I have missed my grandma for a long time. When I was a child, her "episodes" were hidden by other loving adults (my grandpa, my aunt and uncle, my parents). They helped preserve a reasonably normal relationship with my grandma for many many years. There were cracks through which I could see the bad stuff, but I was able, in my youth, to brush them aside as something that I would deal with later. And later came.
I remember when she told me she invented the Lego and that the toy company stole her idea. I remember when my mom cried because she called and told mom to take the key to my brother's key car (remember those?) away from him...Jesus had appeared to her and told her he was going to stick it in an electrical outlet and electrocute himself to death. I remember when she told the nurse, prior to her hernia operation, that she had had three pregnancies (my aunt + my mom + ???). I remember when she couldn't get cable, because Bill Gates would spy on her through the cable. I remember when I went to visit and she looked at me and couldn't remember who I was...couldn't remember my son (but she remembered my husband...how's that for a kick?).
Yes, later came and made me miss my grandma.
She taught me how to camp and cook on a campstove. She took us fishing and was as fearless as any boy. During summer vacation she let me run around with the neighbor girl and eat too many blueberries right off the bush and swim in the pool without waiting an hour. At Christmas time, no matter when we arrived, she had a feast fit for royalty ready and waiting for us. Whenever we would visit, she would slip us cash, telling us to tell no one...but everybody knew...because she did it to everyone. Her little ways of making you feel special...
She would shop and shop and shop for the perfect Christmas gift. This often resulted in garbage bags full of presents that often missed the "perfect" mark by a mile. I remember one Christmas, my Dad got several shirts...all different sizes. We still giggle about that. I'm sure part of it was because her dementia wouldn't allow her to remember things exactly as they really are, but there was love in those ill-fitting shirts. Even if she couldn't remember the size you wore today, she got you something that would have fit you at the size you were when she remembered you.
The candy and the junk food...she's where I get my sweet tooth from. The buffet would be filled with all sorts of candies and cookies. Even if we stayed for just a day, we had our choice of seemingly limitless treats. And she enjoyed them as much as we did. For a couple of years, we thought she might actually turn into a cheesy puff because that was all we would see her eat. Oh, and coffee! I love my coffee...just like grandma.
I remember her coming to visit at my parent's house. I remember her cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. I remember not being able to find things for months after she would leave because she never asked where to put them...just developed her own system and didn't leave us an interpreters manual. I have this one particularly vivid memory of her cleaning out the garage. Sweeping and sweeping and sweeping...a huge cloud of dust billowing out the double garage doors. I honestly don't think that garage has ever been that clean, before or after.
I remember Aqua Net. Like her sisters, she was a big fan of the modified beehive hairdo. And that took a lot of bobbie pins and extra strength hold hairspray to keep in place. And she smoked. MORE cigarettes. For YEARS. Then one day she decided to quit. And she did. Her mind made up, it was just that easy.
She was beautiful. I have pictures of her from when she was a younger woman, maybe in her twenties, looking so fine. There aren't many pictures of her when she was older. She always said she was "too wrinkled and ugly to have her picture taken...she would break the camera." So the few photos I have of her are a treasure to me. Though she may have been right about the wrinkles, she was never ugly.
She seemingly never slept. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and seeing her sitting there in the glow of the Christmas lights. She would smoke and have a cup of coffee....and oreos.
She would sit with me at the dining room table and do hundreds of craft projects. Drawing and beading and gluing and coloring. Sequins and ribbons and construction paper and styrofoam forms. I had no idea, until this very moment, how she must have taken time to prepare for my arrival...getting all the necessary supplies ready. To this day, the Santa I drew and cut out with pinking shears hangs somewhere in her house (even when it's nowhere near Christmastime). Her Christmas tree was adorned every year with a wide assortment of handmade ornaments...none of which would have any value to anyone but a grandma. The tackiest styrofoam wreath, wrapped in all sorts of Christmas package bows and ribbons in all sorts of colors...hung in a place of pride in her dining room window every year. You could see the styrofoam in places...but that didn't matter.
She helped teach me how to ride a bike before I even had a bike to ride. I remember her convincing grandpa to get that old red bicycle out of the barn and clean it up for me to learn on. How she pushed from behind as I pedaled uncertainly down that dirt road next to their house...her cheering me on. I knew I'd been suckered into doing it myself when she stopped cheering. She didn't want me to know she'd let go. But I looked back...and I saw her...with the biggest smile on her face. No, she was NEVER ugly.
I know that she got pregnant when she wasn't married. And during a time when such things were just not done, she chose to have the baby...my mom. She didn't pick the easy way, that's for sure. And her life might have been better for her if she'd made different choices. But I'm here because of a long line of fateful decisions...and that is a big one. And while the love that our family has shared over the years can't make up for the hardships on her journey, all of our lives have been blessed by it...by her.
My grandma had a very tough life. To this day, there are secrets that have not been revealed in our family. Her mental instability made it impossible to ascertain what was truth and what was fiction. It has made things difficult at times (particularly when discussing medical issues). And it has made me long for the days of learning how to ride a bike on that dirt road...or doing crafts at the dining room table. I've missed my grandma for a long time.
But even in her declining health, mental and physical, she still managed to fill a priceless place in our lives. When Alex died, she told my aunt (who told my mom...who told me...through that old Polish lady game of telephone) that she would trade places with him...for me. But she knew that's not the way it works. And so she made arrangements to pay for Alex's headstone. Those words etched in granite, forever for our boy...from his great-grandma. It was and will always be a gesture of love that brings tears to my eyes.
She tried her best to fight death when it came for her. My mom wrote these words to my sister, my brother, and me, during those last few days. "I think the tenacity to which she holds on to life is the same tenacity that has gotten her through life. She hangs on because she just does not know how to let go and leave." That made me smile because it was so true. She was a tough old Polish lady...tenacious...bold...beautiful.
But in the end, as the law of nature requires, she left us...and left us all here to remember her and smile...and cry...and mourn her absence. Her pain is gone. Oddly, I feel a sense of peace about her passing...because I know she will take care of my boys. I know she will take them camping and fishing, bike riding and swimming. She will teach them crafts and create beautiful masterpieces together. She will tell them all about how their mommy and daddy and big brother love them and wish, more than anything, that they could be with them...how we will celebrate the day that we do get to be with them again. Because she knows what it means to love a child. And she knows what it means to be a part of the fabric of a family. And she knows how special she is to us...that we trust her to love our boys like she loves us...like we love her.
I'm still going to miss her...and them...for as long as I live.