Grandma Clara passed away this week. She was 97 years old and the matriarch of the family. She was also the home that brought us all together. She was the definition of persistence, consistency, and stability. Even up to her last days with us, she lived alone in her home, did all her own cooking and cleaning, carried her laundry up and down the basement steps, and maintained a small garden out back.
Grandma was what I would call a perfectionist. Every detail of her house was spotless. She had a way to get everything done and it was her way. Anything that strayed from her way was met with her favorite word, “Awk!” From age 6 on, I thought of Grandma as hard, insensitive and demanding. She never cried and rarely showed a soft, compassionate side. She wasn’t the grandma portrayed on many of the shows I grew up with. But she was my grandma and I loved her.
Over the last 10 or 15 years there seemed to be a change in Grandma. As I sat with her and asked her about her childhood, her family and my family, stories poured out of her. She was a child during WWI, got married and birthed 3 boys in the midst of the Great Depression. Eight years into that marriage with her oldest boy only 7 years old, she lost her husband. World War II was just getting under way and she was left to raise 3 boys on her own.
“That must have been tough,” I noted to her one day. She responded, “Well it certainly wasn’t easy, but you move on.”
After her children were raised and well into starting their own families, Grandma got remarried. Everything was going great until she got the news about her youngest son three years later. At age 28, with five children of his own, he was killed in a plane crash. It took a long time to get over that, but she moved on.
Fifteen years later, her second husband died of a heart attack. Alone again, she moved on. Then her second son died of a similar heart attack and then her third son. She had now out-lived 2 husbands and 3 sons. What did she do? She moved on. She did so not without pain, but without fear and without a why me attitude. She persevered, pushed forward and took what life was giving her.
As she told her stories to me, that belief of her from a 6-year-old mind began to break away. I began to see the compassionate heart. Her lack of hugs was not a sign that she lacked caring, but that she cared in her way. Her critical views became wisdom from years of experience. Her lack of emotion became strength in the face of my weaknesses. As I heard her stories, I began to think, “Wow, grandma is really changing.”
In my last visits during her last days, we talked more about her current interests. She loved to watch the Brewers on TV or listen to them on the radio. She was a big Packer fan, but couldn’t understand why they wore those goofy uniforms sometimes (I explained that they were throwbacks and she said, “They should be thrown away”). I saw her face light up as she watched my kids run around her house playing games. I saw the genius in her card play.
I walked out of her house for the last time to a hug and a kiss on my cheek. I thought, “Grandma really has changed.” Then I put the kids in the van, turned back to the house and saw that familiar figure looking out the screen door and that familiar wave good-bye. I felt like that 6-year-old kid again.
As I drove away, I saw her in a new light. I could put myself in her shoes just a bit and see the world through her eyes. I could feel her pain in brief moments. Then it dawned on me. Grandma hadn’t changed as much as Grandma had changed me. Forgive me Grandma if it takes me a little longer than you, but I will move on.
I never realized until it was too late how I won the lottery by being her grandson.