My grandmother was courageous.
I lost sight of that fact too often.
It was easy to do, especially when she was pushing more food in front of me (despite my protests) or sneakily shoving a $20 bill into my pocket (despite my protests) or telling me about her latest malady (I wish I could have protested).
She was a tiny woman, barely up to my shoulder by the time I was 12. She was a little crazy, prone to hypochondria, and a hoarder before there was a show about it.
The first time she met my ex-husband, she gripped his hand in her gnarled, arthritic fingers and stage-whispered to him, “My urine was dark as coffee today.” He married me anyway.
When I moved away to college, she gave me a stack of brand new bath towels. Not wanting to admit how long they had been in her inventory (maintained in a system only she understood, divided between the basement, attic, and spare room), she claimed she had “just picked them up.” But the tags told a different story. The store had been out of business for well over a decade, and the price? Twenty-five cents each. Those towels must have pre-dated the Eisenhower administration.
She was a terrible driver. When I was in college, I got a newspaper clipping in the mail from my family. It was a picture of the tail-end of my grandmother’s car, jutting out of the plate glass doors of a medical building. One of her last acts as a driver came some years later, when she managed (as near as we could reconstruct it) to take out the driver’s side of her car against a fence that, strictly speaking, should have been on the passenger side of the vehicle. When I asked her how she managed to do that, she invoked the little-known bird-in-the-road defense: “It was all those danged ducks’ fault!”
One day she called me to tell me she had cut her finger and would need to go to the emergency room. I rushed over to find her with a golf-ball sized gauze wad of questionable sterility on the end of her index finger. I hustled her into the car and asked her how it happened while we were en route to the ER.
“Well,” she began. “I was making dinner last Sunday…”
It took me a little while to realize that the cut was over a week old. Exasperated, I asked her why we were going to the hospital today.
“It’s the chicken germs,” she muttered darkly. “They got down into that cut. Those chicken germs can kill you.”
I took her to the ER, where the bemused attending listened to her tale of chicken germs as he gave her a shot of antibiotics, a prescription, a clean bandage, and sent her on her way.
Now she has gone on her way, departed this world two nights ago. I find myself awash in memories of her, and I try to sift through them, to find the ones I will share with my fellow mourners at her funeral.
I have so many memories of her…silly memories, fond memories, exasperating memories. But sometimes I think the most significant things are the ones that I only knew of second- or third hand.
My grandmother survived an abusive, alcoholic father. She lived through the Great Depression, eating other kids’ discards at lunch. She married my grandfather shortly before he left to fight in The War. My dad was two before he ever saw his own father. My grandfather came back from the war and took a job in The Mill. My grandmother worked at home, making ends meet, raising their three kids on a shoestring budget. Then my grandfather was disabled. At 40, my grandmother had to learn to drive, had to get a job, had to start caring for my grandfather—something she would do, unceasingly, for the next 40 years, learning to use a lift to help turn his body, dressing his bed sores, bringing him every meal, bathing him, dealing with the thousands of indignities he had to suffer as his disease progressed and he became steadily less able.
I never once heard her complain.
I’m still not sure exactly what I’ll say when I speak at her funeral. But I think I will start with this: My grandmother was courageous.