I am, perhaps, just a little older than my daughter, and being rocked in the dark in a familiar rocking chair. “Oh Mister Moon...Moon...bright and shiny moon....” a voice sings softly, as a hand pats my back. It's one of the earliest memories I have.
My mother—who, for reasons that will become obvious, is not the most reliable narrator of that time period—claims that, after she and my father married-and-divorced, he relied on my grandmother to help take care of me during his visits because he “didn't really know what to do with a baby”. At 36, I am just barely starting to realize that there are a few super powers my dad might not have, but, for that particular middle-of-the-night bad dream, at least, my grandma was the one who was there.
She died Sunday morning. She's been dying since the beginning of April.
Our lives have overlapped such that I only knew the last third of her life. I never knew her as a child or a young mother—only as “grandma”. But she's one of the few people who have been around since the beginning of my life. So many of my stories are grounded in hers.
While no one can claim surprise or unfairness when an almost 92-year-old woman dies, what has caught me off guard is the way memories of those stories have come flooding through—things I haven't thought about in years—almost Lois Lowry like, as if she were releasing them back to me as she slipped off into another country.
Trying on perfume from her old-fashioned vanity tray. The way she would always leave a shocking amount of extra batter in the bowl for me to scrape up and lick off a spoon. How she never seemed bothered about the mess when my cousins and I “went swimming” in the mucky drainage ditch in her backyard.
That she always made my grandpa and I bowls of cereal when we arrived at their house late at night, after their 8-hour trek to pick me up. Frosted mini wheats.
The end of that one Spring Break when I dreamed that if only I could figure out how to walk through a sunbeam on the wall I could do the whole week over again.
Her bringing me hot cocoa as I watched “The Philadelphia Story” for the first time in her basement in high school.
Her taking pictures. All. The. Time. No family gathering was finished until “I just want to get a few pictures in front of the fireplace”. (One time she broke her hip to get the perfect picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm not saying I want to emulate that, exxxactly, but as a person who has inherited the mantle of family photographer, I do have to admire her dedication to framing up the shot.)
And all of that is not to say that our relationship wasn't complicated. It always was a little, and sometimes was a lot. But as mis-wired as we could get, I knew—and I think she did, too—that there was always a lot of love on both sides.
As she's declined these past several years, it's been enough just to watch her with my kids.
She would earnestly talk about toy cars and read books with Knox. And—the very last time we saw her, about a month ago—she made Bette beam with pride at her compliments on Bette's sparkle-y shoes.
It was hard to go see her. Her room was small and full of breakable “pretties”, a minefield for two children under five. And I always apologized, “I know we should get over to see you more, Grandma....”,
“You're raising two children and trying to work, too! I understand, that's not easy,” she told me once.
And, it was weird (because she was ordinarily not at all above a good dose of guilt to influence her grandchildren and children to come see her) but, I felt like she was remembering the chaos of when her own kids were small. I think she really did understand.
I'd bring her a bag of cherries for her birthday. (A hint of her depression-era girlhood, perhaps—she loved them, but wouldn't buy them for herself. “Goodness, aren't they so expensive?”)
And we'd talk about making jam (“You know they sell perfectly good stuff at the grocery store? I don't understand why you'd want to sweat over a pot all day.”) and cloth diaper washing methods (“You have to soak them first, or you'll never get them really clean.”).
And I'd make her tell the story of how she and grandpa met, during a sort-of musical chairs college mixer tradition where you had to dance with whoever you were standing next to when the music stopped. ("But Grandma, what if they had stopped the music 10 seconds later?" I would exclaim, astounded at the luck our whole family was founded on. And her eyes would twinkle.)
And in some of those conversations I got a few glimpses of what she must have been like before she was “grandma”, as she revisited parts of her life through mine.
On Friday we'll have her funeral. We'll “put her body in a pretty box and bury it in the ground,” as I keep simplifying it for the kids.
And then, maybe not that very night, but probably sometime in the next few weeks at least, I'll put them to bed and pat their backs as I sing the words to a lullaby they both know very well: “Oh Mister Moon...Moon...bright and shiny moon....”