Not so many years ago, my grandma passed away. She was my last grandparent, and when she died, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
She was a force: a strong, independent, opinionated bundle of life—all wrapped up into a tiny frame of skin and bones. She rocked a solid Bob Dylan haircut, loved classical music, opera, and theater, and knew how to hold her own with my sisters and me and a bottle of good red wine on Thanksgiving.
My grandma had frail, bony hands that had touched the earth of every continent short of Antarctica. She had a spirit of adventure and inquisitiveness that built her a beautiful life, despite the emptiness of losing my grandpa at an age too young to enjoy all of the dreams they had mapped out together. She was left to navigate the map of half of a lifetime without the person she loved most in the world by her side.
We had a really special bond—the kind where everyone in my family knew if you asked who her favorite was, she was going to say it was me without skipping a beat.
Growing up, my parents did a remarkable job of laying a foundation for the strong relationship we had. We spent almost every Sunday making the 40-minute drive to Skokie, IL to spend time on Kedvale Drive in a 1950s style home that looked straight out of the scenes of Mad Men. I lived in awe of the carport that stood majestically covering the pristinely kept Imperial she drove for all the years of my childhood. I loved running up the mini set of stairs that led to my mom’s old bedroom, sinking my feet into the plush carpet, imagining the moments that made her up her childhood. We sat at the tiny kitchen table, elbows kissing, eating dinners of Cornish hen and steak, sneaking chewed-up bites into my napkin, misguidedly thinking I was tricking everyone into believing I was clearing my plate.
It was there that I spent some of my most special weekends and pivotal milestones. I could always sweet talk my grandma into letting me fill the bubble bath to the top of the tub, using way more hot water than I was allowed to at home. And then I would let her sweet talk me into staying up way too late to watch the opera Carmen, seeing the beauty of the music overtake her as her eyes showed the depths of her soul. It was there that I learned to appreciate classical music, was introduced at how early a human could wake up in the morning, came to love one of my favorite breakfasts of oranges and cottage cheese, and even entered the doors of womanhood unexpectedly after a sleepover just shy of my 13th birthday.
Those memories bring a special kind of magic into my heart that even all these years later, brings me straight back there like it was yesterday.
When my grandma reluctantly moved to an apartment, my youth shielded me from the realities of what it means to step into the golden years. To leave behind the home where so many dreams are created. Where children are raised. Where hearts are broken and rebuilt, day in and day out. Where every wall echoes a memory that has shaped a moment in time that matters more than we think as they become the brick and mortar that build our lives.
I remember my mom helping her purge and pack. Carefully wrapping the treasures that lined the shelves of her giant glass hutch. Frame by frame, moment by moment. Her life story, told in a series of trinkets, now packed away in boxes.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but those years of her building a life in her new home, would become the undercurrent of perspective in our relationship, for what I now hope my own children build with their grandparents. While I was older, but not yet wiser, the understanding of the value of growing up with my grandma was still a sapling that had yet to mature into the deep-rooted meaning that the void of losing her holds today.
If I could turn back time, I’d do anything to spend one more day heading up to apartment 309, exiting the tiny elevator, and seeing her standing at the end of the hallway, waiting to greet me with a hug, and a “Hello Dolly.”
I’d do anything to listen to her inventory her trinkets—all placed neatly back in her tall glass shelf as she recounted the adventures that led to each one. I’d do anything to water her plants on her tiny balcony that overlooked the golf course she played on for years. And look at books and pictures in her guest bedroom, watching time unfold, album after album.
To eat Matt’s Cookies at the tiny table in her kitchen while she asked me how long I could stay. To sneak some decade old hard candy out of her glass jar and tiptoe into her bedroom to smell the bottles of perfume that lined her vanity tray—mostly full, none of them even really smelling like her at all like her. I would give anything to once again spend hours talking to her about everything and nothing all at once.
I know how fortunate I was. To have so many years pass by with the ease of taking her for granted. Years that turned into visits with my college boyfriend who became my husband. Visits with my children, turning her from my Grams, to their GG—a title she carried proudly until she took her last breath. Years that allowed me to watch her live out decades that most of us wish for.
Toward the end of her 96 years in this life, her mind lost its sharpness. Her memories were jumbled. She lost sight of who we were, and most heartbreakingly, who she was. But I didn’t.
As I approach this date of remembrance of my Grams, I remember it all. How lucky I was, how grateful I am that I had a lifetime of moments to live with her. And I cherish the gift of my grandma.