Mourning and Remembering


Last General Conference Sunday, my mom got a call from her cousin, about her own mother, my grandmother warrior, Zena. Her body that carried her to both water aerobics and water coloring classes into her 90s was starting to shut down, and that shutting down was happening quickly. Hospice would step in.

After the phone call, I walked around my apartment and city for weeks and thought, “My grandma is dying.”

I am doing the dishes, and my grandma is dying. I am nursing my son, and my grandma is dying. (He has her eyes.) I am reading Dear Girl to my daughter, and my grandma is dying. I am tucking them in, or doing morning preschool dropoff, or afternoon preschool pickup, and my grandma is dying. I am telling my daughter for the umpteenth time, “My grandma is dying and I am really sad. It’s Nana’s mom. She’s sad too,” to which she responds, “I didn’t know that,” and I tell her, “You did. I told you.”

I am taking a bus into the city by myself for a concert I’ve been looking forward to for months, and my grandma is dying. I am wearing her coat in New York, that she gave me when I lived in her house right after I started my PhD and she is in California, dying.

My mother went to be with her. She told me my grandma said my name in her sleep.

My mother went back, this time with one of my sisters and her son. They said goodbye to her. It was hard to leave. She told me she thought her mother would live forever. Or at least until November, when she’d turn 100. Don’t we all think this, of the one who made us?

I missed a call. It was my dad. I called him back. He struggled to speak. I asked if my grandma died. He said no, but that she was in a coma, and they expected it to be that day, or maybe the next.

I opened facebook and scoured almost every picture I’d ever posted to find pictures of her, then I moved to my siblings, and my cousins, and my mother’s pages. I gathered the pictures in one place as if all of the concentrated focus and remembering could sustain her. As if it could sustain me.

My husband is trying to encourage me to encourage my daughter to pick up her own toys instead of me picking them up for her. I tell him, “This doesn’t matter very much to me right now. My grandma is dying.”

Then right after, I learned that she died, with my cousin by her side, playing Louie Armstrong. He said she went peacefully. He said she knew that she was loved.

She was. Loved.

I searched for plane tickets and couldn’t stop crying. I posted both of those things on facebook and then cried harder from the kindness that came.

I read a poem by Marie Howe, “What the Living Do.” I think of my own version. The living forgets her daughter has “Mixmatched Day” at school, and the next day forgets her daughter’s bookbag. The living misplaces her glasses for four days. She drives to the store for yogurt and diapers. (The living still has to eat, still has a baby-toddler who needs to be changed.) The living reads poems and cries, and children’s books and cries. The living cries. The living looks at the buds, finally flowering on the trees and thinks about the incongruity of death during spring, but how it also carries its own reminder that death isn’t death. The living feels an emptiness she cannot shake, and a brain fuzziness she’s trying to.

The living clings to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s words, “Well behaved women seldom make history,” because Laurel meant that they should, that she wanted them to, and that she would make a new history to do it, piecing together their lives and stories from a journal entry here, a piece of fabric there, and a lock of hair.

I, the living one, think about my grandma’s life and stories. She was an extraordinary, ordinary woman.

I wrote some of them here once, how she met her husband during World War II when he was home for a break, and she, as a single woman took a train from California to Texas and tipped the conductor to seat her next to the most handsome man, how they later married at a courthouse, and her sister gathered rations of sugar and butter to make her a small cake, how she brought her (and consequently my) family into the gospel when my mom was two, even though my grandpa told her that if she joined the Mormon church, he’d join the Catholic church, and how she had a career in the 50s when my mom didn’t know any other women who worked, and how she was not the cook in her family (that was my grandpa), but there’s more. (Of course there’s more.)

I think of her backyard, that as a child felt like paradise and as an adult felt cozy, the lemon tree on the right side, and the gigantic avocado tree in the center, that somehow sprung from the dwarf tree she planted.

I think of her birthplace, Hooker, Pennsylvania, and her birth time, just weeks after the first world war ended.

She lived on a farm until her dad passed away when she was 11. He said goodbye to her, to go on a trip, and got in a car accident on the way. Her mother moved her and her siblings across the country to be near family. She knew loss, and was sensitive to others who knew loss, who grew up without parents.

She lived through the Great Depression and the second world war. Instead of making her hard, it made her generous. She saved everything and gave everything away.

I once found 20+ bags of sugar scattered throughout her kitchen and her pantry. I thought it must be because of what she told me, about her sister, Vera, gathering sugar and butter rations, to make her a wedding cake.

She wasn’t soft in the way grandmas are sometimes thought to be soft, and when I was young I thought she liked boys more than girls. (It might have been true.)

I don’t think she ever made cookies for anybody, but she did offer me storebought cookies once, on a day when she saw me crying, then later told me she put my name on the prayer roll at the LA temple when I couldn’t tell her what was wrong. I had never loved her more.

Soon after that I got accepted to Claremont and moved into her home. She’d previously opened it to two of my brothers and one of my cousins.

It was a napping place. Every time I walked in the door, she’d say, “You must be so tired. Why don’t you take a nap?” And more often than not, I was.

I think of how she taught me to watercolor on a particularly anxious day and how she laughed and laughed at my pink elephant, modeled after one of Ash Mae’s.

I think of her love of chocolate, and how she drank two cups of hot cocoa every day and told me that if her doctor ever told her she needed to stop, she’d say, “Doctor, I’m getting a new doctor.”

I think of the day I drove her to her doctor, after coming home from a Nietzsche class and having her ask me how my day was and if I was busy, before telling me she thought she’d had a stroke. She had, a small one.

I think of the day I saw her lick a bowl clean of batter after my friend and I made 500 mini cupcakes for an event. She didn’t know that I was watching, and said to herself, “That takes me back,” smiling like the most carefree child.

I think of her sayings, how when she was still driving and would get a good parking place, she’d say, “I must be living right,” and how my siblings and I laughed about it, but also now all say it. How at my oldest sister’s wedding, she wore a bright red dress and said, “Well somebody’s got to wear red!” And how in her part of California, ten miles from LA, she would tell me, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change!” How when I lived with her, the thing she said most of all was, “Just keep smiling.”

Rachel

Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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4 Responses

  1. Nancy Ross says:

    This is so beautiful, Rachel. You loved her thoroughly and I am sorry that she is gone.

  2. paws says:

    What a sweet collection of memories. Sounds like you were lucky to have her in your life.

  3. Wendy says:

    What a multi-faceted, non-gender role conforming, clever, beautiful soul your grandmother was. And your gift with words will keep her memory alive forever. Sending you love and comfort, my friend. ❤️

  4. Janell says:

    I think my grandmother and your grandmother were cut from the same cloth… How fortunate are we to have such women as examples of how to live life well! She left a hole behind that nothing else can possibly fill, and yet I feel she is not so very far away. Peace and love to you as your memories carry you through your mourning.

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