Who’s Next?

Larry The Cable Guy: Anyway, I go to the flower feller, and get her flowers, and a card. And he asks me what this is for. And I tell him my grandma just passed away, hundred and four years old. And he says, "Ooh, a hundred and four? How’d she die?" How’d she die; she’s a hundred and four! She wrecked her Harley up there at BikeWeek!

Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie (2003)

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So for those of you who haven’t been paying attention, my grandmother died on July 13. I’d just had a party at my house the day before and we were having dinner when my brother called. He told me that the nurses were at the house and her time was very short; it could be minutes, it could be a couple of days. But it was imminent. While I was making plans to fly down, he called again, telling me it was over.

It took me longer to get to Florida by plane than it would have if I’d just gotten in the car and driven (see previous post for the details), but get there I did. Wife and Daughter followed a day later, and my other brother the day after that.

There were a few details to go over before we could hold the funeral, and we took care of that stuff, but that’s for another post, I think. The toughest part of all this was coming up with something to say at the service. My grandmother had stated explicitly that she wanted me to speak at her funeral, so the pressure was really on, even though I’d done it a few times already. And with so many people in the house, it was tough to get some quiet time to get it written down. I finally finished in the middle of the night, only a few hours before I was scheduled to deliver it, and even in the funeral home I was going back to it and polishing bits of it here and there. So here it is, in all its glory. I very rarely broke away from the words I’d written, which is kind of unusual for me; more often than not I wander away from what I’d written and come back to it. There are a few annotations here in brackets for clarity and/or context.

 

Well… [Long pause as I looked at my brothers and my cousin]

…I guess it’s just us, now.

I’ve been thinking all week about how you encapsulate a life that’s been so long and seen so much, and it’s nearly impossible. When you go outside later, and you look at the markers on the ground, you see a lot of dates: 1923-2009; 1943-2013, and in between all those dates is a dash. And when you’re standing up here, you’re expected to talk about everything that happened in between, all the stuff represented by the dash. How do I summarize the dash?

Because in the long run, that’s the best I can do, is summarize. And the bottom line is that I can’t help but fail. Because I’m never going to be able to adequately articulate the mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, great-grandmother, daughter, cousin, friend…that she was.

It’s said that grief is the price that we pay for love. My grandmother loved this family with all of her heart, and many of us loved her wholeheartedly in return. And so today, we are all grief-stricken. But we are all full of Grandma’s love and light, and it will travel with us as we continue on in our own lives.

The only thing, I think, that’s genuinely going to capture her is the memories that we have in our hearts.

So, I’m going to do a little bit of that with you today: I’m going to share a few memories I have with you.

There are a few things that have stuck with me for a long time, and will likely stay with me throughout my life. Nana had a way of fooling with people’s heads, but it wasn’t usually malicious. She once made me an egg and cheese omelet and tried to convince me that the Swiss cheese she’s put into it was Mozzarella. "Nothing like some mozzarella," she said, and I agreed that it certainly was nothing like Mozzarella, and left it at that.

When she was trying to sell her house in Kings Park, she was usually baking something. Now, these days when you go house-hunting, the realtors will either bake cookies, or spray the house with baked-cookie smell to fool you into thinking that the place smells extra-homey. She was doing it to keep the kitchen warm, because there were so many problems with the heat in that room. They’d renovated that kitchen; tearing out the walls and discovering that the room was insulated with old corncobs. They replaced the corncobs, they put in TWO steam radiators–one at each end of the room; they put a mud porch on the back door to act as a kind of airlock; they did a lot of things, but in the end it was the use of that big old ceramic-over-steel oven that did the trick. A couple of years later I went back and visited the house, and the new residents asked me if there was ever trouble keeping the kitchen warm. I was still pretty young so playing dumb was my strong suit at that point.

Nana was willing to spoil us like any grandmother would, but she was also ready, willing and able to bring the hammer down when necessary. The story goes that when her son Gerald, who got to be six-foot four, got in trouble with her, she made him sit down so she could beat him with the hairbrush–and god help him if he didn’t. When we were kids her weapon of choice was the wooden spoon. And we didn’t have to be anywhere near the kitchen for that spoon to materialize. We could be in the living room, the bedroom…Walt Disney World…it didn’t seem to matter. Later on, it was the Shoe of Doom, flipped off her foot with deadly accuracy. And once you were struck, it was your job to BRING THE SHOE BACK. And, of course, there was the time she was babysitting all five of her grandchildren and she finally lost all patience, telling everyone, "That’s it–everyone go to bed!" When we asked why we were being sent to bed so early, she told us, "…because I’M tired!"

Let me come back to the "spoiling" thing. Because she didn’t really spoil us; it was just part of her nature to be incredibly generous. She’d give even if you didn’t ask. She gave you her time, she’d give you money, sometimes you’d just find something you might have mentioned needing, sitting there waiting for you. After her husband died, she put in literally thousands of hours volunteering for Hernando Pasco Hospice. They gave to her, so she gave to them. And gave, and gave, and kept on giving. She inspired others to do the same, which means that her daughter Mary also put in a lot of time for the organization. And, chances are, the official count of volunteer hours doesn’t really reflect the amount of time she put in, because even when she couldn’t come in anymore, work was brought to her. She sealed envelopes and prepared ornaments for the Tree of Life while sitting in her chair at home. Maybe it’s because she spent many years in poverty, with a big family that grew up during the Depression, that she learned that sharing always means multiplying rather than losing something. And she gave with love, which means that you invariably wind up with more than you started with.

Despite being from a previous generation, she had a very progressive spirit. Last June, I was in town and we’d gone out to dinner. On the way home there was an ongoing news item about Wendy Davis, who is a state Senator in Texas. On that day, Senator Davis was staging an eleven-hour filibuster to block a bill that would have severely restricted the ability of women to gain access to reproductive health care. When Nana heard about the filibuster, she blurted out, "Good for her!" A few weeks later she came to a party at my house and had a great time chatting with the gay couple that lived across the street. For her, they were just a couple of guys that she had fun engaging with.

She liked parties, and she liked being around people. I remember many a backyard get-together at her house in Kings Park, with the yellow and green colored light bulbs strung from the house to so
me point on the garage roof, and the adults chatting and socializing while the kids climbed the apple tree–easier than one might think–and played on the patio, or among the stand of lilacs, or up in the Ranger Station, which was a 15-foot-high metal monstrosity that wouldn’t make it past the first design round in today’s world.

That string of lights, incidentally, has a spiritual cousin in my back yard.

Thanksgiving dinner could mean over 15 people sitting at tables run end-to-end in a living room that could barely accommodate them because of the room’s shape. As kids, we were luckier because we’d eat at the far end, which was near the enclosed porch. Easy escape!

I remember road trips when we were younger. We’d all pile into the car and we’d go to upstate New York. We saw many natural wonders such as Howe Caverns, the Natural Stone Bridge and Ausable Chasm. We also saw a bunch of the tourist attractions, many of which don’t exist anymore. We would cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, which had the double thrill of being close to the water and having a fun, cool name to it. As we crossed, we’d look for the castle on the far side of the water and make up stories about the people who lived in it. Little did we know that in those days it was the home office of an investment firm. We visited places like Story Town USA, which was a Mother Goose-themed park. We went to Gaslight Village in Lake George, which had a vaudeville theme to it. We saw glass blowers making ornaments in North Pole, NY, which IS still around, although the glass blowers aren’t.

The trips didn’t end after the move to Florida. We got to see a lot of the attractions around here, many of which are either gone or are just a shell of their former selves. Once, on a whim based on an article in the newspaper, we took a trip to Spook Hill, which is located in Lake Wales. Now, Lake Wales is nearly a two-hour drive under the best of circumstances. Spook Hill is a place where ten minutes is about as much time as you’re probably going to want to spend there. And that was pretty much it: two hours out, ten minutes there, two hours back. The bulk of the trip was the trip itself. [Context: Spook Hill is a “gravity hill”, which we didn’t know anything about at the time.]

And I guess that’s the lesson here for all of us. It’s always about the journey, not the destination. We’ve all got the same destination [Looking pointedly at my grandmother at this point]. It’s the trip that we make to get there that makes all the difference.

So…Thank You, Grandma, for all your support and all of your encouragement. Thank you for being a role model who taught us about love, and sacrifice, and keeping the faith.