This and one other essay are published in the recently released "House of Laughter," the seventh in the "House of..." series of books published by The Retreat House Spirituality Center where I am a Covenant Partner and affiliate spiritual director.
My grandmother was not always a kind person—not like the rosy-cheeked, round, open-armed grandmas of Norman Rockwell paintings. “Gram” was a survivor with the sharp edges of a woman who endured hardships with a Norwegian stiff upper lip. She never saw a reason to cry about anything. I suspect that became a decision when her baby brother, Dale, died in her arms when she was only 16, the eldest of ten. I doubt she cried when she was shoved out of the house at age 17. There were eight younger mouths to feed and it was time to make it on her own. Or when her husband died at the age of 52. Have a brandy, light up a cigarette, and carry on. That is what she did, that is what she expected you to do. After leaving the farm in North Dakota, one of her early jobs was working for Dr. Mayo’s family in Rochester, Minnesota, while he was founding the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Mayo was convinced that the kidnappers who took Charles Lindbergh’s baby were going to be after his children next, so Gram, still a teen, slept with a gun under her pillow.
We were not able to see her much when I was growing up because she lived in Duluth, Minnesota, and we grew up mostly in California. We would take summer trips by car to see her and other relatives, but visits were few and far between. I saw her more when I was in college, and even lived with her for a summer in Duluth. But she was a hard woman to be close to. She always worried I would do something wrong and she might be blamed. What worried her about a straight-A, goody two-shoes like me? I never did find out. Maybe she was just so accustomed to bracing herself against disaster that it was hard to relax and enjoy life as it was. Maybe it felt like something bad was always around the corner.
Perhaps that was why Gram had a bit of a mean streak. She picked favorites—the favorite granddaughter who lived closest to her who she talked about endlessly, the grandsons over the granddaughters, pictures with the boys and not the girls. People chalked it up to her age, but I never felt old age was an excuse for being mean.
Gram did not travel much as she got older but, one Christmas, my Mom convinced her to spend it at their house outside of Fort Worth, Texas. I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, at the time; my husband and I just had our third baby—a girl after having two boys. Mom wanted us to come down for Christmas, too, so we could take a four-generation picture with Gram and Leah, who was three months old. Dan was serving as a parish pastor and had Christmas Eve services, so we loaded up Daniel (age 4), Jacob (age 2), and baby Leah on Christmas Day to make the eight-hour drive to Texas. After being there for just a day or two, I was walking out of the kitchen and Gram said to me, “I didn’t think I could wear stretch pants because my butt was too big, but you’re wearing them, and your butt is bigger than mine.”
I thought, I am so glad I drove eight hours on Christmas Day with three small children so I could hear from my own grandmother that I have a big butt three months after giving birth! I almost asked Dan to load up the car so we could leave, but I didn’t. I did not want to disappoint my mom. And, I did not want someone else’s misery, or old age—or whatever it was—to determine my own behavior.
Gram lived to be 101; in fact, she outlived my mom by eight months. Gram had dementia and lived in a nursing facility in her later years. We saw her a few more times near the end of her life because we were in Duluth for my mom’s burial. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are harrowing diseases when you lose someone you love brick by brick. But with Gram, there was also so much grace. The hedging against disaster, the control, and the mean streak were all gone. There emerged this sweet old granny in a wheelchair with a crocheted blanket in her lap and her teeth lost—thrown away in some napkin many meals ago—smiling up at me through coke bottle glasses with rosy cheeks and open arms.
Gram still preferred men—she took one look at my sister’s tall, well-built husband like he was her new boyfriend and said, “I want him!” Gripped with sadness, battling the frigid February weather, we all burst out laughing as if our very lives depended on it. It was so healing amid our grief, that the one person who could bring us relief, laughter, and joy was none other than Gram. On another visit with my dad, he wheeled her up to the lunch table and the staff person asked her where she got this tall, good-looking man to wheel her around. She looked up at my dad, who was 6’5” and said, “Oh him? I got him in a catalog.” Another story that still makes us laugh today.
The last time I saw her, I knelt beside her wheelchair, looked up at her, and said, “I love you, Gram.” And she said, “I love you more.” I believe it has always been true. I still have the four-generation picture hanging on my wall with Gram, my Mom, me, and baby Leah, who is almost twenty-two.