An Ode to my Grandmother
When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to take me with her to visit my great-grandmother. Always an old soul, I looked forward to spending time chatting with the two of them, listening to stories of my great-grandpa and what life was like for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Inevitably, I’d start going through the boxes of old photographs that my great-grandmother had stashed away in her drawers in an attempt to recreate the past. I’d ask great-grandma about the people in the photographs and whenever there were holes in the narrative, I’d make up my own stories. It fascinated me to think that there were people who lived before me, each with their own identity and experiences, but now they were gone.
Yet, these pictures were still here. And I was still thinking about each one of them.
My great-grandmother passed away at home and the night she died, we were all there — me, my mother, my grandmother, and members of our extended family. We all came to say goodbye and be by her side at the end. It wasn’t easy to see her passing away, but it wasn’t a climactic painful event either, it was more like a cooling of embers long after the fire had gone out.
Then my great-grandmother became one of the photographs.
In the last two years, ever since my grandmother turned 80, each time I stop by to see her, I’m struck by how much she looks like my great-grandmother. I had never really noticed that about her before, but now, it’s like I’m sitting across the room from Ella, not Helen.
My grandmother has never liked having her photo taken, but I find myself constantly taking pictures of her and Olivia. There’s one in particular that I love that I have framed in the living room at our house and every time we walk past it, Olivia says, “Grandma!”
Lately, grandma’s health has been failing her. A few weeks ago I told her that there is someone alive today that will live to be 150 years old. She said, who would want to live that long? I told her that if I were as sick as her, not me! Then I said, assuming your body fails you, folks are now speculating that one day people will be able to download their brains into a simulation and live forever. I asked her, if your brain were downloaded, what age would you pick to live in for perpetuity?
She said, I’d like to be eleven again and back at home with my mama and daddy, they loved me so much.
I thought to myself, a) that’s so sweet; b) I hope at the end of Olivia’s life, she looks back on this time with me and thinks, she loved me so much.
That conversation played over and over again in my head the entire trip home from Staunton to Richmond and I realized that my family has achieved the pinnacle of “success.” And it isn’t about passing down a name or an estate from one generation to another, it’s something much bigger and more fundamental than that — it’s love.
My great-grandparents showed my grandmother love and she passed that love on to my mother and me. And now, I’m paying it forward in the love I have for Olivia.
And I know that when the time comes, grandma won’t be gone. Her love will be with me the rest of my life. And of course, I’ll have the photographs.
On April 12, 2021, my grandmother passed away at 9pm in the evening, surrounded by family. We are overcome with grief at the loss of our matriarch. She was our mother, our grandmother, our sister, our aunt, our friend.
Grandma spent most of her last day unresponsive, but in her final moments, she regained a bit of lucidity and shared that her mama and daddy were with her. My heart was at peace knowing she felt their presence in her final moments.
Leaving the hospital last night I thought about how the day began with me making waffles with syrup for Olivia, just like my grandmother made for me each day before school. I wondered, could that be spirit? Someone’s presence, their influence in your life long after their body is gone?
I also thought, of all things, of a clip I’d recently seen of Keanu Reeves. He was being interviewed on some nightly show by Stephen Colbert and Stephen asks him, “What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?” Keanu pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath, then responds with the only truth we can be sure of, he says, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
Grandma, it is true. We love you and we miss you.