Today would have been my grandmother's 89th birthday. A reminder is still set on my calendar but I didn't need it. Her death is too recent; I am still overly aware that she is gone.
I've written so much about my grandmother through the years, about her influence on my life. Practically everyone who knows me knows how important she was to me. Through her dementia the past five years, I worked to honor her, who she was to her family and friends. I wanted to record as much as possible about her life while she was able to recall it. So I wrote essays and blog posts and half-finished snippets. We had conversations (when we could) about places she'd seen, people she knew, food she'd cooked. She told me stories about my father as a boy, about my grandfather when they were dating. Sometimes she asked me about my friends, the ones she remembered hanging out in her kitchen, and on her carport late into the night. Through all of our time together, as a girl, a teenager, and especially a young adult, my grandmother always pushed the importance of listening and of being heard. I couldn't stop thinking whether she felt heard, whether she felt listened to, loved.
As a lifelong health advocate and nurse, she tirelessly worked to be a voice for her patients, for those in need of care. Gran believed in saying exactly what you meant, and doing so quickly. In her line of work, minutes, seconds counted. She loathed a conversation where it took to long to get to the point. It was the same with books. If it took too long to get to a plot point, she would stop reading. Like her mother, she enjoyed a good story but as someone who never stopped moving, it better be worth her time. This seemingly contradictory trait was born from necessity. As an OR nurse, expectations, jargon, and being in charge eked into her life with us. She perfected the art of cooking while telling a story. She was a fan of doing two things at once, but only if you were good at it.
A thousand little moments between us filter though mind on a daily basis: the way she sang in church, head slightly tipped up, how she sat in her recliner moisturizing her hands at the end of each day, the quiet hum when she folded clothes or searched the fridge for a meal. I appreciated the morning ritual of coffee and toast, morning devotional, going through her calendar, reading the paper. At her funeral, I talked about the way that living her (and her mother) made me appreciate the small details of life, the minutiae of our routines, how we lived together like a symphony, each of us knowing when to come in and exit.
It's impossible for me to imagine my girlhood without her. She was so present in my life, every milestone, every accomplishment, but also darker days of grief and tragedy and trauma. Though we often lived hours from her, she made every effort to spend quality time with my brother and I. She'd meet my parents halfway at a highway Stuckey's so we could spend months with her in the summers. She visited often. She helped us decorate birthday cakes. She let us eat ice cream on her front steps. She always listened to the radio, had some music in the house going while she cooked, or put on her makeup, or washed my hair. She would sing, and hum, and play records, and tapes, and eventually CDs though she told me she never liked them.
In the house where my father grew up, we would open the windows and doors. Music filtered out into the night and a chorus of frogs and crickets would join in. I wonder if this is why I have to sleep to some kind of noise. I slept in a twin bed on risers, wedged into the wall space between my grandfather's desk and the window. Though the room opened into the hallway, I felt secluded, safe. The small house of my father's youth was comforting. His history was there and my present. I felt connected to family both in the abstract and literal sense in ways that didn't always happen during the rush of a school year when other distractions were pressing. I read my father's childhood books, took tea in mason jars packed with ice to my grandfather in his outdoor shop/garage as he "tinkered away". The man could put away some iced tea. To this day, tea tastes better, colder out of a mason jar.
Southern girls my age may have similar stories about their grandparents. I don't know that my experiences are unique but they are significant because they build an anchor for me, a way to root and tether myself particularly on difficult days. Days like today.
I am so unbelievably grateful to have been loved so fiercely by a woman like my Grandmother and her mother and relatives. The women in my family have provided a lineage and a legacy of which I am both proud and also in awe. I want my niece to know these stories. I want to tell her about her own father as a boy and all the silly things we did together, often at Gran's house in the summer. I want her to see the influence of my grandmother in her own life because of the time we spent together. And I want her to know the importance of being heard, of using your voice on behalf of others.
My grandmother was many things to many people. At her memorial service so many of them stopped to tell me stories of her influence on their lives. She was so dearly loved and respected. I hope she knew it. Because she never let a moment pass where she wasn't ensuring how deeply we knew of her affection, care, and love for us.
As dementia was taking her from me, I felt like I was in a state of mourning. The woman I'd known my whole life was no longer the stable presence I'd come to depend on. She was some version of that person at times, but without the memory of the experiences that shaped her, she was left to invent someone else. I often felt discouraged; it was challenging to reconcile the person I knew with the person she was. So it felt like I mourned her frequently, the more she forgot. But today, to wake up on what would have been her birthday, and not be able to call her or send a silly video, I mourn her in the way she encouraged most; I write about her. I will always write about her.