My grandmother died yesterday morning at age 100. Obviously, given her advanced years and also her declining health, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Though, you do always think you have just a little bit longer.
Our relationship wasn’t a close one. She had a tough life. Born in 1917, she was the oldest of 6 children (outliving all but one sister). My great-grandmother died when my grandma was only 13 years old and she raised her siblings. What that entailed was quitting school and taking on house cleaning work to make their lives a little better. She lived through both World Wars and countless others, and also the Great Depression. This cemented her frugal nature and has definitely had some bearing on me, as my dad is also frugal.
Grandma was practical to a fault and often tactless. She always told me how fat I was while I was growing up. While I have many memories of her, there are two strong memories that stand out in my brain at the moment.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, my mother and sister traveled to France for 2 weeks (my mother is a former French and Spanish teacher and France is her love). My father stayed home to work and take care of me. I stayed with my grandmother for the first week. I distinctly remember that she told me I was fat and then fed me unlimited Cheetos, Twinkies, and other junk food. She was also a good cook and made a lot of awesome meals for me. At least even if you were fat in her eyes, she still wanted to overfeed you as grandmas do.
When I was around 13 years old, awkward, fat, and braces-wearing, I got to fill in for another actor in the musical version of Alice in Wonderland. During the Saturday matinee, I was going to sing and act the caterpillar’s part. I was excited. I didn’t get very many singing roles because I had almost zero confidence in my singing ability (due to another unfortunate traumatic acting event many years prior). My grandmother was still mobile and living alone, so my father brought her to see my show.
I remember singing in the costume’s headpiece, which of course, I’d never gotten to practice in, and straining to hear the music. I sang my heart out. The first thing my grandmother said to me after the show?
“You sure can’t sing, can you?”
Even so, it isn’t all bad
There is a third memory. When I was in my early 20s, I was going through my own stressful period of life. I was also running regularly, training for a marathon. She told me I was too skinny. I laugh now. There was no body perfection for my grandma. You were either too fat or too skinny. Never perfect.
She was tougher than me
My grandmother was a tough old woman, though. She survived 5 days unable to get out of her bathtub, even returning to live in her home all alone for another few years until she had a debilitating stroke. She had that stroke just before Christmas in 2009. Though she never walked again, her brain changed and she was apparently quite kind to the staff who cared for her in the nursing home. Reportedly, they liked “Franny,” as they called her.
A little over a month ago, my mom told him she’d had a dream that my grandma could walk again. They chuckled, as it was incredibly far-fetched. My father visited my grandmother the same day. My grandmother was quite lucid during that visit. She could remember her 100th birthday parties (she had two, it is a big deal to turn 100 after all), her visitors, and even her dream from the night before. Oddly, she also dreamt she could walk. In real life, she could wiggle her toe!
I joked with my father that my grandmother must be aging backwards, now that’s turned 100.
Of course, that wasn’t true. It’s one of those crazy coincidences that happen sometimes. This past weekend, my grandmother had intense abdominal pain. On Sunday, she was pain free and able to watch some TV, but her hemoglobin was dropping again. On Monday, as my father was getting ready to visit her, he received the call that she had passed away.
She went to breakfast, ate, and the staff returned her to her room. When they went back to check on her, she had peacefully passed. Even with our strained relationship, I am comforted by the fact that she got to have breakfast before she died.
This isn’t exactly a glowing review, why write it?
I suppose I write this because my sadness is more intense than I expected. In trying to be objective, I think my grandma tried to be a good grandma, even if she couldn’t stop herself from saying rude, hurtful things. We didn’t spend a lot of time together, but the time was okay once we got past the unpleasantries. She wasn’t otherwise mean or hateful towards me. Other than calling people fat, she didn’t put them down. She was a bit feisty and critical, though. Even complicated relationships will be mourned, whether we like it or not. I am sad.
I’m also 2,000 miles away from my family. I am unable to attend her funeral. My practical father suggested I don’t spend the money to attend. My mom and I discussed how frugal my grandmother was and how she would also not want me to spend the money. I want to be there. For me. I won’t be. Due to technology, I may be able to video chat with my sister during some of the event. Again, tech saves the day.
I’ve known since before moving out of the country that my grandmother’s health was declining. We weren’t close, but she has also been my last remaining grandparent for almost 23 years and the only grandmother I’ve known (my mother’s mother died even before my parents were married). Grandma Frances outlived my grandfather by over 30 years. For all her faults, she was tough person (a nearly 45 year breast cancer survivor), practical, and frugal. She loved us all in her own way, though. I found out well into my adulthood that she told everyone they looked fat. And I’m the only person I know who told her she looked fat, too.
She had insulted my mom. You know what? I don’t think my grandmother ever called me fat after that.
Rest in peace, Grandma Frances 1917-2017. You made your life goal. We should all be so fortunate.