When Not to Wing It

When all falls down I hide from that which holds me accountable. At one time, that was my grandmother.

This isn’t so much about accountability as it is about acknowledging reality, though, I guess.

My grandmother’s Celebration of Life Service took place last Wednesday, and my family came together to not only be civil to one another, but also enjoy each other’s company. Many of us don’t do that very well under normal circumstances. Cousins D and TJ3 wrote out some thoughts to share with everyone and totally nailed it. They are poised and articulate and thoughtful little humans who are no longer little but will always be, to me.

I winged it, and didn’t get out what I wanted to say at all.

Here’s the eulogy I would’ve given if I’d had my wits about me:

I came into this family when it was kind of rough to be one of us. She always loved a good prank, loved to laugh and tease, but when I was little, she was also very earnest. She was embarking on a new career and lived the messages she counseled to others. Grams would roll me around on a giant snowball, or wear silly sunglasses with me, but she would also be the first person to tell me to Just Say No to drugs and alcohol and give appropriately-censored anecdotes to illustrate her points.

We were shopping in Spokane one day before my uncle’s wedding — her, me, my cousins D and TJ3 — and it was about 115 degrees outside. As we loaded bags into the car, Grams started scuffing at the asphalt. TJ3 and I looked at each other, not knowing what she was up to, but knowing there was a very intentional reason she was engaged in this activity.

“D,” she called, “Come over here and look at this.” She continued to scuff.

D walked over. She pointed at the ground, at the tar filling in the cracks in the concrete. “Do you see this? How the tar pulls up and balls?”

He acknowledged he did.

“That’s your brain on marijuana.”

TJ3 and I watched each other stifle our laughs. If anyone was going to, it was Grams.

She ignited my love of literature and history and travel by taking me on road trips around the Midwest, road-tripped to California a couple of times, including for my high school graduation, and flew to New York for my graduation from college there.

After her first heart attack, in 1990, I was always on the lookout for signs her heart was giving out. At Disney World in 1993, this meant hollering “Grams, how’s your heart?!” to her on the Back to the Future ride as she laughed and squealed while the ride tossed us back and forth. This meant asking whether her knees and heart would be okay climbing stairs at the Statue of Liberty after they opened the pedestal back up in 2006. This meant harassing her to see a doctor in September 2014 when she complained to be of being too tired to mow her own lawn without having to rest and I noticed her complexion was a little gray. But she never stopped moving, never quit going. On the ride to the hospital during her second heart attack, she persuaded the ambulance driver to stop at her house for her purse and pajamas. We were talking recently about her living situation — there were a couple of people leaning on her to move out of Winona. “I need to be by moving water,” she said. “I like living near the river for that reason.” Funny, I said. That’s the reason I feel like I need to live near the ocean.

My work ethic developed after years of absorbing hers. The time I woke up at 7 am on a Saturday to a loud, foreign noise outside my window and went outside to see her cleaning the siding on her house with a newly-purchased pressure washer. How I learned to rotate pans of chex mix in the oven so there was always a batch cooking and you could double your batches in the time it would take to make one.

When I was in college and the loneliness seemed unbearable, I called her. We’d talk about the drugs that were prevalent and posing a problem to Winona’s student communities, and I’d fill her in on the ones I knew where the scourge of our student body. She told me once to look out for “cutting,” as that was becoming more popular among the kids in Winona. I called her when I thought my roommate might be shooting heroin again, and asked her for guidance as to what to do and when.

She was the strongest, most persistent woman I knew.

She loved her family and held us to standards that, at times, have felt impossibly high. But in expecting that, she taught us to demand the best of ourselves and that others treat us in a manner consistent with our worth. It didn’t always work, but she was there to ask us why we would stand for subpar treatment and encourage us to do better, and look for better. The last person I dated I hesitated to tell her about. He was newish, and I didn’t want to introduce someone into conversation who wouldn’t be around long. She said to me only, “I hope he treats you well.” She raised me to be fiercely independent, to not have to rely on anyone — least of all a man — for anything (a lesson I probably learned too well).

There wasn’t any part of my life she didn’t touch, somehow. From the time I can remember she spoke to me like an adult and let me be my strange little self. Later on, this meant telling me how much she loved my bright pink hair, or an outfit others might consider to be too bright for any given situation. In my greed, I wish I could’ve had her for 30 more years, but I am so happy, and so lucky to have had her for the 30 that I did. She redefined what it meant to be in our family, and especially a woman in our family. I — we — will proudly, and loudly, continue to carry that torch.


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