On our recent trip to Ohio I got to spend time with my grandma. My mom’s mom is my last living grandparent. She turned 91 this summer and I’m glad we were able to be there for her birthday.
My grandma has always been important to me. As a child we went to
Columbus for Christmas every year, and to this day it doesn’t feel like
the holiday season without her spritz cookies in the shapes of trees and
wreathes. Nowadays I’m the one who makes them, but it remains an
unbroken tradition and one I’m pleased to involve my kids in.
Grandma’s home was always welcoming and clean. Whenever there was a
plate of brownies or cookies on the counter and I asked if I could have
one she always said, “That’s what they’re there for!” I don’t remember
her ever seeming disappointed in me or mad. She loved me in a way I
look forward to loving my own grandchildren one day.
I got to know her best while I was in college. I moved from Michigan
to Ohio to attend school just a couple of years after my grandfather
died. My grandpa was strong and kind and very funny and I don’t think
gram will ever get over losing him. That pain has always been closer to
the surface than I think most people realize. With grandpa gone there
were many things for her to adjust to; she was living alone after a
lifetime of sharing a house, and I was just venturing out in the world
on my own. We were able to help each other out and connect in a way
that wouldn’t have been the same at any other time in our lives. I
could set digital clocks and change hard to reach light bulbs, she
taught me how to do laundry, and nearly every Sunday for more than five
years I went to her house for dinner. She always let me bring a friend
along if I thought someone was in need of a home cooked meal. She was
the first person in my family to meet and get to know the man I
Grandma did social work in her community and for decades did work in
adoption for the Methodist Children’s Home. Her stories were always
interesting about how adoptions and opinions about them had changed so
much over the years and I begged her to write a book but was never able
to convince her to do it. I’m sure she was good at her job because she
was such an excellent listener. You could talk to gram without feeling
judged or dismissed.
I depended a great deal on her listening abilities during Ian’s first
deployment. She was the only one in the family who truly understood.
My grandfather was in the navy during World War Two, and gram was left
in Milwaukee, pregnant with my uncle and caring for my mother. When I
said I was scared for my husband’s safety she knew what that felt like,
and when I told her how hard it was to watch my son growing each day in
the absence of his dad, she knew what that was like, too. She even knew
what it meant to stare down a grey Milwaukee day in February while
folding laundry and wondering if her husband would ever make it home.
My grandma knew, and she loved me, and those two things together helped
get me through some very rough days.
It breaks my heart that my children won’t get to know my grandma the
way I did. I think Aden remembers the house that was sold not that long
ago, but it probably doesn’t contain much meaning. To me it was an
entire childhood of Christmases and Easter baskets, walnuts in the yard
and a hill to roll down next door. I can still conjure instantly the
smell of the basement during a ping pong game, or the way the breeze
felt on the screened in porch out back. It was the house my parents
were married in. I still can’t believe it’s a house I will never visit
When grandma first moved into the nursing home it was very
difficult. It’s a very nice facility and the staff is remarkable at
what they do. They are patient and respectful and I’ve never seen
anything short of excellent care there, but a nursing home is not where
my grandma ever wanted to be. For a long time she couldn’t remember
where she was or why she was there and it was frightening for her, but
she needs care beyond what any of us could provide ourselves so even
while it was upsetting for everyone I think she was in the best possible
place. This year on her birthday I felt as if she were finally
settled. She still doesn’t understand where she is, but it’s familiar,
and that’s enough. She has a routine that’s comfortable and faces she
recognizes every day, and she seemed serene for the first time in a long
If we weren’t so far away I would bring my kids to the nursing home
regularly. It wasn’t just good for my grandma, it seemed to brighten
the spirits of everyone we passed to see such young bright faces. Mona
in particular made an interesting connection. My cousin, Tony, lives in
town and visits gram often and knows many people at the home by name.
He said the woman who sits on the couch outside of gram’s room was sweet
but loopy. He’d had many conversations with her, none of which made
any sense, and he was fascinated watching her talk with Mona. Mona is
direct, and can be blunt in her questions about why someone is in a
wheelchair, etc., so I worry about her in situations that require any
form of tact, but more often than not it serves her well. In this case,
she was able to carry on the most coherent conversation with this woman
that my cousin had ever seen. Tony said the lady lit up when she saw
Mona and asked her her age, Mona responded, asked her own questions, and
he said for a little while it was just a nice normal moment between an
old woman and a little girl, and he found it very moving.
The party was lovely. My uncle and aunt were there, and two of my
cousins. We ate lunch outside on a patio by the dining room. She
thought she was in someone’s backyard and the thought made her happy.
Aden played Long Long Ago on the violin, both girls made her cards.
Quinn was his sweet self which is enough to charm anyone for a good hour
or two. We had homemade chicken salad and cake like her mother used to
make that my mom had prepared. It was a nice party and one I’m sure
she forgot took place by the time the sun had set. I feel responsible
for remembering the moment since she no longer can.
Happy Birthday, gram. I love you.