You, my maternal grandmother, a strong and stubborn storm of a woman, have been gone for two years now. I’ve thought of you and the tribute you deserve every day. Everything that’s been said has so many holes, so much left out. I know I have to do my part and contribute my voice and memory, but I’ve been so afraid. Nothing I write will ever adequately describe nor honor you. But, after two years, I’ll do my best.
I was there, in the hospital that last week. As I put on my mask and gloves, I stared at the bed, wondering: Who was this feeble, thin-haired, pale-skinned old woman? I surely didn’t know. My grandmother wasn’t old. Maybe her age was what some might consider old, but they didn’t know her. My grandmother had a social calendar I envied, stayed up later than I did, and beat me by two years to getting a first iPhone. Plus, my grandmother wasn’t feeble. She did water aerobics at the country club and worked in her yard all the time. And thin-haired and pale-skinned? My grandmother would never stand for that. Her beauty routine would simply not allow it. She so guiltily passed on to me some soft, flaky fingernails, and would always update me on the latest nail-tech to cure them. She never forgot to apologize for my nails.
None of those traits described the woman in the hospital bed.
The woman in the bed needed machines to support her. You, Mimi, never needed anyone or anything. As the oldest of nine growing up on a farm in Mississippi, you knew how to handle yourself and get things done. Despite your modest upbringing, you still appreciated the finer things and had the good taste to accommodate for it. But you still never lost your sensibility. You took pride in teaching us how to shop (read: bargain hunt). You loved taking us to discount stores like Ross and TJ Maxx while carrying your designer Brahmin handbag. It all made sense though — you’d always told us you were a city girl trapped in a country girl’s body.
There was no way the woman depending on a machine for life was you. You didn’t need help. Anything you wanted done you could get done, and anything else was inferior. You weren’t afraid to point that out, either.
Once, instead of our traditional homemade pepper jelly and cream cheese appetizer, I brought something to change it up a bit — Tabasco pepper jelly and goat cheese. It was quite clear how displeased you were, and I wanted to toss my snack in the trash for the great shame I’d brought upon my family. When you were ill during our last Christmas with you, your brother spent hours in the kitchen trying to replicate your signature (and world’s best) dressing. He was so tired afterwards that he spent all Christmas Day napping. You later lamented that it would’ve turned out much better had you made the dressing yourself.
I loved your pride because, to me, it translated into honesty. You were right — your dressing would have been better. You didn’t invent lies or stories just to make people feel better. In that way, compliments from you were so highly prized. When you told me you liked my hair cut, I knew you meant it. When you said you were proud of me, I believed you.
Reels of these memories played in my mind as I tried to contribute my 22-year-old wisdom into difficult family discussions. You didn’t want to be supported by a machine, but you still left the decision with your family. We thought it would give you just one more chance. You knew we just needed a little more time with you. As was often the case, you were right.
While visiting that hospital bed, friends and our more distant relatives often mentioned how much my grandmother loved us and how sweet she was. This always made my head tilt slightly to the side. Something about hearing the descriptor “sweet” for my Mimi just didn’t fit. You were undoubtedly kind and good. You spent hours and years working for volunteer organizations. You were a leader dedicated to making your church and community better places. You cared about people, and were always willing to help anyone who needed it. You were full of generosity and love.
But sweet? I’m not sure about that one. You were too tough to be sweet. Too opinionated, too assertive. The frequency and manner with which you sent back your dishes at restaurants wasn’t exactly sweet. Your long exposure to Fox News and the unsweet opinions it fostered in you often made me cringe. The complaints you made to cashiers and the overly frank tone you took with them weren’t sweet. You were good, talented, popular, loving and loved. Not sweet.
You were a complex woman, and to reflect on only the positive parts would be unfair. To dehumanize you — to portray you as faultless — would rob us of your memory. To keep you as close, as real, as alive as possible is to represent all aspects of who you were — all reasons we loved you and were charmed by you.
Your presence never really left us after your body did. The evening the monitor stopped beeping, we went back to your house and opened a folder you’d prepared. Inside were the instructions to the tasteful funeral you’d already planned. You told us whom to call, which verses to put in the pamphlet, which font to use, what to put on the headstone, what to read, who would read it, which songs to be sung by whom.
And even more recently, you’re still here helping along the way. When I was preparing to move to Istanbul, I studied your guidebooks. When my Kindle was stolen, you had a reader I could use. When I was running low on cash, an unexpected gift arrived from you in my checking account. Even this year, my birthday card had been selected and purchased by you.
I still very much feel your presence, which almost makes it harder that I can’t pick up the phone and speak to you. There’s so much I wish I could talk to you about. I want to clarify things in your recipes (and I’m convinced you intentionally left out ingredients so yours would always be the best). I want to describe the seven-course meal I had, and share the recipe of a stellar coq au vin I made. I want to know about your trip to Turkey, and tell you about my year living there. I want to tell you about the things I’ve seen and done over the past two years. I want you to fuss at Papa for downsizing from your house to a one-bedroom apartment to a studio. I want you to console him after he lost his dog just months after his wife of 53 years. I wish you (and I) could’ve seen another one of your granddaughters get married. I want you to see the land my parents bought and how happy they are there. I want you to see my sister’s paintings.
I want to hear you mispronounce hurricane as “hurricun” and say, “Well, I’ll be” when something stumps you. I want to keep learning from you, though I know I will. I might not be able to call you anymore, but somehow you still answer. I’ll keep calling, however — not for the woman in the bed, not for that “sweet” lady, but for you.