My Grandma would have turned 100 today.
Well, we’re pretty sure she would have. She wasn’t always 100% sure if she was born on February 28th or February 29th, but then again, she didn’t know her legal birth name was a longer version of the first name we all knew her by, so I guess we would have to take that birthdate confusion with a grain of salt. (The birth certificate, which I found while being all the way in New Zealand, so my Mom could use it to get her into a nursing home, said she was born on the 28th of February.)
Grandma was a strong woman. She had various aspects to her which always surprised me. Her passion was for baseball and the Chicago Cubs. I honestly would not have been surprised if she had been one of the players they mentioned in A League of Their Own, and I think I was a little disappointed that she actually hadn’t played in those leagues during World War 2. But up to the last few years of her life, she loved her Cubbies. We heard stories about how she used to ditch school and go to Wrigley Field as a kid to catch a game or three. And with that atmosphere at that park, I guess sometimes I don’t blame her.
While my parents were away on a vacation for two, Grandma and Grandpa watched us. We went to one of my brother Brian’s baseball games, and Grandma really, really disagreed with the umpire’s calls. He kicked her out of the stands because of how vocal she was being. She was probably right, but I think she intimidated the umpire, who was maybe 16, tops. My parents couldn’t believe it when we kinda nonchalantly told them about it a few months later.
I don’t ever remember her every having long hair, and she wore pants and shorts way more than I ever remember her wearing dresses. Yet she had her hair done very regularly, and she loved Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew perfume.
My Grandpa called her “Toots”. The story goes she got the nickname from the song “Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’ Bye!)”. I can’t remember if it was because she cried when she heard that song, but most family called her “Aunt Toots”. To us, she was Grandma, but we knew who people were talking about when they said “Toots”.
One of my earliest memories of her and my Grandpa was when I was a small child staying overnight at their house (now my parents’ house, and the one I mostly grew up in). They had a coffee maker that was set on a timer, so I’d wake up to the sound of birds chirping, sunlight streaming into the room, and the smell of coffee brewing. It was a kinda wake-up call for toddlers. The aroma of coffee, to this day, reminds me of those earliest memories.
Grandma liked certain brands too. She had small paper Dixie cups for water for guests in the bathrooms. I vaguely remember her liking Dial soap (the gold one). We thought her Aquafresh toothpaste — first in two colors (white and blue) and then in three colors (white, blue, and red) — was super cool. These memories are flashes in my mind.
A special treat we got when we stayed at Grandma and Grandpa’s was Honeycomb cereal. I have to admit, as a teenager / young adult, it didn’t taste the same as it did when we were kids, but it was a cool treat to get when we were at their place.
When we were kids, one of the things we loved her doing was “tickling” our backs. It was this thing where she would move her fingertips lightly over our backs, and it had the benefit of calming us down a great deal.
Grandma and Grandpa took me on my first ever plane ride. It was to go to Walt Disney World when I was 5. We flew on Delta, and I got to see the cockpit, although I don’t remember that part very well. I do remember I got a cool set of plastic wings to pin on my shirt (I think that part was the part I got the most excited about).
There are only snippets of memories around Walt Disney World and that trip. We stayed in one of the hotels on-site, and I remember waking up and looking out the window (or maybe sliding ranch door?) to see neatly trimmed lawns and trees outside. I think we were on the ground floor. I remember being excited about the monorail and seeing the train too.
I have so many bits of memories that I could go on about, but they feature both Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe I’ll go into more detail about each in another blog or three.
In her later years, when Grandma was in assisted living and the Alzheimer’s was taking a good foothold on her, she had her nails painted by one of the workers in the home. The look of happiness and pride on her face, this innocent joy, will be something I always will remember. I even said to Mom that I’d put money into her account so she could have that done every week or fortnight or even month if she wanted that. I was happy she was happy.
She was a very modern woman. She worked. She was a parent. She was a wife but an equal in her relationship. She cared about her family, and she worked hard to keep everyone together. She spoke her mind, and she had a strength within her.
And I think having such strong female figures in my life growing up helped me appreciate and respect women.
She seemed to be stylish yet practical. Her and Grandpa’s houses always had nice, modern furnishings. She liked that a lot. I don’t think it was a case of keeping up with everyone else, but more a case of she liked to be modern and “with it”, so her house always showed that.
One time I did get pretty upset with her. After Grandpa died, I went over with my Mom to help clean his clothes out of their condo. Part of me felt it was too early. Mom was struggling to cope, so I let her and Grandma deal with other things in the dining room.
I was putting the clothes into a box or something — I can’t remember what — and I found the shirt and pants he had been taken to the hospital in. His decline started with a nose bleed that wouldn’t stop, so the front of his shirt was covered in his blood.
I didn’t think it should have been donated, and the thoughts swirled through my head about throwing it out. These were the last normal clothes he wore in his mortal life. We weren’t even a week or so after his death, and there was this ensemble, hung neatly on a hanger, inside a clear plastic bag with the hospital’s logo on it, confronting me.
I took it into the other room where my Mom and Grandma were, trying to keep my composure, and asked them what to do with it. The bloodied shirt made my Mom tearful, but Grandma’s face darkened and her voice was angry. “Throw it out.” It was very dismissive.
Now, I understand it was the way she dealt with her grief.
I did throw the shirt and pants with other items down the trash chute in their condo building. It was a very difficult thing to do.
Years later, when we were cleaning out her condo after we moved Grandma to the assisted living facility, I found a letter she had written in a notebook. In it, she said how much she missed Grandpa. She had never outwardly said any of these things — in fact, she had always seemed so stoic — and to read her most innermost feelings — her sadness, her longing, her true feelings for him — really affected me deeply. It gave her another dimension, a softer side of her I could identify with.
We knew her Alzheimer’s had progressed when she lost interest in the Cubs. That was one of the last things she held steadfast with right up until the end. We were shocked by that, actually, as she always loved talking about them and watching them. Growing up, it had been super-common for us to watch the Cubs game together when we were staying with them. I always thought she was one of the world’s biggest Cubs fans.
Her mental health deteriorated towards the end, so when I think about her or dream of her, it’s often in this state. I guess the freshest memories are the ones stuck in the fore.
She never really forgot me throughout her ordeal with Alzheimer’s. And she definitely never forgot Noel. I guess that disease is still very random, but for some reason, she remembered us.
At the end of her life, she was only a fraction of the woman she had been. She was frail, and she couldn’t remember a lot. But I do remember when one of us got upset, she would know and comfort us. No words, but a look of sympathy and love, and she would try as hard as she could to either squeeze our hand or rub our shoulder or back, or some other gesture. She didn’t want us to be sad, even though that sadness was an expression of our love for her.
In her casket, Grandma’s face had been filled out somewhat by the funeral directors. Alzheimer’s had ravaged her, so they tried to make her look like the Grandma of old, with a fuller face. A side effect was Grandma was smirking from her casket. Both Noel and I thought this was fitting, as if she was having the last laugh at death.
In my dreams of her after her death, she is childlike, unable to articulate what she wants or needs, a sliver of the woman she once was. I’m not sure if that’s what her soul is like now — if Alzheimer’s rips away parts of the soul, and after death, that core of what is left goes on — or if it’s because she was in that state when she died so my mind equates her with that. She is not angry or violent towards me in any of the dreams, but in many of them, I step in to help her without hesitation. Her eyes are wide and uncertain, and sometimes relieved and thankful, but her mouth makes no discernible sounds, or at least no sounds which form words.
Back to her life: she loved us all a great deal in the way she knew how to best. I loved seeing her come alive at baseball games. One of my most favorite photos of her is one I took one summer’s afternoon at Wrigley Field, probably at a Cubs versus Braves game in the mid 1990s. Grandma and Brian are smiling away, Brian in his Braves hat (which Grandma probably gave him a hard time about) and Grandma happy as happy could be too. It was a great afternoon and we enjoyed the game immensely.
The last few weeks, I have been getting the occasional waft of Youth Dew, mostly when I am at home. It makes me think of her, and miss her too.
Yesterday afternoon, I went to a different library than the normal one to sort my library card issues out. It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be, so I was happy. This was after I wrote most of this blog in preparation for Grandma’s birthday, so I was mulling over more to add in my head, and when I walked out of the library, the woman in front of me was wearing Youth Dew, and I got a strong whiff of it as the wind blew it in my direction. As I strolled down the side-street back to my car, I choked up. It hit me how much I miss her.
So a happy 100th birthday to Grandma, wherever her soul may be. I love you and miss you very much.
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