I always told Gram she’d know she was in trouble when I stopped giving her shit. I always gave her shit. My husband would listen to me on the phone with her and often just had to walk away shaking his head at what I said to her. In my defense, he didn’t hear what she was saying to me.
It took Gram coding three times and me having to make the decision not to continue treatment—to let her go—for us to reach that point. For me to stop giving her shit. I informed her of this. I don’t know if she could hear me at that point, but it made me and my sister laugh despite the tears.
A few days later, I was writing her obituary. It’s the second one I’ve written and it’s not a skill I especially want to develop.
What sucks about obituaries—for whatever poor sucker of a family member gets stuck with writing them—is that there’s no space for processing your own grief. Obituaries are just the highlights of a life. Good ones tend to have a little something for everyone grieving that they can point to and say, “That’s how I knew/met/loved her.” But when you’re someone close enough to be writing the obituary, that perspective is damn hard to keep. The end result feels like such a pale, pale shadow of the person it’s supposed to memorialize.
So buckle up. I’m going to try to tell you about Gram and who she was to me.
Gram was an artist. She’d never call herself that—artistic, yes, not an artist—but that didn’t change the fact. Her own grandmother taught her to sew when she was little. Her grandmother was hugely important to her and those sewing lessons were some of Gram’s fondest childhood memories. One of her biggest regrets in life was bowing to her parents’ refusal and not going to Parson’s in NYC after graduating high school.
In the mid-90s she started making quilts and each one was—is—a work of art. I don’t know how many I have, but I brought home two more after she died. They were quilts she absolutely despised by the time she put them all together because it too her so long to pattern the pieces to suit her. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who helped her rearrange the pieces (over and over and over), but they’re two of my favorites she ever made and I can’t look at them without remembering that I helped. They make me remember us.
Gram married three times—divorced twice, then widowed. I never asked her about being a single working mother of two was like in Maine (so far behind the rest of the country) in the 60s and 70s. She would talk about teaching at the Maine Youth Center, about being a five foot tall woman surrounded by hulking teenage boys who didn’t respond well to authority figures. She’d talk about how all her students would wait for the inevitable entertainment of a new kid pulling some I’m-a-macho-badass stunt on her and she’d handle it. And in all her stories of that time, she never talked about what they did that landed them there. She talked about them just as kids, with sympathy and empathy, and that should tell you all you really need to know.
Though she did tell the story of an incident when a student stabbed a male teacher with a pair of scissors. But she only told it because of the teacher’s meeting afterward when the new principal—whom she hadn’t thought had even noticed her— announced that the incident never would have happened in Gram’s classroom.
And to further cement her badassery, she got her master’s degree while working full time with two kids. Because it gave her an extra $20 a week. Of course, that still didn’t begin to touch the male teachers’ wages.
She loved Mount Desert Island. She always said that driving over the Trenton bridge onto MDI felt like coming home. She loved her cottage on Frye Island and sharing that refuge with the people she loved. So many summers we’d pile into her stuffed-to-the-roof car and drive down to Sebago Lake for a couple weeks. I’d daydream with her about spending the entire summer there—a thing she only did once.
For maybe the first four years of my life, she lived about fifty feet from our house. If even. My sister and I took it for granted that we could always run over to her house for brownies, or to play with her doll collection, or to watch musicals on VHS. I don’t think anyone bothered to explain what or why when she moved away. Was forced to move away. I remember standing at the bathroom window bawling as the movers drove off with her trailer. I remember the world didn’t make any sense without her right there.
I was six or seven when I met my other grandmother, Dad’s mom, for the first time and I was so scared that she was somehow supposed to replace Gram.
You know, now that I think about it, my family was crap at explaining things to kids.
Gram did a lot of the raising of me and my sister. Dad got custody of us when I was ten and it took him a couple years to admit that he needed help. After all, he worked constantly and frequently ran hours late—a thing we still call Dick King time—and his secretary was only able to pick us up from school or get us to appointments during business hours. So he ended up hiring Gram, his ex-mother-in-law. The only person who might possibly agree to his ridiculous expectations. For five years, she basically lived with us. Then with my sister off at college, Dad figured he and I could fend for ourselves. I’ll just say it was a rough year. Having Gram there saved us all in so many ways and she is much to blame for who I am.
Gram loved and supported my theatre life. She got so frustrated at not being able to help out more, but if I was in a show she’d be sitting in the audience for every performance she could possibly make it to. And she was my go-to theatre buddy. The last couple weeks whenever I hear about a show, I start thinking about logistics before I even realize what the logistics are for: bringing Gram to see it.
Gram was the first person to legitimize my writing. She recognized its importance to me and encouraged me. She was my loudest, most enthusiastic cheerleader and she was the one who told me in high school that I could stop breathing easier than I could stop writing. I still hold onto that when I start questioning certain life choices. It helped smooth my frustration at her inability to recognize my writing face and her frequent interruptions to my train of thought of just ask if I was all right.
The novel I’m writing now was one she desperately wanted to read.
Gram talked about my daughter like she was the best thing that ever happened. A week before she died, she babysat with my sister. That night, my daughter just climbed up in Gram’s chair with her and fell right to sleep. And Gram never stopped smiling about that.
She wasn’t done living. Not even close. We had a moment that last night when we dared to hope she might make it. She saw my sister and my daughter and fought. Gram fought hard. She didn’t want to put my sister through that grief again, with her husband’s death only three years ago. Gram hoped to be around for many more years to come, and at the very least make sure her youngest great-grandchild would remember her. She was not done living.
Most everyone who met Gram wanted to adopt her as their own grandmother and many did. I am beyond lucky at she was mine.