It took me way too long to appreciate how awesome my grandma was. She was born and raised on a farm in New Haven, Indiana and grew up during the depression. Her father died when her mother was pregnant with her youngest sibling and only sister. While wrapping my kids' presents this week, I remembered how she used to say every Christmas that all nine of them would each get an orange. She grew up on that farm, and all of her siblings worked it. She eventually moved west to the "big city" of Fort Wayne and put herself through nursing school by cleaning the convent. That kind of thing was pretty much a rarity back then. Even though she'd never label herself as such, she was a staunch feminist, and not the kind that bitches about having to shell out $9 a month for their own birth control. If you wanted or needed something, you worked for and earned it yourself because man or woman, you don't rely on other people to handle your business for you.
I am the oldest grandchild on my mom's side, so I probably have more memories than my sisters or cousins. We grew up a mile from their house and spent lots of time over there. My first best friend lived three houses down. I spent many summer days playing Fox and Eggs and summer nights playing Ghost in the Graveyard in her back yard. The first tree I ever climbed was in her front yard. I drank from her garden hose and used to hide in the sheets she hung to dry out on the clothesline. I loved sleeping over at her house. She would read in bed while I would go through her drawers and try on her scarves and jewelry. If I was really lucky, she'd smudge a little creamy rose-colored lipstick on my lips and rub a little rouge on my cheeks. I can still smell the sweet mixture of her fabric softener and lavender sachets. We spent countless summer days sweltering in her kitchen putting up tomato sauce and jam. I still vividly remember the first time she spanked me. We went to pick berries for jam at this farm across the Wisconsin border. I must have been almost four, because I remember my mom was pregnant with my youngest sister. I wandered off too far, gorging myself on strawberries. I remember picking up my head and panicking, yelling for her. When she found me she scooped me up and squeezed me tight. Then she put me down, pulled up my left arm by the wrist, and promptly cracked my ass. I can still hear her telling me, "You'll forget about it by the time you're married, now quit your crying. It hurt me more than it hurt you." I never understood that until I had my own kids.
I lived about 30 miles away from here when she got sick. Midge was an infant and I would come out every couple of weeks and visit. I would help her with things around the house whether it be running some errands or the vacuum cleaner. One day I came in and she was sitting in her recliner in the family room in back and it looked like someone took a baseball bat to her face. I have no idea how I didn't drop the baby when I saw her because I freaked out. She told me that she had fallen in the shower and hit her face on the spigot on the way down. She went on to explain that she just became very weak and couldn't support her weight. I assumed she slipped and hurt herself on the way down because she was everything a grandma should be, big and round and a soft, safe place to rest your head. She spent hours in the tub and said the only thing that gave her the strength to get herself out was she refused to be found like that by her sons. She laughed when she told me. She had a way of finding humor in almost anything, and a loud, howling laugh that filled a room. We decided at that point that my visits would become more regular, and I would be spending Wednesdays at her house after I dropped Banana and Red off at school and I would head home after lunch. That lasted a few weeks until she started exhibiting strange symptoms. She would develop weakness in her extremities and one day while we were out in her blue Buick, I caught her lifting her pant leg to move her foot from the gas to the brake. She was so pissed off at me when I brought it up to her and told her I had to tell my uncle. I saw it as me trying to keep her and other people safe; she saw it as an assault on her freedom. She also developed slightly slurred speech on occasion, which she blamed on an older and ill-fitting set of dentures. My uncle got her in to see her doctor, who determined she was having a series of small strokes, so they admitted her to the nursing home she built her career at and was charge nurse of for decades in the town over.
She spent weeks there, doing physical and occupational therapy. I would go visit her, and bring a foot bath and give her a pedicure once a week. She found this especially funny because she had the world's worst hammer toe. It was so bad that I swear, every pair of shoes this woman owned had a square inch cut out of the upper part of it so she could fit that damn toe into them. She would tell me when I was done that her hammer toe had never looked so pretty. We continued the pedicure ritual even after she was discharged because she liked it. Despite the physical and occupational therapy, she made no progress so we brought her home in the fall. We weren't satisfied with her original diagnosis of small strokes, so we made her an appointment with a neurologist at a well-respected and renowned hospital. My uncle and I loaded her into my Grand Prix and we had our answers before we even left the neurologist's office. My grandma had ALS and a few months to live.
Hospice was in place and my uncles hired a full-time lovely Polish woman to stay with her less than a week after that. I started making the 30 mile trip three times a week after that. Our first order of business was to go through all of her pictures and label the backs of them. It took awhile because with every picture came a story. Many of them I had heard before, but I listened anyway. I listened through her slurred and deteriorating speech about people long gone, people she loved, people whose history she felt the need to pass down. I listened to her about the first time my grandpa came to her house to take her out. Her brothers thought it would be a riot to mess with the city slicker that came calling on their sister so they all waited for him dressed in nothing but overalls on the front porch. I listened to the story of the day she was born, when her mother gave birth to her and promptly got down to the kitchen to fix Thanksgiving dinner, keeping her newborn daughter warm in a box near the stove. She smiled and laughed when I opened an envelope full of small cards. My grandpa would send her roses for her birthday every year and a card that said, "I'm still older than you. Love, Gene". There were dozens of them and she saved them all. I listened to stories about me when I was small, and stories of the times I lived with her as a teenager. Her hands could no longer assign the names to these snapshots. It broke my heart. These were the hands that taught me needlepoint. They brushed and pulled my hair into respectable braids so my hair wouldn't stick to my face when I helped her in the garden or get into the food when I helped her can and bake. I watched those hands pare bushels of peaches and apples over the years, and slice hundreds of tomatoes from the garden that she served with every meal while they were in season. These hands taught me to deal with scalding hot mixtures of ammonia and water to scrub floors and how to polish the good silver for Christmas Eve and to fold them back into handmade felt holders. These hands cared for thousands of patients over her years as a nurse. They hung sheets on clotheslines and rubbed Rosary beads at least once a week while she sat and prayed. They wrote out hundreds of recipes and rolled countless pie crusts. They pinned and sewed and endless supplies of fabric into clothes and quilts. They held and loved all of her babies, and her babies' babies, and those that were born to her grandchildren. Those hands also doled out a paddling to all of us when we earned it, and wiped our tears and held us close when we needed that too. Now these hands lay curled and useless in her lap and she was more aware of that than anyone.
When her time got small, I found out I was pregnant with my Bean. In true inappropriate fashion, I told her that I had some very exciting news for her. For the first time in my life I got to tell her I was pregnant and got that way only after I was a married woman. She smirked and we both laughed, and she told me that despite her being devoutly Catholic, how my babies came into the world never really bothered her. I told her that of course it didn't, considering my mom was born 8 months after she was married. Despite her protests that babies sometimes come early, I told her she didn't need to convince me. I told her I firmly believed that test driving a car before you take it home to ensure you liked the ride was just a good, solid practice. She put up with a lot of shit from me.
I spent the day yesterday thinking about her. My husband and I bought the house from my mom and uncles after she passed. My Bean, who bears my grandma's name, came a month early and shares the bedroom that was mine for awhile as a teenager with Banana. I ate dinner under the stained glass lampshade that made the journey from her old house to this one last night. It's the same lampshade she drew her last breaths under nine years ago surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The same antique hutch that held her good china and silverware when I was a child sits in my dining area. One of her beloved Charles Peterson pictures still hangs in my living room, and I feel oddly connected to her when I look at the shadowed people that occupy the space in that print. This spring I will think of her again when I look out the window above the kitchen sink and see her azalea in glorious pink bloom and open my living room windows so the sweet smell of her lilacs perfumes my downstairs, my husband's allergies be damned. I prune her roses every summer and use the apple mint she planted years ago all summer long, and dry it for tea in the winter. There are bits of her still so deeply ingrained in me, bits of her that my sister and cousins and I will pass to our children. As I held my cousin's newborn baby 3 days ago, I couldn't help but think how much my grandma would have loved her. There is a little bit of my grandma's fierceness in all of the females in our family. Anyone will tell you, as big and tough the men are in my family, it's the women that you really need to watch out for. We got it from her, and she her mother before her. The matriarchy is in full effect around here.