Wednesday, January 13, 2010

36 and a half years

On December 27, 2009 My Gram passed away. She was 94 years old. I had known her all my life - 36 and a half years.

When I was a little girl, I don't think anything in my life was as exciting as packing my suitcase to go spend the weekend with her and my Grandpa. I called her "Nana" then. She would have been about 63, and was still working as the Curator of Special Collections at Weber State University.

There is so much about who I am today that I owe to her.

From her I learned magic. I learned stillness. I learned an appreciation of the natural world. She taught me to be at ease in a variety of situations, and always expected me to act my best. She introduced me to writers and painters and architects. I awoke to the smell of coffee and peanut butter and oil paints. She brought me breakfast in a king-size bed with a satin comforter, and I sat there like a princess, with my cloth napkin and heavy wood bed tray, watching the ballet of Romeo and Juliet on PBS. I sat breathless on her porch, overlooking a canyon, waiting as patiently as a 4 year-old can for hummingbirds to visit one of the feeders she had dangling around her back patio, and we picked tiny, juicy, fresh strawberries from the front yard that I would drop into my breakfast cereal.

It was she who first introduced me to theatre, and I remember sitting transfixed at the edge of my seat in a little touristy theatre in Jackson Hole. She taught me to order at restaurants, and the appropriate way to introduce people.

I learned to dance. Not dancing in any kind of recognizable way, but twirling gloriously to music. And books -- always books.

It's not all sunshine and roses, of course. My grandmother could be a very difficult woman. The need for others to see her and her family a certain way colored her interaction with so many people, and made for some very difficult conversations at times. So from her, in a strange way, I also learned authenticity. Her lack of boldness made me bolder. Her need to rewrite history made me confront the realities of my own life.

She wasn't the grandmother who bakes cookies or knits afghans. I think she tried, on occasion, to fit into that role, but it never came naturally to her. I wonder sometimes who she might have been if she allowed herself to live without fear of what others thought of her. In her obituary, it said that she was "Always ready with a plate of warm cookies." I’ve been wondering who wrote that – probably she did! I never knew her to bake cookies. Oatmeal came from little paper packets, biscuits came from a can that popped frighteningly when you hit it on the edge of the counter, and most of her meals came about as a result of many little packages that were torn apart and put together. Still, her twice-baked potatoes were to die for, and oh! the wonderful little dishes she had to put everything in!

When I was 16, and living with her and my grandfather, I once mentioned how much I love the smell and taste of fresh-baked bread, and she went right out (well, my grandfather probably “went right out”, as I never did see her conquer her fear of driving) and bought frozen bread dough. Once a week, at least, I would come home from school to see her taking bread out of the oven.

When I look at pictures of her and my grandfather on one of their trips, I see this woman, this cultured, quirky woman. She's wearing amazing clothes, sipping champagne, and laughing with her friends. I look at those pictures and realize she's in her 50's doing these things, and wonder why, at 36, I constantly berate myself for not doing more with my life.

Looking back, I think that everything in her life was a part of her own personal "Special Collections". I don't think my grandfather would ever have had the career he had if it weren't for her pushing him, organizing his life and his work. It was this pushiness that made her so frustrating to deal with as I (and she!) got older.

I wish so much that her need to rewrite her own history hadn’t been so strong, that she could have told me stories about what her life was REALLY like, and not felt the need to embellish so much that her stories were barely discernable from those in the books she was always giving me. I wish I’d been able to get to know her better, that her pushiness hadn’t pushed me away.

I didn’t speak at her funeral. I wanted to, I didn’t want to, in the end I just felt I couldn’t. I’m still not satisfied with her life. I still don’t have my questions answered, and at the time (recovering from a horrible cold) couldn’t make enough sense of her contradictions to feel comfortable speaking to others about who and what she was.

I guess this is my eulogy for her. It remains unfinished.