“She drove a white Thunderbird when I was a kid.
It seemed fancy, expensive, almost otherworldly, and representative of someone not from the tiny fishing island of my childhood where gravel driveways were mostly inhabited by dusty, working pickup trucks.
She arrived a couple of times a year in that impressive vehicle, red hair newly fluffed, perfumed, lips colored, joy and enthusiasm absolutely radiating from her as she stepped from her car carrying a box of fresh munchkins picked up 60 minutes from our house. I never thought about the fact that she’d been in that car for four hours straight.
My mom was perhaps at her happiest when her mom, my grandmother Jean, was around.
My dad, my mom, my sister, and I drove to her Farmington home a couple of times a year, fully surrounded by bags and small suitcases under our feet, between our seats, pushed against all of the doors.
Grammy Jean’s house was fun for my sister and I as kids. We had our own room upstairs with beds built into the wall and framed in lumber. Their baseboards connected, so we slept foot to foot with the smell of hardwood surrounding us. Often when we visited, we needed to find ways to keep ourselves busy while my mom and my grandmother sat at the white Formica table, smoking Virginia Slims, the kitchen bordered by silky smoke. Their full laughter was the background to our made-up games and songs created while sitting on those beds a level above her kitchen.
I don’t remember Grammy Jean really cooking anything. We always went to a Chinese restaurant or a pizza place, and then one night, we would order in what she called dagwoods, which, four hours northeast, were called Italians.
At The Fortune Fountain, there was a water fountain, spurting water high into the air, illuminated by colorful lights from underneath it. My sister and I were allowed to spend a fair amount of time in front of it, tossing in pennies and temporarily blocking the multiple small water spouts, which undoubtedly wasn’t.
‘I’ll have an old fashioned, with Jim Beam bourbon, a little on the sweet side, and be sure to muddle the fruit.’
Those rides back to her house, my dad in the driver’s seat, my mom in the passenger, and my grandmother squeezed into the middle between my sister and me were some of my favorite moments of those trips. She had us teach her bizarre songs from our summer camps and for 20 minutes, she’d sing and sing, making up words when she forgot the real ones, seemingly overjoyed to be with us all. I didn’t think too much about the added sparkle courtesy of bourbon, but I understand that now.
‘MY EYES ARE DIM, I CANNOT SEE, I HAVE NOT BROUGHT MY SPECS WITH ME!’
Around the time I left for school, Grammy Jean had to go on oxygen and spent much of her time tethered to a long tube, going back and forth between her kitchen and the adjacent bedroom. She stopped driving her fancy car.
One Saturday when I was 21, I left Boston with my then-boyfriend, picked up omelet ingredients, and drove to Central Maine early in the morning. Grammy Jean’s physical movements weren’t as vibrant anymore, but her joy at seeing me was just as powerful. She asked us dozens of questions about the city, our school, and our lives as we busied ourselves in her kitchen sautéing peppers and onions and cooking the three of us breakfast. Grammy stayed in her chair, oxygen flowing, posture slouched and elbows on the table to increase the use of accessory muscles to ease breathing, but eyes vivid, voice clear. The three of us sat for hours at that Formica table, just like she and my mom used to, and I felt like an adult. Later, driving back to Boston, I cried.
When I was 24, I took a traveling job in Washington State with the man who would later become my husband. I didn’t see my grandmother for 7 months, but in a move considered the opposite of typical, I crocheted her a spring green throw blanket and brought it back with me as a gift that spring. For the next two years, it was draped over her living room couch, art and function made with love from two generations behind.
The summer when my daughter, Leah, was a year old, I visited my mom and my grandmother in Farmington. When it was time for Leah to take a nap, in the absence of a crib, we improvised. My grandmother had us bring a giant white wicker laundry basket into the living room. We padded it with that thick green crocheted blanket and placed Leah deep in the middle. Laughing, I took pictures of this silly makeshift bed and still, they mean the world to me.
‘Your grandmother had a stroke. She’s at the hospital in Farmington. Can you come today?’
The first thing my 21-month-old daughter, Leah, said upon entering the hospital room was ‘pacifier,’ referring to the CPAP keeping my beautiful grandmother’s lungs expanding and contracting as she lied in that crisp, white hospital bed, her red hair squished in the back, eyes revealing fatigue, but thankfully not discomfort.
I don’t remember how my mom was doing, which makes me sad. I wish I’d been able to focus more on her.
I spent a couple of days in and out of that hospital room, intermittently trying to contain my wiggly, sweet toddler in my arms and feeling constantly struck at the stark difference in the life and vibrating energy trying desperately to burst out of my arms and the end of the life in that room, so still and quiet and seemingly patiently waiting to stop.
On one of our many trips out of the drab, noiseless square room on the way to bright sunshine and breezes, we passed a double-paned window. Inside of it was a dead ladybug, sealed tight between those two opposite worlds. Leah, at not two years old, was saddened by this motionless sight, this once vivid creature stilled. She didn’t ask though, just stared, and I didn’t speak.
After a couple of days of Grammy Jean fading in and out of consciousness, her doctors proposed removing the CPAP. Her family asked her preference in the case that her lungs couldn’t continue without it — really a known, at that point.
‘Just keep me comfortable.’
She seemed sure and confident, even in the whisper that had become her voice.
The next time I brought my daughter into my grandmother’s room, her CPAP was gone and her body was appropriately and mercifully heavily medicated into comfort. Leah sincerely murmured, ‘bye bye pacifier.’ I felt those words from a toddler as if they were ending a giant piece of my own childhood, forcing me to find a chair, and breathe with intention.
Grammy Jean’s funeral was at the end of April. Watching the casket lowered into the ground, my mother sobbing beside me, holding my arm, was one of the most heart-wrenching moments of my life. The hail that hammered down, despite the sun shining, as we later drove away from the site was one of the most striking.
My middle name is Jean. I have a picture of my grandmother smiling widely at a picnic table on the beach hanging in my kitchen. I have that laundry basket Leah slept in long ago in my grandmother’s home in my basement. I have that green blanket I crocheted her in my closet. I have a framed note she wrote on my dresser in my bedroom. I think of her every time anyone has an Old Fashioned or refers to glasses as specs.
When someone simply exudes joy upon exiting a car and first seeing a loved one, I remember her vibrancy, and I fully appreciate having been on the receiving end of that for so many years.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Burtchell. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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