Tag Archives: in memory

Grandma

My grandmother, Helen Mae, passed away last week. Laying in bed the night she died, stroking the soft fur on my dog’s ears, I pictured her own skillful hands, doing what they did over the years. I can picture them so clearly — shuffling through photographs of her latest trip, deftly completing crossword puzzles in pen, measuring baking ingredients, writing letters, smoothing her cropped hair.

Displaying IMG_8766.JPGgrandma in glacierMy grandmother was an incredibly smart and capable woman. She set high standards for herself and others and had a very logical mind, but she was an artist, too — though I doubt she’d ever be bold enough to claim that title — and an animal lover. She volunteered in the hospital where my grandfather worked for years, and although she was modest, even self-effacing at times, I think her family would agree she basically completed every attempted project perfectly, even if it took a few attempts. She never shied from a challenge.

Though her at-home cuisine remained remarkably unchanged over the years, she was willing to try nearly any new experience on her many travels with my grandfather, and we have photographs of her rafting the Grand Canyon in her seventies, riding camels and holding enormous boa constrictors, hiking up Ayers Rock, riding in a hot air balloon, and dancing to Michael Jackson at my wedding. This is a woman who picked up Zumba and line-dancing in her late eighties, right around the time she started winning costume party competitions.

Together my grandparents traveled all over the world, collecting art and artifacts and learning about other cultures and histories with a great appreciation for fine artistry. But she loved being at home, too, and I most often imagine her tucked in the nook of her great, red leather couch. She kept an immaculate house, and I’ve never met someone more organized, thrifty, and precise — not surprising considering her degree was in chemistry (Summa Cum Laude), and she was married to a surgeon for sixty years. She also had a deep enthusiasm for chocolate.

Although she and my grandfather moved to Arizona later in life, and she spent her last years in Florida, it is their house in Madison that holds the bulk of my memories of her. Marigolds and Johnny-jump-ups in the front garden, ghostly white hydrangeas in the back, swaying in a breeze heavy with the smell of the lake across the lawn my cousins and siblings and I spent so many seasons running across. In my mind, I know every inch of that house, every artifact, window, and light fixture, and she fills every space in an apron, silver belt, or checkered shirt.

My grandma had a great sense of humor, and although I don’t remember her being particularly cuddly in my youth, she became more so in her later years — always reaching for your hand on a walk, or sitting thigh to thigh on the couch, laughing at a joke or anecdote.

These are just some of the many things we will miss about her.

And although her passing has left her children and grandchildren bereft, her death was not a tragic one — unlike so many others recently. She lived a long, full life, mentally and physically spry and largely independent until the very end, and at nearly 91, she embraced her final adventure with characteristic humor, grace, and practicality. She loved and was well-loved, and was at peace and without pain in her final days. Her’s is a life to celebrate.

grs yale

Give My Love To Rose

It’s been a week since my sister-in-law Rosaleen passed away following a second, shockingly fast bout of the Hodgkin’s lymphoma we all thought she beat earlier in the year. I honestly still can’t make sense of this, can’t find the words, it still feels so unbelievable, the bad dream anyone who has lost someone they love is so sadly familiar.

I did not know Rose for as long, or undoubtedly as deeply, as some, but I did love her fiercely, and immediately. She was just that kind of chick.

We scoped each other out from a distance long before we actually met in person, with a kind of curiosity, excitement, and natural insurance that me getting with her big brother was going to be a really good thing for all of us.

Our first direct communication involved our deep and mutual love for Last of the Mohicans — a movie she watched literally every single morning of one summer vacation, while across the country my teenage self beaded bone chokers, wore moccasins, and listened to the soundtrack on repeat while sitting under an entire wall plastered with related posters.

That was the first of an infinite number of things we had in common, and I think we were both genuinely grateful and really excited to be sisters, forever.

rose

In that way, with Rose, I lived more in the future than the past . . . imaging decades of holidays together along with Rob, our brother, the worthy love of her life. Of vacations, perhaps even of living in the same town, raising children together. I was saving all of our son’s best fox and dinosaur outfits for her. All the books she sent to him. 

The world seems a little dimmer without her, without that vision of a shared future. Already there are so many things I want to talk to her about.

Because Rose was that perfect mix of both totally unsentimental and completely sentimental when a thing or moment was worthy. She possessed my favorite combination of having exceptional taste in all things literary, musical, culinary, and fashion-oriented, but was also able to appreciate, even revel in, the best of low-brow, dirty cheese, and quirk. She could talk pop culture, bad TV, and celebrities. She unabashedly loved that canine abomination Boo for Pete’s sake.

She was tough and sassy and stubborn and always spoke her mind. She called bullshit when she saw it, and had no tolerance for it. She did not suffer fools.

But she was kind, so kind, and generous with her love and loyalty. She was whip smart, passionate, and witty. She knew something about everything. She could do the best Jersey mom accent, make a bangin’ 80’s mix, and wear the hell out of bright red and hot pink lipstick. She was both cool and goofy.

She loved children and was amazing at teaching them about the science and heart of the world. She was a voracious reader, a frenzied dancer, the best kind of friend, wife, sister, daughter, and role model. She was, and always will be brave, vibrant, and beautiful. I’m going to miss the hell out of her. I already do.

She leaves holes in hundreds of hearts, but also the memories to refill them again and again, like so many thirsty cups. We are all of us so much better for knowing her.

I am heartbroken that Atticus will never feel her embrace again, or get called out for bad behavior, or hold her hand on a walk through the woods.That he’ll never be able to crawl into her lap for a bedtime story.

But we will talk about her. We will remember. He will know her.

Rosie will be the heroine of our most adventurous tales. She will make mischief and mend hearts. Hold lightening in her veins. Climb mountains, crawl in bear dens, and pull monkeys’ tails. She’ll fight ogres, outsmart wizards, and stand up to bullies. She’ll lead sharp V-shaped flocks of geese to warmer climates in the fall, and leave strings of tiny foot prints like long necklaces in the new snow.

And when the wind blows through the trees and ruffles their leaves in gentle applause, he will know that’s just Auntie Rose saying hello.

Every day.

auntie rose

Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness

Galway Kinnell died yesterday. He was — no is, and always will be, one of my very favorite poets.

The Times ran a fine tribute to him today, and it’s worth the read if you have a minute. It concludes with what I think is a beautifully succinct assessment of what poetry is, what it means, and why it matters — Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. “To me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

If you’ve never read Kinnell, I urge you to pull up a poem or two today, or just borrow my favorite — “Saint Francis and the Sow”.  Someone once wrote this poem out for me when I was in a deep, dark place, and the notion of reteaching a thing its loveliness — its worth and worthiness — still brings tears to my eyes.

You can read it below, or listen to him read it in his own voice here.

Saint Francis and the Sow

BY GALWAY KINNELL

The bud

stands for all things,

even for those things that don’t flower,

for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;

though sometimes it is necessary

to reteach a thing its loveliness,

to put a hand on its brow

of the flower

and retell it in words and in touch

it is lovely

until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;

as Saint Francis

put his hand on the creased forehead

of the sow, and told her in words and in touch

blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow

began remembering all down her thick length,

from the earthen snout all the way

through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,

from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine

down through the great broken heart

to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering

from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:

the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

 

Casualities of the Road

Last week my mom and I drove from Kansas City to Glacier over a couple of days. The Midwest-Montana connection is a journey I have made more times than I can remember, but the last time Moms did it with me we (well, I should say I, because she found it morbid and perhaps a little unnerving) started a tradition.

Perhaps you have a road trip tradition. Maybe it involves playing I Spy, eating condiment sandwiches, looking for different states’ licence plates, or singing songs about washing your neck, like I used to do as a kid with my grandparents. Those are all great, but that’s not what we do.

Nope, we count animal casualties on the road. But in a non-creepy way. Yeah, I mean road kill, though I don’t like that term. Yes, it is depressing, but it does pass the time, and it does make you bear witness a little, and it does provide some vague ecological commentary about our country — heavy on the raccoon the first day, none by the last day, and so on.

road casualities

The drive is nearly 1500 miles and 22 hours, not including bi-hourly pee breaks. During our three-day journey we encountered at least 181 fallen fuzzies. The mile/kill ratio was by far the highest the first day between Kansas City and Mitchell, SD.

181 animals. It’s a number worth thinking about.

111 unidentifiable small furry creatures
23 raccoon (17 on the first day, none on the last)
15 deer
11 skunks
8 birds
4 coyote
4 squirrels
2 bunnies
2 pronghorn
1 porcupine
1 dog
and 2 black shoes