My relationship with my grandmother is one that I wish every child in this world could experience. She was my greatest advocate, my defender and to me she was a saint. Losing her was the deepest knife thrust my heart ever received.
For a number of years my mother and aunt had been estranged. I would tell you the reason for that but as it is many years since, the reason has lost its significance. I loved both mom and my aunt dearly – and I did everything I could to get them re-united. I spoke with my aunt on a regular basis and encouraged her to try for a rapprochement with mom.
Auntie H. was a wonderful woman – and she felt a sense of obligation to immediate family. As a result, although I know she loved me dearly, she felt that I was “betraying” mom in even speaking with her as this divide continued.
But I pursued. (I can be obstinate at times – and I thought that with such a little family to hold onto we all should be as one). And so it happened.
I had returned from college for the Christmas holiday. Grandma, dad, mom, our cocker spaniel, Andy and I were settling in to an evening of good food and family on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, the downstairs doorbell rung. It was Auntie H. and her youngest daughter who had come to surprise us with a visit. (Mom and her sister hadn’t spoken for at least five years).
Suddenly all the grievances (real or imagined) fell away and we were together again as one small – but now slightly expanded – family. Tears flowed freely from everyone’s eyes – and my aunt never gave away the dirty little secret that she and I had talked during this long hiatus. Had it not been for my aunt’s gratuitous visit, she would never again have seen her mother alive.
I returned to Chicago after the New Year and went back to the busy work of studying and trying to learn from people who were far brighter than I could ever hope to be. And only a few days into getting back into the regimen I returned to find a note in my mailbox and another attached to my dorm room. My resident head, Carole wanted to speak to me. I went down to her room.
She told me that there was something urgent going on at home and I needed to call my parents and she offered me her telephone. I dialed home and dad answered, but without the usual upbeat voice that I knew through the many conversations we had over the years.
“You have to come home. Grandma’s ‘ill’.”
I remember saying, “How ill is she?” After a little pause, dad said, “She died this morning.”
To this day, I remember the emptiness I felt – as though all the air had been sucked out of my body. I remember feeling a near faintness at the pronouncement of these words. This wonderful woman from whom I had learned so much and to whom I could always turn when I needed help or support was gone.
I remember listening to dad tell me that a ticket was waiting for me at O’Hare Airport to fly me back to New York. I remember getting through that conversation, hanging up the phone and starting to cry uncontrollably. I remember Carole putting her arms around me, putting her head on my shoulder and giving me a hug. In my head I heard the sounds of the old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel Like A Motherless Child.”
Because we were a small family, relatives didn’t die very often – and, for their own reasons – my parents shielded me from the deaths of their friends. I had never before attended a funeral – and grandma’s was my introduction to this part of life’s passage. It was not a part of life that I savored or enjoyed.
The wake went on for two days. Grandma’s casket was closed and, other than on television, I had never seen a dead person. I didn’t want to remember my grandmother that way and so I was happy that my parents had decided to conduct the rituals of death in this manner.
Friend after friend – mostly grandma’s and my parents’ came up to us and expressed what I took to be their sincere sympathy. They said all the “right” things that one can say at these moments.
They told me, “How much my grandmother loved me and that they knew I had reciprocated those feelings towards her.” I heard the same well-intentioned statements for hours on end and I wanted to scream, “You have no idea what this woman meant to me. Be quiet already.” But I behaved appropriately and thanked them for their statements.
But after awhile, I couldn’t handle it any more. I inappropriately left the room and started walking on the floor where grandma’s wake was being held. There were several other rooms on the floor of the funeral home, one of which was occupied by another deceased person. I saw that this coffin was open – and because I had never seen a corpse, I admit to a certain fascination and went in. There was no one else in the room.
There in the casket lay a woman. I approached, viewing the first corpse I had ever seen in real life. As I looked at her, I guessed this lady was in her nineties. I remember admiring what an excellent job the funeral home had done in making her look as though she were ready to enjoy an evening at the Met. She seemed positively serene and happy.
I started to leave the room in which she lay, having steeled myself to hearing yet more of the comments which had driven me from grandma’s wake. By this time, the funeral home had provided us with a second book where those in attendance had signed in to represent their appreciation for my grandmother’s life.
As I left this elderly lady’s room, I looked at the book which sat on the little dais at the entrance. Nobody had signed their name. So I did.
Over many years, I have often wondered – had this lady simply outlived all those who loved her and whom she loved? Did nobody care about her life and passing? And did whoever received the “Book of Remembrance” ever wonder – who was this stranger who had signed it?