Two years after her death, my grandmother, with whom I lived for many years, is often in my thoughts. The other day, I found her Bible improbably pushed off its place on a shelf and onto the floor. I lifted it up to look inside to find, in her spidery handwriting, a note about a gift she gave to my husband when he joined the Masons. Reading her note put me in mind of that time when I, hoping to please her, had also joined Eastern Star, the women's auxiliary to the Masons. My husband and I thought this would give me an opportunity to spend time with Grandma, a devoted member of Eastern Star. It was my way of doing something "grown-up" with her.
My timing was off. Grandma was recently widowed and began to withdraw from many of the social functions that had characterized younger years. She immediately stopped going to formal meetings after walking me through my first (and as it turned out, last) Eastern Star function. Even so, despite me being a member of her beloved Eastern Star in name only, she said to me, with both pride and affection, "Now we are sisters!"
Later, my husband, children, and I moved into my grandmother's house where we all lived for many years. She was getting old and my children were very young. She and I both struggled with limited agency and movement. When all the other adults in the house went off to their jobs, meetings, and ramblings, Grandma and I were home with the little ones where we were able to help each other with all the little problems of life. In those years, she gave me guidance as a senior and experienced mother of six, grandmother of thirteen, and great-grandmother of ten. Her very presence in my life relieved my anxieties. It inspired my confidence to have the attention of the unquestioned family matriarch. She modeled femininity, authority, and care, and taught me how to be a woman and a mother.
But it was more than that. It was more than her guidance and benevolence, as worthy and valuable as those gifts were. In those years, I also had her friendship. We laughed together and stayed up late talking and telling stories. It was as if I had discovered that the queen herself was a pal. But Grandma was a very formal person. One did not hug my grandmother. One might be permitted to place one's hands lightly on her shoulders, lean forward and give her a ritualistic parting kiss, but that was the extent of any physical embrace. One could say to her, in parting, "I love you, Grandma" and hear in return a cheerful chuckle or, at most, a few murmured words of approval. But in all those years, she never told me she loved me. She never had to. I knew.
As my children grew up, she grew old, very old, and needed more and more of my mother's and my help until, finally, painfully, she had withered away to almost nothing. The bewildering and exhausting final months of her decline in which she was increasingly distant, irrational, and difficult culminated in her last days of complete infantile helplessness. Yet, as deeply sad and difficult as that was, it was also beautiful. At the bittersweet end, she wanted to be touched and held. She seemed to take comfort in hearing us speak to her of the people in this world and the next who loved her and would always love her. With all her matriarchal authority surrendered and her dignity set aside for an even higher calling, she was finally able to accept my embrace.
Since her passing, I find her with me all the time. I speak to her sometimes as I move about my life. My new home is full of her old things. I find myself repeating some of her favorite stories and phrases. I like to tell my kids about her. "Your great-grandmother used to say," I begin. I want them to know her, to know the essence of her as far as I can communicate it.
She is with me day and night. This week, as I slept, I dreamed that I found my grandmother struggling to lay herself down on her bed. I rushed to her and caught her up in my arms so that I might help her. I settled her gently onto the bed and said, "Grandma, your clothes are all twisted!" as I helped her straighten polyester trousers with elastic waistband, so familiar and dear in my memory. Then, when her clothes were smoothed, I also smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead saying to her, "I love you, Grandma!" She answered my declaration as she never had in life, "I love you, too." No uncomfortable laugh affectionately dismissing my sentimentality, no awkward words acknowledging the sentiment but falling short of reciprocating it. In my dream, finally, I had her voice, clear and calm, telling me what I always knew but needed to hear.
Dreams have their own funny logic. All through my dream, I knew that she was already gone, that she had already died and that I was merely speaking with a shade who would soon fade away from my sight and leave me once again without her. When I woke, the dream lingered longer than most- allowing me a chance to get hold of it and pin it down in words. I am thankful for such a dream that seemed so simple and so real. I am thankful for the reminder that I had that time with her when I was permitted to hold her. I am thankful, if only in a dream, to hear her tell me she loved me in a voice both gentle and certain. Maybe it is not the first time. Perhaps she told me she loved me when I was a little girl. She was often more affectionate with children than with adults. But if she did, I don't remember it. I do remember her hands, elegant, cool, and fragrant, brushing my hair from my forehead when I was little. I also remember her hands at the close of her life, frail and trembling, grasping my own and placing them against her hair so that I could do the same for her.
Such knowledge of another soul is greater than any words we use to describe our feelings. She was matriarch, sister, friend. She was Grandma to me...and I was myself with her. And that was always good enough.