I have spent a great deal of time and space on this blog writing about how the actions and character of one grandparent, my abuser, shaped and influenced me.
It is high time the pendulum swung in the other direction. My maternal grandmother.
My Mema. My beloved Mema.
My relationship with her is the single least complicated relationship I have ever had in my life. She just LOVED me. I just LOVED her.
Her grandchildren really could do no wrong. I mean, we could, and did– but as far as she was concerned we were universally wonderful. And her great-grandchildren? Forget it.
I have so many fond memories of summer days spent at her house, her packing us lunches to take up to the pond, exploring the little wilderness behind her house. Playing with the ancient games and puzzles in her attic, and poring over her Reader’s Digest magazines.
As much as I mourn her absence, there was a part of me that was glad she wasn’t here for the death of my marriage. She was so relieved when I got married. I think she finally felt like I was safe, and would be taken care of. She would have been heartbroken, and so, so worried about me. That is the single thing that could have made that terrible time worse. I don’t think I could have borne her sorrow.
She was tough and kind, sweet and funny, and UNBELIEVABLY stubborn. A combination of grit and grace.
In later years, as her dementia increased, it became difficult for her to talk on the phone. Without the visual cue of having the person in front of her, she frequently became confused as to who she was talking to. I felt as though it stressed her out, it stressed ME out! It was the last thing on earth I wanted to do.
That’s when I began writing her letters.
I wrote her once a week for the last few years of her life. Short little notes. Nothing terribly exciting. In fact, I remember thinking on more than one occasion, “I have nothing to SAY! I didn’t DO anything this week!” But that wasn’t the point, in the end. The point was that once a week she could hold in her hand a tangible reminder of her granddaughter’s affection. Each one, a love letter.
I still have the last letter I wrote to her. When it became apparent that the end was near, I held off sending it. I was afraid it would arrive after she died and cause my aunt even more pain.
I have moved four times since she died, and that little envelope bearing her name has made the trip each time. I cannot bear to throw it away and I cannot bear to open it. At one point I felt as though it wasn’t special or important enough to be the last thing I wrote to her. Now that I am older and a bit wiser I know that the sacred is often found in the mundane. Whatever silly story about the kids, or the house, or the dog- it would have been enough. I was always enough in her eyes.
When my mother sensed there wasn’t much time left she called me, and held her phone up to Mema’s ear so I could tell her how much I loved her. I hope she heard me, but even if she didn’t, I know she knew. She knew because I made sure she knew.
I was devastated when she died, but I had no regrets. My last visit with her was perfect. She was more lucid than she had been the past few times I’d seen her. We sat in the lovely little sun dappled sitting room at my Aunt Mimi’s house, and chatted and watched the birds through the window.
I held her hand, and she told me her dog-eared stories. I laughed as though hearing them for the first time. I showed her pictures of her great-grandchildren. She marveled at how big they were. We went to mass together. My mother and I ran out to the little candy shop and I bought her some sweets.
She looked so beautiful. My then mother-in-law had given her a pretty, blue paisley wrap, and she was wearing it.
I had the opportunity to go see her again nearer to the end, and I chose not to go. She was in pain. She wasn’t really present. I couldn’t bear for that to be the memory I carried with me.
I was grief-stricken when she died, but if there is one thing I have learned it is that grief uncomplicated by regret is more easily borne. There was not one single thing left unsaid between us. She knew I adored her, and I knew she adored me.
I found it hard to imagine a world without her trilling voice, which reverted more and more back to the lilting brogue of her childhood as she got older, singing Oh, Danny Boy. I couldn’t wrap my head around not hearing her laugh again. It was hard to imagine not getting the chance to hold her hand, or compliment her on one of her many sparkly brooches, or watch her enjoy dessert more than any other human being I’ve ever met.
I didn’t need any do-overs, though. I am so profoundly grateful for that.
Around that time, everyone was doing those 25 Things About Me on Facebook. I wrote the following list the day she died- five years ago today.
25 Things About My Grandmother
1. My grandmother, Mary Mullett Ryan, was born on December 2, 1912 in Tincurry, County Wexford, Ireland.
2. We’ve always called her Mema.
3. She celebrated her birthday on Dec 6th until a trip back to Ireland revealed that her actual birthday was four days earlier. I celebrate both.
4. She was one of ten children, seven of whom lived to adulthood.
5. Her mom died when she was 9.
6. She was self conscious about her lack of education, but she read constantly.
7. She came to the United States on the SS Karlsruhe when she was 17. She was terrified of water because she couldn’t swim, and she was on the boat for 8 days. The bravery of her making that journey despite her fear absolutely knocks me out.
8. She joined her older sister Eileen who was already here. They were incredibly close their entire lives. I used to joke that they probably confessed each other’s sins.
9. She was working as a domestic when she met my grandfather, Lawrence.
10. On their first date they saw a scary movie. I can’t remember which one- she told me years ago. I wish I’d written it down. Their song was “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
11. They married and went on to have five children. My mother is the youngest.
12. She was beautiful when she was young. I used to get her confused with Jacqueline Kennedy in pictures when I was little.
13. She was more than a little vain about her looks.
14. She became a naturalized citizen on June 12, 1944.
15. She made incredible chocolate chip cookies, and used to send them to me when I was in college. I couldn’t get enough of them.
16. Other than that, she was… not the best cook. My sisters and I used to joke that she liked to serve her chicken medium rare.
17. At my bridal shower she gave me a hand mixer that I use when I make cookies, which is pretty often. It is beaten up and repaired with duct tape, but I can’t bring myself to replace it because it makes me think of her. I was using it today, in fact.
18. She has 16 grandchildren, and approximately half a billion great-grandchildren. Give or take.
19. She loves us all to distraction.
20. She hated squirrels.
21. She loved all things sweet- candy, cookies, ice cream- you name it.
22. There are certain anecdotes she told over and over. Particularly the ‘sweet tooth story’ and the ‘for the birds story.’ They became her go to stories, especially as many of her memories became more and more ephemeral.
23. I loved to make her laugh. She was like a child when she laughed.
24. She died today.
25. I will miss her every single day.
I had a dream a while after Mema died. She and I were sitting at the table in the sunny little kitchen of her house on Cape Cod. She covered my hand in hers and said, “You know Laura, it wouldn’t kill you to wear a dress every once in a while.”
Today, I will put on a dress in honor of the grandmother I loved and try to move through the world with a fraction of the courage, determination and wide eyed wonder that she did.
Go out and tell your people that you love them. Write it down. Send a note. Make a call.
Happy Cinco de Mema, sweet friends.
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