My husband's mother recently passed away. We're not exactly sure when. Ian called her on Mother's Day, and she didn't pick up, which wasn't unusual for her. A couple of days later he got a call from her doctor's office saying she didn't appear for a post-surgery followup. He called a neighbor to check on her. The neighbor found Nancy dead in bed.
It was sad breaking the news to the kids. They called her "Oma," which was the name she picked for herself when she became a grandmother as a means of differentiating herself from my mother. Aden and Quinn were at home, so they were told in person. Mona had just left that morning for a summer job in a different county, and we had to tell her over a bad phone connection. They were all somber. But Oma has always been a somewhat remote figure in their lives living all the way on the West Coast, so I don't know if they really knew how to feel. I'm not exactly sure how to feel, because it hasn't really sunk in for me yet that she's gone.
Nancy was many things. She was generous. She was curious. She was adventurous in that she traveled to more places than anyone else I know, but then also led a predictable and simple life at home. She managed to get a good city job in the planning department in an era when I don't imagine that was easy to come by for a single mother. She was a teacher, at one time in a one-room schoolhouse in California, and until recently a tutor in English as a second language. She was thoughtful. I never heard her raise her voice or say anything mean about anyone (short of a few politicians). She was practical, preferring often to eat out of reusable food containers than regular dishes. She liked heating her house with a wood stove when possible. She seemed unconcerned about other people's judgement, wearing what she liked, and was unapologetic about her tastes and interests. She loved colorful things, clever woodworking from the Saturday Market, shiny souvenirs, Hawaiian pizza, dangly earrings, maps, Jeopardy, and skiing. She drove a stick shift most of her life and always named her car. (In the last several years she drove a Prius.) Most importantly to me, she did an excellent job of raising her only son into the man I love. Her example taught him self-reliance, and respect for women as equals.
The thing Nancy prized over all else was her independence. Her childhood home was not pleasant. She didn't associate family with joy, and the responsibilities that family can impose she did her best to see as her choice rather than as an obligation. She was incredibly good to her brother, nieces, and nephew. She was certainly good to us.
However, Nancy seemed most satisfied with doing things apart from family. She had friends, and activities, and routines, but we were only allowed to know about them superficially. She reminded me very much of the way teenagers only give one word answers to their parents so as to keep their private lives private. The kinds of questions I might ask my own family felt more like prying with her. She preferred we didn't intrude, so we had to be content with some things being left unanswered. I don't believe it was anything against us, but a pleasure she took in being owner of her life.
I did have the opportunity to get to know her a bit better on a road trip she joined me and Ian on back in the late 90s when I needed to deliver a viola I'd made to a player out in New York. When Ian's not driving, he tends to sleep on long car trips, so Nancy and I had many hours together just to talk for a change. I learned a lot that explained why the two of us navigated family events and interactions so differently. I find my family a source of inspiration and peace. Growing up, she found hers something to overcome. She told me once of a pivotal moment when she was 18 and had graduated from high school, and while driving her car came to a literal fork in the road where she could go back to a home she disliked, or pick a new road and create a different life. She picked the new road and never looked back. That was Nancy.
The fact that when she found herself pregnant she was able to make all the sacrifices it took to create a settled life for a baby is impressive to me, since raising a child is the opposite of freedom. But she did it. She kicked out the man whose unreliable behavior could not be tolerated around an impressionable child. Ian's dad died when Ian was only three. Nancy was a single mom in the 1970s and somehow managed everything on her own. No support from family. No resources except what she could find by herself. She raised her son to be capable and independent, as well as ethical and kind. (Although, having enjoyed much of the hippy culture of the 60s, I don't think she ever knew what to make of Ian's decision to join ROTC. Teenage rebellion takes many forms.)
Nancy worked for decades as a city planner in Portland OR. It wasn't a coincidence that when light rail was installed, there was a convenient stop near her house. She was incredibly smart about her finances so that she could provide for her little family of two. To say her home was modest is an understatement. But she provided as many opportunities for her son as she was able, including getting him into an expensive Montessori school with a scholarship.
The only place she splurged when she could was travel. Reading of her adventures in every Christmas letter was always surprising.
We wished more of her travels had led her here while her grandchildren were growing up, but we did manage a family trip out to Portland a summer before the pandemic hit. We'd taken the kids out there once before when they were small, so this was the first time we were able to really show them around. I'm glad we did, since we had no idea it would be our last opportunity for such a visit. Nancy somehow found space for all of us in her tiny home and our kids got a sense of where their dad grew up, and got to know their Oma a little better in person instead of from afar.
Nancy was one of the few people to read all three rough drafts of my novels when I first wrote them long ago. That's a lot to ask of anyone, and I appreciated it more than I think she knew.
I can't think of anyone who lived a life somehow so completely on their own terms and yet unselfishly the way my mother-in-law did. She never neglected a birthday or forgot to send things for the kids to open under the tree every year. She used a lot of her time volunteering at the art museum and the science center after she retired, and I wish I knew just how many adults she helped learn to speak and read English. She lived the life she wanted while also helping many. Not enough of us can say that.
Literally in the end, she went the way she wanted to go. Her health and cognitive function were starting to slip into a state where her independence was threatened. As much as she loved her son (and there's no doubt she loved her son), the last thing she wanted was for him (or anyone) to be involved in her care or decision making. She always intended to die as she lived: On her own terms. Her spiraling health concerns simply brought her down more rapidly than we were expecting, but maybe not earlier than she was ready for.
So as sad as it was to learn that she died in her sleep at home, it also wasn't tragic. The "when" was too soon. The "how" was exactly what she would have preferred.
Nancy was unique. I hope she enjoyed her life. She will be missed.