My Grandmother passed away last weekend and I’ve been in Illinois all week attending to family matters. My brother Rich had this to say the other day about our grandmother:
* My grandma died Sunday night. Grandma had been in a nursing home for several years after it became clear that she wasn’t safe living alone, even with family in the same small town and regular visits from a nurse.
I thought I had prepared myself. She was 93 and had been in hospice for over a year. But something has stuck with me from the phone call I got soon after Grandma died.
Grandma’s breathing was labored for a while, then she took a deep, final breath and tears rolled down her cheeks as she passed away.
* Grandma was a huge music fan and told me once that she saw Glenn Miller and his big band. I was blown away by that. I was just starting to get into that man’s awesome sounds (go watch “Orchestra Wives” and you’ll get a real sense for how the kids went crazy for Miller’s music), and Grandma told me how wild and loud the show was and how everybody was dancing their hearts out.
Grandma drove to Nashville numerous times to soak up performances at the Grand Ole Opry She saw everybody, everywhere. I’m convinced that she attended triple the concerts that I’ve ever seen. Grandma’s brother was a guitar player in a country/bluegrass band in Kankakee back in the day, and I’m pretty sure I get my love for music from her.
She loved to dance. And she could cut a rug with the best of them until well into her 80s. The woman stomped on the terra every day of her life.
* Grandma was constantly on the go and traveled all over the place. She came to my high school graduation in Germany. She visited us when we lived in Utah. She went out to California I don’t know how many times. And if she didn’t have a destination, she’d make one by driving around until she found something to do. Maybe a garage sale. Maybe an old friend.
Grandma traveled regularly to her original home near London, Kentucky to see family and friends. They lived in the hills, and Grandma rode a horse to school when she was growing up. She used to tell stories about wearing a buffalo skin blanket in the back of the family car.
She was an unbelievably good cook. I used to go to her house sometimes just so I could beg her to make me some liver and onions – something nobody else could do as well as her. The first time I ever ate rabbit was when grandma cooked it for me. She’d bought it from a co-worker at the General Foods factory in Kankakee.
Grandma worked hard at that factory, which made dog food. She worked hard her entire life, from Kentucky to Kankakee. But I never heard her complain and she made great friends at that factory. We’d always run into them when we went out on the town together. She was one of those special people who seemed to know everybody and everybody loved her. It was like hanging out with a working class celebrity, I kid you not. She had a real presence that everyone around her could feel. People were naturally attracted to her.
* Grandma loved to go out to the taverns with her friends. She wasn’t against going to the riverboats on occasion, either. She didn’t live in a big house, quite the opposite. She wasn’t into conspicuous consumption, except for making sure she always got her hair done just so.
Instead, she wanted to have fun. And, man, did she ever have fun. I once laughed so hard at one of her stories that I dropped my beer can on her floor, which made her laugh. She didn’t drop her beer, though.
* Grandma treated her 22 grandchildren like they were all her favorites. I was the oldest male grandchild, so maybe I got extra special treatment every once in a while. At least, I felt so.
I’m told I’m the one who came up with the “Gramma Cuz” nickname for her. All her grandkids and great grandkids called her that. She was married briefly after divorcing my grandfather and kept her second husband’s name Cousin for reasons I never really asked about. Some things, you just don’t discuss with a lady.
Grandma taught me how to crochet once. I was spending a Christmas break from college with her and we couldn’t go anywhere because the weather was bad. Some of my friends made fun of me when I told them what I did over break, but, truthfully, it wasn’t about the crocheting. It was about spending time listening to my grandmother tell her stories and feeling as close to her as I’ve ever felt to anybody in my life.
* I think I told you already that Gramma Cuz met John F. Kennedy. I believe it was 1959, and my grandfather was a Teamsters guy. He took Grandma to a union event in Chicago and Kennedy put his arm around Grandma, kissed her on the cheek and told my grandfather that he had a beautiful wife. To the day she died, nobody could ever say a bad word about JFK in front of Grandma. Ever.
* Years ago, we were in her kitchen in West Kankakee and we talked for the first and only time about growing old. Grandma got really angry as she explained how she absolutely hated the idea of slowing down with age. She wanted to grab hold of life by the throat each and every day and and have fun, damnit. No slowing down for her. That just wasn’t her way. Aging was an enemy, something to be fought.
Watching her slowly fade away, first at her house and then in the nursing home, broke my heart. When dementia finally occupied her almost non-stop, I had to force myself to go see her. But she always knew who I was, even at her most distant. Her eyes would light up when I walked in and she’d hold my hand. But she was soon gone again, lost in an incomprehensible world that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I knew she was suffering. I knew how much she despised the fate that ultimately overcame her. And so it was almost a relief when she passed. At least she will have peace, were my first thoughts.
But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about those tears running down her cheeks at the end. She’d lost her fight. The fun was truly over. No more traveling, no more new experiences, no more children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, no more crazy fun music, no more of life’s simple pleasures and beauties.
I’ve been haunted by those thoughts for days. But Grandma is indeed finally at peace and no longer suffering. So, I’m trying now to focus on how grateful I am for the love she gave her family, for the example she set of hard work and harder play and for always being there for anybody who ever needed her. She was one of the finest storytellers I knew. It’s not so much what she said, but in how she told those stories. I write a lot like she talked. I’ve been blessed to have her genes.
And my son Nicholas wrote this:
I received the very unfortunate news that my Great Grandma Cuz passed away yesterday evening, she was 93 years young. There was a time in my life I thought she would live forever–she had more energy than people a fraction of her age well into her 80′s. She had many rare and exceptional qualities, and was a genuinely great person. To know her, was to love her.
Born in 1920 in rural Kentucky, she was blessed with the oral tradition of story telling and always told the greatest stories. But she was also one of the best listeners. As a kid your voice is not always heard, but Grandma Cuz would always want to hear everything going on in my life and ask sincere questions wanting to know every detail while listening intently with a big smile on her face. I think it was also her way of teaching us how to be great story tellers like her.
She also made the best liver and onions ever, and on several occasions I would eat so much I’d upset my stomach to the point of making myself sick. After dinner I would go catch fire flies in her yard to help burn off all that amazing food. Then I would go sit on the floor next to her chair and play with all the cool toys she bought me at garage sales earlier that day while she watched the rodeo on TV. It was always so hard to leave her place, because even with all her grandkids, great grandkids, and great-great grandkids, she always knew how to make you feel loved and special.
Grandma Cuz had a magnetic personality and effected everyone she knew in a positive way. My kid sister, Reagan Lucille, is her namesake, and shares many of her exceptional qualities. While we will miss her, she has left many of her qualities here with us, because she was such an amazing and influential person. There will never be another person like her, but we will all strive to be as much like her as we can…and of course we will always share her stories.
I named my youngest daughter after two of the most influential people in my life, Ronald Reagan and Lucille Cousin, my grandmother. They always had a special bond, and as another brother remarked this week that I had named two of my kids after different grandparents, Nicholas George after my maternal grandfather and Reagan after my paternal grandmother, and both had more than just a few good qualities of the people they are named after. I will miss her terribly, but she is in a better place. It was good to see so many family members, but the circumstances sucked.
Grandma and Reagan a few years ago