Gram was and is my favorite person. She lived 89 (almost 90) rich, full years. Life presented her with hardship and struggle, from her father’s alcoholism to the death of her sister Shirley and I’m sure other trials in later years, but she never complained. I never once heard her gripe or wish for life to be some other way. She always seemed to be grounded in a kind of contentedness. I don’t know where it came from - was she resigned about things possibly being different? Or did she know deep down that life always turned out the way it should? She and I shared a special bond, one that didn’t focus too heavily on the heavy stuff - so maybe she simply didn’t share her complaints with me. Hard to say.
Pretty much every time I came to visit Hamburg, Gram would have a huge Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies waiting for us (in my mind she made them just for me). The first thing I’d do upon arriving and climbing up the basement stairs was to give her a big hug and then open up that Tupperware and grab two cookies. Every few hours (or if I’m being honest, every few minutes) I’d sneak back to the kitchen and grab one or two more. The whole batch would be gone within a day and a half and if I was lucky Gram and I would bake a fresh batch together. I loved measuring and mixing the ingredients, her standing by and giving me direction and us both wearing aprons from the broom closet. The cookies baked for only 9 minutes, and we’d let them cool on the counter for what felt like an eternity - just long enough that they wouldn’t burn the tops of our mouths. We’d taste them and she’d always say - they’re just not the way Teri makes them, but I’ve always been partial to Grandma’s batches myself.
Recently my husband Neil and I made our own batch of chocolate chip, and while I enjoyed the whole process and they came out tasting great, to me, they just weren’t like Gram’s.
Gram’s hands toward the end of her life and in the recent years I can remember, were thin and a little bit bony. Somehow they still felt strong to me. She would grip my wrist or hold on to me while we walked and I felt love in her grasp.
In recent years, anytime I’d stay at the Hamburg house, I wouldn’t let her go to bed without a hug and a kiss from me. I started to make a joke out of it, laughingly chiding her, “where’s my kiss!?” But deep down I think we cherished these sweet moments - the in-between and on-the-sideline little interactions that could seem unimportant - those are the ones I care about most.
Gram made sure I knew she really loved me, and I always felt safe to express myself and my love with her. I could be myself with her. Now that I think more about it, I realize we had many different relationships, she and I.
Our primary relationship was Grandmother and Granddaughter, though she never tried to parent me or tell me how to live life. She listened to my stories and we sort of wondered together about how things might turn out. She never gave me advice, which I appreciated because I tend to find advice largely useless.
Gram and I developed a pen-palship in my college years and after. We sent letters and cards back and forth, sharing about our week or our day, nothing of consequence but it comforted and excited me to read her handwriting and send a note back. I’m not sure what I liked more - opening up a letter from her or realizing it was my turn to write one.
We became friends to one another. We laughed and joked about life’s intricacies that span decades - she 89 and me 27 - could be dealing with the same things at the same time. I love that we could encounter life together. She called me cool as a cucumber, which in times of college-aged anxiety, didn’t make sense, but comforted me. This isn’t particularly meaningful, but we both hated oatmeal.
Neil proposed to me on New Year’s eve, the moment it became 2017. Gram and Grandpa were already getting weaker and older, and I knew I wasn’t willing to get married without them. Originally we wanted to have our whole big wedding that summer, but in between a trip to Australia, working all the time, and life getting in the way, we didn’t get the planning together. Still, I loved the idea of having my grandparents with us when we got married. We decided to have a private legal wedding in their backyard, the same spot where my parents were married in 1983. We got my brother Dana “internet ordained”. On the lawn with us were my mom and dad, Neil’s mother, and Grandma & Grandpa. A small 7-person ceremony on August 18, 2017. We had asked Gram & Grandpa to say a few words. They took turns standing up with their canes and read thoughtfully, hand written notes. I like to say Gram was my maid of honor. “The things I get up to at my age”, she joked. Dana played us a Beatles song on the guitar. And then we all went inside and sat at the dining room table to sign the marriage license.
The next year, on the same date, Neil and I were married again with our extended family and friends. We had started to call it, “The real wedding”, but both days were equally special for me. This time, Gram had already passed - the bittersweet reality I’d feared had come true and she wasn’t with us on our wedding day. I can’t express how glad I was and am that we’d done it together just the 7 of us the year before. Grandpa didn’t come either, he was mourning and spending most of his time alone. He’d said, “I’m not very social these days”. We understood. It wouldn’t have been his scene anyhow. The quiet backyard, next to his garden, seemed to fit much more perfectly.
As Gram got older and more feeble, I became a caretaker for her, and it made me feel closer to her. I loved walking on her right side with her holding onto my left elbow. She’d use a cane in her left hand. We walked slowly because her right foot dragged - a result of a stroke she’d had 11 years prior. Once I drove her to the doctor and we stopped by Tim Hortons for donuts after. She always loved peanut donuts, and every time I eat a donut I eat it in her honor. She’d let me help her put on her sneakers and sometimes get out of bed in the morning. I loved to sit with her on the couch in her living room - resting my head on her right shoulder. She’d say, “Lydia, Lydie, Lydie”, meaning nothing in particular but I always heard it like, “I love you.” She is the only person I’ve ever really let call me that. Other people use nicknames with me, but it sounded most natural coming from her, as though she were naming me. She also called me “Lady”.
The week she was dying, I was at home in New York City and wanting badly to be in Hamburg. Margie was there and she called me on Face Time to say hi. First, she warned me that Gram didn’t look or sound the same as usual. I didn’t mind, since I was expecting that. Still, it was striking to see her face as sullen as it was, thin and droopy and yellowed. She spoke very few words, and said them slowly. She knew it was me on the screen and we chatted for less than 5 minutes. She tired quickly. She wasn’t making much sense at that point, but I could see a glimmer of her still in there, behind her eyes. She said “I was just here yesterday…” And trailed off. I wondered where exactly she might be coming and going from, if not here in living life. I wish I had asked her but I doubt she’d have been able to explain it. Then she said to me, without much significance, “I’m dying.”, which made me cry. I replied, “Yes, Gram I know. I’m going to miss you. I love you.” At some point in the call, without prompting, she said, “You know who’s going to miss me! Oscar!” We all laughed. My childhood dog had grown attached to her over the years, always sticking by her side in Hamburg and shunning the rest of us. She was right, he would miss her.
Throughout the week, various family members came and spent time with her, saying their own versions of goodbye. This was beautiful and hard. I don’t know how coherent she was, but I like to think she appreciated the time with each of us.
Neil’s best friend was getting married on Sunday, July 22nd and Neil was the best man, so we decided we’d finish the wedding and come home to Hamburg the next day. I’d spoken with my mom and cousin Shirley earlier that afternoon and they could sense Gram was coming and going more frequently. The hospice caregivers had told us it was a matter of time at that point.
The wedding took all day and by the time Neil and I got home it was after midnight. I was exhausted but I called Shirley for an update. I guess Gram’s breathing had slowed down quite a lot, and Shirley described to me the quiet movements she was making. During the call, her breathing got even more slow and Howie, or someone, woke up Grandpa to come downstairs. Suddenly, but naturally, it was happening. She was dying. Grandpa came to the den and sat down. Shirley kept me on the phone and I listened while things slowed even further. After a few minutes, Howie said she had passed. When we hung up, I hugged Neil and wished we could teleport. I so badly wanted to be there, but part of me is glad I wasn’t. It might have been too heartbreaking.
We woke up early and flew to Buffalo the next morning - a quick 1 hour flight. Teri picked us up at the airport, but she could barely talk. We both had tears brimming from our eyes. When we got home, I climbed the stairs and hugged Grandpa and mom. I’m sure others were right there too, but I don’t remember. There were no cookies in the kitchen.
I walked into the den and sat down in Grandpa’s leather chair. Seeing the hospital bed that she’d been using, and seeing it empty and bare, was the thing that made it real. I sat and wept in that chair for a while. Missing her, wishing I could hold her hands, hear her voice, but knowing she had gone as perfectly as anyone could.
The funeral was weird - she didn’t look like herself because of the embalming and all the makeup, but her hands were the same. I said to Dana, “Alright, I’ve had enough. Gram can come back anytime now.” He agreed.
Lots of people came and went. For a little while, I stayed near Grandpa and listened to him greet the visitors, who all loved Jackie and had always known the two of them together.
How must it feel to suddenly be without your partner at age 90? And these two were not any old regular pair, they’d been friends since childhood and in love as teenagers. They’d done every part of life together. All of a sudden, that was over.
At the cemetery, Dana whispered to me, Gram is looking down at us and laughing, “You idiots, that’s not me!” (Pointing down toward the casket being lowered ceremoniously into the ground). He was right, she had a wily sense of humor and would have balked at all the fanfare.
A year later, I’m still not used to Gram being gone. I’m struck every so often by anger and sadness. I just wish she were still here. I wish it could be that simple. It seems bizarre to me that someone who has existed on this earth for my entire life and long before, can simply just…no longer exist.
About twice a week I look at Neil and say, “I miss Gram”. He understands. He nods or hugs me or sometimes he just listens.
I will never be able to put all my feelings for Gram into words. And I don’t feel a need to, really. There’s a bond and relationship that she and I shared that requires no description. It was just for us. I’m full of memories of her and I together, memories of her with our family, and memories of just her alone. There are so many I can’t even recall on demand, and I’ll enjoy remembering them, whenever they arise, for the rest of my life.
Jackie was of every time, and yet she was timeless. She could and did adapt to anything. I hope some of her tenderness, joking spirit, and generous love made its way into me.