I believe in marking the passage of time. I believe in birthdays, in anniversaries of friendships, anniversaries of first kisses and of last phone calls.
My grandmother died on June 4th, 3 months to the day before my birthday. When we were packing up the house and trying to figure out when we’d all be together next, for her burial, my mother announced that she would be back in town from Sept. 3rd to the 12th, since she’d already bought a ticket in anticipation of another chance to visit her mother. Labor Day seemed like the natural answer to our question. My mom didn’t even seem to mind that it might fall too near her birthday, undoubtedly putting convenience for others over her own memories. Or perhaps she relished the martyrdom that comes with burying one’s mother so close to one’s birthday. Or still yet, perhaps her faith assures her that her mother is in a better place, and so she remains unbothered by burials on birthdays, because we should all be celebrating, anyway.
Whatever it was, I spoke up against scheduling a burial over Labor Day weekend. My birthday is Sunday. If there’s nothing else left sacred in this world, can I at least have that? The weekend after? Fine. I made a gentle plea in the least petty language I could muster and my aunt obliged. September 9th, it is.
My last birthday was a Big One, a marker we’ve been conditioned to approach with fear and trepidation and panic attacks. I spent 25 losing my mind, and 30 was so much more chill in comparison: I wasn’t breaking up with anyone, my job was humming along at a reasonable decibel and my family would be spending my birthday together in Idaho, at a venue I like to call Chateau Tangents.
By “family,” of course I mean my uncle’s family and my grandma. My birthday usually falls on Labor Day weekend, and my brother was already back in school. My mother and I were not on speaking terms.
My aunt and uncle treated me to a first class cross-country ticket. We had a fancy dinner with everyone. There was an open house. TJ3 and I hiked up a small mountain. We took a kayak out and paddled completely wrong, soaking ourselves while we watched the sun set over Lake Coeur D’Alene, talking about running and our jobs and our lives for the first time, ever.
When the house was quiet, two nights before I was scheduled to leave, TJ3 and I piled onto our grandma’s bed. We talked a little, and laughed a little. For a few minutes, we were the family I’d always wanted: close and confident.
She’d aged so much, our grandma, in such a short time. It seemed like, in the three years between 2012 and 2015 she had lived another lifetime entirely. She was tired more quickly, she was quieter. She desired a softer kind of life.
I wonder now if she was sick then, and it just wasn’t causing her any pain. In the pictures we took at my birthday dinner, where I sat next to her, when she gave me a contraption to fill with ice and drop in my wine bottle, to keep wine cool, she looks gaunt and tired, if also very happy.
The next day, I drove us along winding mountain roads into the next town where we went wine tasting, and had an ice cream cone at a family-run shop. We walked through an antiques shop filled with some familiarities and some oddities — milk glass, vintage overcoats, a loom. My eyes alighted on a pair of brass bookends in the shape of goose heads. The proprietor declared them to be $25 and my grandma offered to buy them, another birthday gift I sheepishly accepted. She always bought me extra gifts, at times with an admonishment not to mention it in front of my cousins, lest it be perceived she was playing favorites.
I think she clarified this once, this quasi-favoritism. My cousins were raised with more than I was, received more as adolescents and adults in the form of opportunities and the bonuses afforded to people whose parents are responsible and wise with their money. My cousins were raised to know the value of working for their dollars, but they also had club sports and traveling teams and help with first houses. So when my grandma could buy me an extra dress or pair of shoes, or a set of brass bookends I fancied, she would.
When we were looking for her Will, my uncle found the promissory note to the student loan she co-signed for me my freshman year of college, when my mother went MIA and I still had a balance, her promises of incoming money ringing fresh in my ears. My uncle hadn’t known my grandma had done that. I have since paid it off.
She also fronted about $1,200 that year, which I’ve always meant to pay back and haven’t yet. Probably because I “needed” a new dress, or shoes, or a set of brass bookends and prioritized that over my word.
Of course, it isn’t the money I am going to miss about my grandma. Aside from the countless birthdays we spent together when I was young, I spent No. 29 with her, too. It was a last minute trip, during an indulgent week off of work to celebrate the beginning of the close of my 20s. The day before my birthday, I flew into Milwaukee and rented a car, thinking rather than get from point A to point B as quickly as possibly on I-94, I’d wind through Southern Wisconsin’s ribbons of county roads, and then hop on I-35 and follow the river north. Instead of 4 hours, the trip was supposed to take 7. Construction and a few stops for photos of the sapphire river and kelly-green foliage stretched that to 9 hours. By the time I got home, I was exhausted and sweaty. Grams and I snacked on summer sausage and crackers at the heavy dining room table, looking out over the golf course. She looked tired, her skin, gray. When she told me she’d had trouble mowing her lawn without having to take a break and rest, every alarm bell went off.
I’d been on alert for signs of heart trouble since her first heart attack when I was 5. I knew about numbness in the left arm, and chest tightness. I knew about a gray pallor to the skin. I knew she was told during the triple-bypass process in 2012 that her heart was slowly calcifying, so I knew she needed to see her cardiologist as soon as possible. She made a face at me. She would hear none of my nagging. I texted my uncle. “When was the last time you talked to your mother?”
“Probably last Sunday, why?”
“She’s telling me she’s too tired to mow her lawn without taking a break; that is unusual. Her skin also looks kind of gray, like when someone is ill. I told her she needed to see her cardiologist asap but she’s brushing me off. Please talk to her.”
His response was nonchalant, something that suggested to me he didn’t grasp the urgency of the situation I saw unfolding.
The next morning, I awoke to a checkerboard cake, she called it. Round strawberry and vanilla cakes, cut out and pieced together in a semi-elaborate way, and frosted to delight. Grams loved to try new things, and baking this cake fit that bill. It was a little too precise for her, in the end, to try again, but she enjoyed the final product here. She also gave me The Story, a version of The Bible “written as though it was a novel,” she described. “Have you ever read The Bible?” she asked. I shook my head no. “You see, neither have I. Even though I was raised Lutheran, and I’ve gone to church all my life, I’ve never read the whole Bible. Could never get all the way through it. I want to know if, from your point of view, it really is written like a novel. If, to you, it really seems that way.” I was a Lit major in college — not Comp. Lit., just Lit. — and she was asking my opinion, and for my literary critique, on something she had come to love and appreciate so much. I dreaded digging into it, but for her, I would do anything.
We went for brunch with our Great Aunt Ginny, and Ken, to a reliable restaurant about eight minutes from the farm, a small structure next to a square of empty asphalt set just off the road in the middle of a cornfield. If you hadn’t known it was there (as I didn’t), you would’ve missed it (as I did, the first time). The inside was dimly lit compared to the searing technicolor brightness of the summer September day, and the place gave off a vaguely Mary Poppins feel — the inside looked much larger than its external dimensions suggested. There was a salad bar, and carpet on the floors, and the cushioned chairs you see in photos from the 1970s, stackable, and with a handle on the top of the back. I don’t remember what I ate, but I guarantee it involved mashed potatoes.
We went back to the farm to play Spite and Malice in the dining room that I remember much less than the living room or basement. I won, barely, against sharp minds that have been playing for decades longer than I have. Our family has few traditions, but Spite and Malice is hard and fast. It’s as much a part of our identity as eierkuchen.
Aunt Ginny’s birthday is four days after mine, and a full week before my grandma’s. She’s one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I’ve ever known, and the kind of woman I can never be, so I hope I at least make her proud. Nearly 98, today, and gingerly mobile with the aluminum aid of her trusty walker, she still lives in this house she and her husband built on land that was once theirs. Her great-grandkids now fetch anything needed from the basement, and her grandson-in-law tills the land.
Grams and I drove back to her house, a quick 20 minutes or so, and after packing up the cake and my book, and a long tight squeeze, I was hurtling north toward Cumberland, to watch the Packer’s opener in friendly country, with a good friend. We lost. I took too many shots. I shared my cake with befuddled strangers in a dive bar. My friend graciously shared his home with me. The next morning, I got into my rental car and flew down I-94, past tall conifers and lazy drivers, back to the airport, back to the life Grams helped me build, encouraged me to build, in New York.
When she finally went to the doctor later that month, he found the malignant mass in her colon that had been siphoning away all of her blood and energy. After three weeks of waiting on pins and needles, and frantically making plans in my head to relocate as soon as she said the word, the mass was removed, and with it, all traces of cancer.
I never did finish The Story.