Sunday, October 14, 2012

Courageous Women: Grandma M.

Today, it's my dad's birthday.  We had the good fortune to have him here in New Mexico, visiting for several days -- including this one.  It was so much fun to be able to celebrate him and what he means to our family.  He was surrounded by two of his daughters (the third was here on her visit that overlapped Mom and Dad's by a day -- but left Thursday), a son-in-law and all nine of his grandchildren.  That's a party for sure!

C did all the cooking and started Dad's day with Rice Pudding for breakfast.  He made pumpkin soup served in bread bowls for lunch.  And for dinner, my dad had joked that a rack of lamb would be nice, but anything barbecued "would be fine."  So C surprised him with both a rack of lamb and burgers, along with French green beans and sweet potato mash.  For dessert, C baked some delicious pumpkin pies -- Dad's favorite.  It's only been a couple hours since we ate and my mouth is already watering just writing about the food today.

Mom and Dad on 10/14 - Dad's birthday - at our house.  It's always fun to have them over.

Anyway, Happy Birthday, Dad, I love you!

But in honor of his birthday, I thought it was fitting to honor his mother, who brought him into this world and raised him into the man who would one day become my father.

My dad's mom, my grandmother, was definitely a woman of courage that I love and admire.  I miss her a lot and always wished she could have met our kids (and they her), but she paid a lot of attention to people and I think maybe she would have been able to predict the kind of kids C and I would end up with.  When we announced our intentions to adopt children, she was the first to give a gift for the unknown, but coming child.  She was very thoughtful and hopeful that all would result in growing our family even though she would not survive the duration of our adoption journey.

It was good to have her on our side -- to know that she loved and supported us.

Grandma M. was born in Nebraska.  She was raised a middle child of three girls -- though, for a time, she had a brother a couple years older than she, who died when he was six.  And later, when she was an adult, her father remarried and bore another son, though I'm not sure he was welcomed in as the half-brother he was maybe because the girls were all grown up and didn't see the point.  Or maybe there was difficulty accepting the new marriage.

Anyway, I went to her hometown in Nebraska on our drive across country in 2000 -- just a couple months before Grandma passed on -- and got a sense of modern-day Gothenburg, which I don't believe changed much since she was there.  It was pretty and green.  A lot of farm land.  We went by the cemetery and I couldn't find where her brother might be buried.  I checked in town at the library and talked to some locals and that was the only cemetery they knew.  So we ended up passing through without ever finding his gravestone.

Grandma was still a child when her father packed up the family and moved them all to Northern California.  They didn't have much money to their name and times were hard.  She told me how they slept in the car and ate sandwiches her mom had made all the way there.  She shared with me the stories of this trip on several occasions, so I think it really impacted her all her life.

She married my grandfather the day after her high school graduation when she was still 17.  He was a military man, just a few years older than she was.  Her parents saw the couple as a good match and eagerly held the wedding in their living room.  Her sisters were her bridesmaids.

Together, they raised three sons.  My dad came first, then his brother a few years later.  Then there was a long break and their youngest brother was born when Dad was 15.   All three are good, hardworking men.  Sure, they have their faults, like all of us, but I am proud to have them as my dad and my uncles.  They were all very involved in my life as I grew and helped mold me into the person I am now.  They also influenced the kind of man I would marry one day and clearly they set the bar high because C is the best husband I can imagine for me.

In 1987, my grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that then spread quickly through the rest of his body.  He was only given a short time to live after chemo didn't really help his particular cancer and he fought till the end and outlasted all their predictions.  But who was by his side day and night to love and nurture him through all the pain and suffering?  My grandmother.

She watched him go from this strong, outdoorsy, world traveler, master-storyteller, to little more than a shell of the man he once was.  On the Christmas before he passed (a few days later), he was barely awake that day and when he was, it was clear that his struggle would soon come to an end.  He was on a lot of pain medication and slept in a hospital bed in the living room.  He sat at the dinner table -- a skeleton at one end -- but could not eat.  I was still a child and it was so hard to see him like that.  The memory is etched in my mind forever.

Grandma was such a strong woman to have provided most of his care (with help from hospice and her sons) and to watch him die there in the living room after the last Christmas they would share.  I have spent most of my life hoping and praying that I would never have to be in her position -- thinking I could never be that strong.

After some time, Grandma connected with another man who had also lost his wife to a battle with cancer.  They were together for years and though I could never call him "Grandpa," he always felt like a member of our family.  He showed us love the way a grandfather does and he never quite filled Grandpa's shoes, but he wore good ones of his own.

This relationship lasted the rest of my childhood into early adulthood.  Even when I moved out and married, Grandma was good to exchange letters with me every couple of weeks.  She would write about what was growing in the garden or places she and her new companion had gone together.  She wrote about some of her struggles and she asked a lot of questions about how things were going with me.  I had married young, like she had, and so she wrote from a place of understanding about the challenges that come in a young marriage.  I valued her insights and appreciated her concerns and questions.

In person, Grandma always wore a bit of a tough exterior.  She wasn't really cuddly or lovey, but now that I have three boys of my own, I think sons force a mom to be a little less so if she ever was.  Of course, I didn't know her before she was a mom.  It could have been she was always that way -- hardened by life's experiences, the loss of her brother and the sudden move from Nebraska to California as a child.

But it was so clear how much she loved her family.  She doted on her grandchildren and loved to brush the hair from our faces with her hand, telling us how she liked to be able to see our eyes when we came to visit.  She was generous with gifts -- not in their expense, but in their thoughtfulness.  She was a practical person who did not like extravagance or over-indulgences.  She'd always keep a couple general gifts on hand for the holidays when one of us would bring a friend to her house.  I think her mother must have been very proper and taught her all the ways of politeness.

I tend to serve most meals on paper plates and condiments are set out in their original packages.  She never would have done that.  Tables were set with table cloths and fine dinnerware.  Condiments were plentiful and always set out in dainty little dishes on the table.  Pickles and olives were the norm at any dinner served at her house.  I think she might be appalled at my hosting laziness.  But she would probably not tell me so because it would be impolite.

Eventually, her new companion would die of a fatal illness as well.  She saw him through the end and loved and nurtured him as she had done for my grandfather.  I often wonder if she ever felt like once was enough and wanted to give up nursing another man on his death bed.  But I don't really believe she would ever go through with it -- even if she had a passing thought about it.  She was one to dig in her heels and do what work needed to be done.  A sense of pride and responsibility that must have stemmed from her upbringing.

C and I arrived in New England on August 1, 2000.  We were broke and knew almost nobody in our new home town.  When news came in November that Grandma had suffered a brain aneurysm, my heart broke.  I knew I could not afford the trip home to be by her side.  I really struggled with knowing that I could not do for her what she had done for two husbands.

It wasn't my responsibility, but it felt like my duty.

Grandma died just after Thanksgiving.  I remember my family telling me later that while she was in her hospital bed, she reminded her sons to pull the pies out of her freezer that she'd made for Thanksgiving dinner.  She didn't want them going to waste.  Even in her final days, she was the picture of hospitality.

On the news of her passing, I scrambled to compile a letter to be read at her funeral.  It contained tidbits from her letters and stories to me.  I have it somewhere -- but not sure where -- but I cried the entire time I pieced it together.  I'm all snotty and crying now as I write this tribute to her.

She was quite a lady.  I don't know that I'll ever stop missing her.  Her courage of facing the challenges in her life and the terrible illnesses of her husbands are just such an incredible model for other wives.  For me.

I hope that somewhere, she's watching and as I brush the bangs from my forehead so she can see my eyes, she's looking at me and feeling proud of her sons and the children they have raised.


  1. Oh thanks for the recap on Dad's birthday festivities! Was rice pudding his request?

  2. C had made some around my birthday since I love it and I mentioned how Dad loves it. Then Dad was talking about rice pudding at our house and how he found his favorite kind in a package at Sam's Club and he eats those for breakfast or during his work day sometimes.

    I mentioned to C about how he likes rice pudding at breakfast, so C made it happen! Dad was very pleased.

    Dad's main request was "anything pumpkin," so C planned the pumpkin pies, but then had a bit left and turned it into soup.

  3. Well, you certianly got me all teary-eyed. Another beautiful
    tribute and well deserved. I'm sure Grandma M. appreciates it.