I can hear her voice, the characteristic cry of “aaahhhh!” at the end of a funny story. The word “aahh” rises in pitch and intensity for two or three seconds before leveling off into a big laugh, her brown eyes sparkling with delight.
Some of my clearest memories of early childhood take place in her home. My sisters and I were probably the only people in the country who thought it was a fantastic idea to leave Florida and fly to Minnesota in the dead of winter. The trek north meant we were heading to Grandma’s house, where the center of joy was located. Endless games of cards, unlimited pieces of chocolate candy, and hours of storytelling awaited us.
As I think of Grandma, the images and sensations flood my brain, activating memories in the areas of sight, smell, taste, touch and sound.
I am six years old. I wake early and tiptoe through the house, curling my toes into the long shag carpeting. I settle onto the floor in the little room behind the living room, where Grandma stores piles of photo albums.
I sit there for an hour, looking through years of photo albums, carefully examining every single picture and reading Grandma’s slanted cursive writing on the backs of the pictures. I could recognize that handwriting anywhere. It is the familiar script that appears on envelopes in my mailbox several days before every birthday, Hanukkah, and Valentine’s Day.
I am eighteen years old. I pull open a dresser drawer in dad’s old bedroom, looking for a place to store some clothes while we visit Grandma. The scent of mothballs hits me. I breathe in deeply. The smell is not unpleasant at all. It is Grandma’s house. Clothes and shoes and purses are wrapped and stored in every drawer. I walk out of the room and down the hall to the kitchen. The dizzying scents of butter, eggs, bread, and cinnamon sugar mingle together, beckoning me to get in line for a piece of Grandma’s French toast.
I am twenty-four years old. I peel the thick layer of frosting off the fudge-topped brownie, saving it for last, and begin to eat the cake part. It takes only two or three bites. Then I pick up the soft rectangle of frosting, anticipating the explosion of chocolatey sweetness. Grandma’s brownies. Ten million times better than Betty Crocker.
I am thirty-nine years old. I’m sitting on the couch in Grandma’s new place, watching Grandma talk and visit with my husband and three daughters. My six-year-old cannot stop touching Grandma. The little girl takes the ninety-eight-year-old woman’s hands and strokes them.
She places her cheek against Grandma’s cheek. She rubs the age spots on Grandma’s arms, gently exploring the paper-thin skin that hangs from the fragile bones. Curiously, I reach out to touch Grandma’s hands. I can feel the birdlike bones. I wonder at the unimaginable softness of her skin. Like my daughter, I touch Grandma.
The six-year-old curls up next to her great grandmother. The two of them are both frail in appearance, whisper-thin with large brown eyes, yet their tiny frames belie an unbreakable toughness. The beauty of them sitting together is exquisite. I find I am holding my breath as I watch them. One with the flawless skin of extreme youth, the other heavily lined with decades of living into extreme old age.
All three of my girls gravitate towards Grandma, holding her hands as we walk down the hall and out to the car, escorting her proudly as she walks unassisted through the restaurant to our table for lunch. I watch my Grandma watching my children as they eat, her smile wide and delighted.
We do not know it then, but it is the last meal they will share with her. I am the lucky one. In the fall, I come to Minneapolis as part of my paperback book tour.
Grandma doesn’t know I am coming. I want to surprise her, but I know she prides herself on always dressing beautifully, and it is best to give her time to get ready. So I call from the airport to tell her I am in town and ask if I can pick her up for lunch in an hour.
She comes to the door, hair and makeup freshly done, exquisitely dressed. We talk about my sister’s upcoming wedding, about Grandma’s new friends in her apartment building, and about where we should go for lunch.
“Can you believe you will turn ninety-nine in April?” I exclaim. She laughs and replies, “I only need to hang on for one more year after that, and I’ll reach a hundred! When I ask my doctor what I should be doing, he says, ‘Ruthy, I should be asking YOU what I should be doing!’” Her eyes glitter as she shares the story proudly.
I buy a ticket to visit my grandma. The travel date is for January 17. The day after I buy the ticket, my mom calls. Grandma has died. I sit on an airplane with my children and my husband, flying to Minneapolis in the middle of winter, tears streaming down my cheeks. Toward Grandma, the center of joy.
Seventeen of us, just a fraction of the number who have flown into town, are congregated in my hotel room. Six of the great granddaughters are jumping on the bed, laughing and screaming with happiness at being together. The adults are sharing stories about Grandma Ruthy.
Her death is not a tragedy. She lived a long and full life. But her death is a great loss, especially because she was mentally sharp and competent until the end. I lost the grandma I knew. She was a woman who always chose life. Born in April of 1915, she lived through a great amount of history, and even when she faced hardships, such as the loss of her own mother at age twelve and the loss of her first husband when her boys were young, she moved forward with grace, dignity and hope. She was a survivor who created a world of happiness and stability for her family. She was always up for a good story, a little mischief, and a lively party.
It seems impossible that she is not here. I look around to make sure it is true. And then I know. She is here. She lives on in the family she created, in the love we share, in the legacy of her children and her children’s children, and her children’s children’s children, all who knew her and loved her. May her memory be for a blessing, now and always.
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