work. And she did it like it was no big deal. I remember her making the bodice out of muslin to test her pattern so that it would fit well. It did and I felt very pretty (which was quite the feat in those times).
  41. She fried french toast. Floating-in-oil fried.
  42. Every Wednesday night I made and ate an ice cream sundae. She always made sure that there were ground peanuts, ice cream, carmel sauce and chocolate sauce in the house.
  43. She’s prolly a big reason I was a fat kid.
  44. When I was in elementary school we had something called the junior olympics. I only chose a couple of places to compete because I was SO not an athlete. I ended up coming in somewhere near dead last in my competitions and was mortified. Luckily it was a Wednesday so I was going to her house that night. I remember being way too grown up for her lap but sitting on in anyways and bawling. Cried my little eyes out to the person who most loved and understood me.
  45. I tried to write a book one time in my early 20s. The protagonist was based on her.
  46. Her middle name was Irene.
  47. Gladys Irene Siebenaler. She has a Catholic name in there somewhere but I don’t remember it.
  48. She married my granddad and became a practicing Lutheran, so I guess it doesn’t much matter.
  49. Her and my granddad met in the mid 1940s during war times.
  50. He was in the army, but riding around in big planes away from intense combat.
  51. But when they met, he was stationed near Alliance, Nebraska. I may have my military designations wrong. For all I know he was in the Air Force….I just know he wasn’t a pilot.
  52. She was working as a beautician and had put herself through school to do so.
  53. Her dad was an alcoholic.
  54. I never, ever, ever saw her drink a drop of anything. At all.
  55. Her mom had something like 13 pregnancies but only 4 babies. And only raised 3 children. I can’t imagine living through times like that.
  56. There was a diner in Wellston, OK right along Route 66 when I was really young. She’d take me there to get a dip cone.
  57. In junior high, she gave me perms. I wanted them kinky curly so she gave me tedious perms, often piggybacked, on 1/4″ rollers. She got so good at those that I’d only need them every 6 months or so when my hair just plain grew out. The curls never faded.
  58. For a few years she had a church organ on her back porch. She bought note labels to cover the keys so that whoever wanted to learn them, could. I don’t remember what happened to it, though I kind of assumed she was borrowing it or holding it for our church. Or someone’s church.
  59. We sat on the second to front pew on the left side of the sanctuary. Only. If we ever were anywhere else, it was because so many were in attendance that bled onto the next row back.
  60. She mowed her own lawn on a riding mower until she was probably 80.
  61. The year my mom died she drove in from the farm to bring my sister and I dinner at least a few nights a week and to be there when we got home from school.
  62. I don’t remember how long that lasted but I remember how comforting it was.
  63. My dad took her to Hawaii on one of the trips he’d won.
  64. I do think that besides kids and grandkids, it was the highlight of her life.
  65. She often worked into the conversation, “When Gary and I were in Hawaii” 20 years after she and dad were in Hawaii.
  66. I was her favorite, or at least perceived to be.
  67. When I was young it made me feel special and when I was older it made me incredibly self-conscious and feel guilty. But she was just being herself and the notion of favoritism makes me a better mom.
  68. One time, when I was a poor college kid, she slipped me a $20 and told me not to tell my grandpa.
  69. On my way out the door that same day, my grandpa slipped me a $20 and told me not to tell my grandma.
  70. She sewed nearly all of her own suits, skirts and non-jeans pants.
  71. I have one of the suits hanging in my closet. It is a million years from fitting but I kept it anyway because I’m as sentimental as they get.
  72. I also have a lot of her brooches. Mostly they are cheapie things she picked up at Wal-Mart or JCPenney, but I still like having them because she always wore one.
  73. Her favorite perfume was Opium. She almost never bought it, though, opting for the knock-off scent called Ninja.
  74. I stayed with her for a week when I was a high school freshman 5 because I had mono.
  75. I couldn’t figure out why her chocolate milk was so much better than any non-commercial chocolate milk I’d ever drank. Eventually figured out that it was because she used whole milk, chocolate syrup and a teaspoon of sugar. Of course.
  76. She liked swinging on the porch. For all of my childhood (and probably before) she had one almost identical to this. I’ll own one like it someday.
  77. She had two daughters, a son (my dad) and four granddaughters.
  78. Most of us went to her house on Sundays just to hang out. This happened for at least a decade, probably two.
  79. If we got there and she was at church, there would be a note left on the cutting board for whoever got to the house first. It let us know where she was, when she was returning, and what we could do to start or finish lunch if she’d already prepped it.
  80. She never owned a dishwasher.
  81. She drank a metric ton of coffee everyday. Always had a cup nearby.
  82. She always wore gradually tinted eye glasses.
  83. When she sat at a table she always had an arm crossed to the other and the uncrossed arm up so that it looked as if she were resting her chin/cheek. I often do the same thing.
  84. She started a free clothes closet every August for back-to-school. Or maybe she just ran it…I can’t remember anymore. But for years her back porch would get BURIED in garbage bags of clothes that got sorted and distributed to people who wanted to come and shop.
  85. She sang alto in her church choir for decades. Sometimes she was 1/3 of the choir but did it anyway because she loved it.
  86. She practiced her songs by playing a cassette tape of piano music that her choir-mate had performed while grandma recorded it on her portable tape deck.
  87. She made quilts for money and for fun. She made me one as a a wedding gift. She made a lot of simple ones for kids in foster care (think sewn and yarn tied). The most beautiful one is with my cousin in Seattle who when asked, picked the Hawaiian quilt grandma had made after her return from the island. It is gorgeous and took an eternity.
  88. Man, alive. I miss her.
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Comments

  1. elleinadspir says:

    I loved reading this. Loved.

    • Thank you. It look a couple of weeks to compose and makes me feel really vulnerable, but it was good for the soul to write. And some things came to surface in a succinct way (in the pre-list part) that was really helpful for me.

  2. Andrea Zachary says:

    It’s funny—you have remarkably different memories than I do of Gladys. I do fondly remember the picnics, and going to church and trying to gauge who sang louder–her or Lenora. I was always so proud of her for volunteering with getting out the vote and all her plaques for Homemaker of the Year that hung up in the living room.

    Truly, I love that Hawaiian quilt. I asked for that because she loved going to Hawaii so much, and I like to think that is one thing that she and I had in common—a love of travel. Plus, I didn’t think anyone really liked it. I remember several folks in the fam talking about how ugly it was, but I always thought it was very cool & retro. When Dan and I went to Hawaii this year for the first time, I thought of her every day we were there.

    By the time Dan and I got married, I thought it would be easier on her to ask for the quilt rather than have her make a new one. And, my request was for her to keep it until she felt the time was right, since we hadn’t really settled down yet.

    And, goddamn, I absolutely loved that yellow dress with the three faux-pearl buttons that she made when we played dress-up. Wearing that and those big red beads. That was my favorite outfit.

    I remember her driving around in that old gold car, with her red plaid thermos of never-ending coffee. How she would hum to any song that came on the radio. It didn’t matter if it was Def Leppard, U2, or the Beach Boys, she would hum along with it.

    I am kind of disappointed that they didn’t have a memorial service at the church, since she was a member there for so many years. However, it’s not my decision, and I’m 2,000 miles away anyway. Her passing has been a very strange, sad, and lonely experience for me. It was rather comforting to read your list.

    • I understand why they are waiting for the memorial service, but it sucks because it’s creating a delayed grieving process on top of the very slow way she faded away. Just an odd feeling overall…

      YES! I disliked that quilt for a very long but now that I’m older and finally have any sort of taste at all….I think it’s fabulous. Someday I’m going to come see you and when I do, don’t let me forget to have a gander at it. :-)

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