The hardest things to write are the ones that matter most. For three weeks, I haven’t written anything, not a poem, a post or even a journal entry. And it’s not because there hasn’t been anything to write about, but because the one thing I really wanted to write was impossible for me to process. My grandmother, my namesake, champion, and friend, passed away on December 18th, peacefully and surrounded by family.
But even a good death isn’t easy for the ones you leave behind. What a bizarre contrast, to feel the love and joy of Christmas, and yet mourn an irreplaceable loss. A heavy heart can still smile, but its weight throws you off-kilter, turning a laugh just as quickly into a sob.
She was a woman larger than life, filling a room with her presence, her conversation. Even her clothes were loud – bright purples and blues and reds, preferably accented with sequins or feathers or fur. And for the grandchildren, she was like a magnet. She demanded hugs, kisses, snuggles – and we gave them freely, instinctively.
She spoiled all of us. I remember as a child, when she came to town, she’d cook an entire pack of bacon just for me, and she made it just right – soft and wriggly so you could taste all the flavor of fat. And she’d make me an egg-in-toast. I’d stand by the stove, eyes barely high enough to peek over the counter, as she cut a round out of the buttered bread. I loved the sizzle of egg as it hit the hot skillet smack in the center of the hole. To me, it was culinary magic. They were special meals, the only time besides holidays when breakfast was a big deal.
With as much vivid clarity, I remember her singing me to sleep. She sang the songs of her own childhood: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Always,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Back then, my very favorite was the alphabet song – “A, you’re adorable / B, you’re so beautiful” and on like that, and when we got to “E” she always replaced whatever “E” was supposed to be with “E, you’re Elisabeth.” It was my special song, and it was always the first one she sang to me as we lay side by side in my little twin trundle bed, head resting on the soft flesh of her upper arm.
In the hospital, I sang the same songs to her, and though slow at first, as I began to sing, lyrics I’d left lying dormant for years came back as if they’d never been anywhere else. The songs took on a more poignant meaning. “Times may not be fair, always. That’s when I’ll be there, always. Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always.”
When she decided to stop treatment and come home with hospice, we flocked into the house. The noise of children with quick, sunny feet and shouts shook the hallways and rattled every trinket in the house, replacing the beeping hospital sounds. The house was always full. There are a lot of us: four children plus spouses, twelve grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
My cousin said, “Well, Grandma managed to get us all together for Christmas one more time.” Which was true – we hadn’t all met as a family for the holidays since I was young. In the meantime, the little ones have grown up and new little ones have taken their place. In part, it felt just like the old times, raiding the fridge for sweet tea and snacks, looking at old pictures on the wall, touching every little figurine and remembering its story. Of course there was bagna cauda, the one dish that ties my family together more than anything else. A love-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, bagna cauda is a heart-clog of butter melted with anchovies and garlic scooped up in cabbage leaves. The true freaks, myself included, sat outside in the warm Florida winter, telling stories and making ourselves deliciously sick on hot butter and salt.
And then in the midst of a laugh, we’d look up and remember she wasn’t just around the corner, couldn’t come and dip a cabbage leaf, then laugh with us about how we’d stink tomorrow. And the sadness was like a love so big it hurt. The loss like bruised, aching ribs.
My grandmother loved to shop, and traveled much, collecting souvenirs and gifts, buying impossibly large things, and too many small knick-knacks. But she also collected stories and hearts. She knew every second cousin and niece, even distant relatives across the country. She knew their histories, their birthdays. And when we spent time together, she’d tell me all about our family, stories about my aunts and uncles as kids, her childhood in Collinsville, Illinois.
To have everyone in Orlando for Christmas would have made her very happy. Our greatest gift was to gather in the house, to love each other and spend time together. To set aside old grudges and form new bonds. As my grandmother always told me, “Your friends will come and go, but your family will be your family forever.”
The last time we saw each other, my grandmother gave me a very Grandma gift, one of those inspirational tiles written in cutesy script to hang on the wall. It hadn’t fit in my suitcase, and so I’d wrapped it up in paper and put it in a pile of things to take back to Berlin on my next trip. I’d completely forgotten what it was I’d wrapped up so carefully when I accidentally found the stack this Christmas. So when I peeled back the paper, it was as if she’d sent me a message, “Life is too short to be anything but Happy!” A little sun peeks out from the tile’s edge.
Yes, Grandma, life is too short. So I’ll hang that silly little tile up where I can see it every day. And I will live a joyful life and a rich life full of love. But always, for me, you’ll be the sun.