Thursday, August 13, 2009


Part 2.

As I mentioned before, I am very fortunate to have very little experience with death. However, my luck is running out. My Grandma Hazel, my dad's mother, is getting old, and watching her age has been quite the reality check.

I always loved my Grandma Hazel. She is shy and didn't talk much, but she was always warm and was happy to have me come to visit. I think she had a little social anxiety, but she had lots of friends and loved her family deeply -- just like me. When I would hear her tell stories about what she enjoyed and didn't enjoy, I felt like she as talking about myself sometimes.

She only lived about 15 minutes from my family growing up, so I saw her often. I was always a pretty good kid, but I had my moments as all kids do. However, I never felt judged by her. I have no memories of her losing her patience with us kids, being annoyed by us, or her being disappointed with anything we did. I always felt safe and comfortable with her and I always felt like I could be myself.

Grandma always looked very young. She had gorgeous skin and hardly any wrinkles. She has had cancer a few times and one time she was recovering in the hospital so I paid her a visit. I could not believe how sick she was, but how lovely she looked lying there in the hospital bed. I later asked her why her skin was so gorgeous and she said it was because she used Oil of Olay for 60 years. I don't know if she was telling me the truth or not, but considering she's not really a jokester type, guess who else now uses Oil of Olay? If you think I look half my actual age, maybe you should consider switching to Oil of Olay as well. (Or it could be good genetics.)

I always knew she wasn't a Mormon. In fact, I spent many mornings straightening the chapel at the Catholic church with her, or attending Mass. That church was a big part of her life -- in proximity to her home (it was only about 50 feet from her front door) -- but it seemed to me that a big part of her social life came from the church too. However, I don't ever remember talking religion with her. Maybe she wasn't as religious as she seemed, or maybe she just respected my beliefs enough (even when I was a young child) to never try to change my mind. Whatever her reason, I was a Mormon and she was a Catholic and that was that. Now that I'm an adult, I find it amazing that it was never once awkward about religion with her. She was tolerant and respectful.

I always loved her name and felt proud that of the three children in my family, I was the only one that got hazel eyes. It made me feel connected to her for some reason -- and while I still feel that way, I realize the connection makes absolutely no sense. As a result, I've always liked my eyes, although they are nothing special, that's for sure.

One of the very best things I learned from grandma is her love of food and cooking. Unfortunately, by the time I realized I enjoyed cooking, Grandma was too old to teach me any of her tricks or recipes. I don't have a single recipe of hers, which literally makes me sick. But I did inherit her love of big meals and having family nearby to share them with. Interestingly enough, her meals were so tasty, my dad and my other siblings also admit that as they watched her joy, food became a passion for them too. Her meals weren't elaborate, but they were so good I remember eating until I was physically ill as a child.

In fact a few years ago she insisted on hosting and preparing Thanksgiving dinner for the family. She was well into her 80's and had obvious dementia. The idea of her failing was overwhelming to me. I couldn't bare the thought of her realizing she wasn't a good cook anymore. But cooking was her pride and she refused to back down. With a little (or lot) of help from my dad, she pulled it off.

4 generations. Her first born, my dad's first born, my first born.

We spent the night at her house here and there when I was young. She had a small house (two bedrooms), so she'd scoot the dining room table to the wall and then she'd make us a sleeping spot right there on the floor. Her bedroom door was right there, so in the morning, we'd wake up super early and as quiet as possible, we'd fold up the blankets and make a little pile out of them. We'd sit and wait for her to wake up. We did this every time, certain that she'd be thrilled to see us up and dressed with our beds made -- all before she woke up. Now that I'm a mother, I can't think of anything more annoying for her than to know that her grandchildren would be getting up early, so she should too. And to think we assumed we were making her happy!

Besides making her day, the other reason we wanted to get up early was because we knew she'd make us a huge breakfast. We didn't own a waffle iron in our family, but she did. So we'd always request waffles, bacon and orange juice. Orange juice was so good at her house. (I found out later my dad always watered ours down. No wonder...)

She would read us story after story. One time I brought her all the books she had in her house and asked her to read them all to me. I remember she got tired, but she did it. And even though I was small and had no clue about anything, I remember feeling impressed she pulled that off.

Grandma recycled in the 1980's -- well before it was en vogue to do so. I fill my recycling roll-cart every week now, thanks to some lessons in avoiding waste from Grandma.

She loved playing games, especially rummy and a dice gamed called "ten thousand." I have always loved playing games and have rarely found anyone willing to play rummy for hours with me like she could and would.

I suspect Grandma suffered from infertility. By the time I thought to ask her, her dementia made it impossible for her to remember. But she was in her 30's when my dad was born, then she only had one other child after him. In a generation when women bore children young and had lots of them, I can only assume. Maybe I'm wrong, but she was so motherly and patient, it seems like an obvious explanation for her small family.

Several years ago when I lived in Utah, Grandma and her husband, Jack, came to visit. They had a little camper that they were drive around to visit different state and national parks throughout the United States. This particular summer they decided to visit the parks in Utah -- and my sister and I. This was ten years ago and she was so old she could barely walk. But she was a good sport and we took her to see a few sights and of course we sat around and played ten thousand a few times. I actually won for once!

She loved the beach. Now that she has dementia and her mind and body are failing, Jack still drives her to the beach for the afternoon occasionally. She used to drive to the beach for a cup of clam chowder, then get back in the car and drive home. The beach was like home to her. Remind me to ask G to drive me to the beach when I'm old too. That's for sure where I'll want to be.

I didn't see her too often during my years in Utah so I was very surprised to see how her health had deteriorated while I was away. And now that six more years have passed since I've moved back to Oregon, it literally takes my breath away every time I visit and am reminded of how unforgiving aging can be.

Her first husband, and my grandfather, Ed, passed away when I was a small child. She then married Jack, a quirky maintenance man from the church and school next door. Jack has stood by her side all these years (20 years now?) and while he's a little odd, I have been impressed over and over again by his loyalty to Grandma. He still holds her hand and he still says she's the best thing that ever happened to him. Last time I saw them he told me he was scared about her health. He looked me in the eyes and told me he loves her. His face was white with stress and his eyes were full of panic and pleading.

They still live at home and my parents meet their every need. While Jack does a lot to help Grandma, my mom has the biggest burden to visit several times a week to take care of her, their home, and yard.

But my mom does it. And if I didn't have my own little ones to care for each day I'd do it too. Probably because Grandma Hazel would have done the same thing for me.


Emma said...

what a very sweet tribute.

J said...

Thanks you so much for that! I never realized how much of me came from Grandma...loving to cook, loving to recycle, and loving the breach. What a woderful woman and grandma. I think it will be hard on us when she takes her last breath but she will forever have a huge influence on all of our lives...that's for sure.

Nicki said...

I'm so glad you're doing this - I wish I had this many good memories of my grandparents.

Myndi said...

I was too emotional to comment right after I read this. You summed our perfect grandmother more perfectly than I thought even possible. You put into words everything I love about her, but just didn't have the ability to say.

I too am glad you are doing this and I look forward to more installments.

R said...

Ditto to what Myndi said. Thank you for saying what we all feel.