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.
My 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.