04 January, 2016


yesterday morning i was awoken by a phone call at 5am. as soon as i saw the last name i knew my grandma was gone. bleary eyed in the pre-dawn darkness, i thought it was my father phoning but it was my grandma's wonderful neighbour, H, who came down to her place (hence same last name on the phone display) and phoned me to let me know she'd passed 15 minutes earlier and they couldn't reach my father. i thanked her, rang off, and phoned my parents. oddly enough, my father answered even though he rarely answers the phone. it was 7am and he was clearly still asleep when i shared the bad news.

my grandmother was 94 when she died (94 and a half, as little children tend to put it). she had spent new year's eve in the hospital with a stomach ailment but was rallying and had been eager to go home when H went to see her the day before yesterday. she asked for specific pieces of clothing to be brought to her and chatted amiably. and then she was gone. the reason: her body simply gave up. they managed to resuscitate her once, but when she went again, they let her go.

right now my parents are boarding a flight to warsaw, then another to wroclaw, from where they will be picked up by a dear family friend and driven to nysa, our home town. there, they will begin the process of getting rid of all the things that remain of my grandmother's life. i will not go (although i reserve the right to change my mind). i have often said i don't do funerals and find them useless. i asked my parents if they needed me - they said they did not, knowing full well i am in the midst of packing for my own move. that's not the point, though - i don't need to go. i don't need to be there to remember her. she is in me and all that she taught me will always be a part of who i am. my cousin told me that if she died i should go to her funeral, and because his words matter to me, i stop and ponder if i really should. but in the end, she is gone, and what isn't gone stays in me.

nysa, the city of my birth and childhood

the first two years of my life, when my parents were gathering up their master's degrees and PhD's, i lived with my grandmother and subsequently spent every summer and most holidays and long weekends with her. we walked forever along fields, forests, rivers, and gardens. she taught me to love flowers. she taught me the names and uses of plants. she taught me to care for animals, though i never matched her heart - up until last year, she would still walk all the way to her garden every single day to feed the feral cats that had taken up residence there. she collected bread crusts and assorted odds and ends to feed the magpies and other birds in the winter. because of her, to this day, my favourite place to walk is alongside fields, on grassy paths, picking leaves, berries, and seeds. my parents took me to the mountains and the sea, but my grandma taught me about the beauty that surrounds us in the most mundane places. she always had a garden full of flowers as well as the practical fruits and vegetables, simply because they were beautiful.

the road we walked together a million times when i was a child

a couple trips back, after my grandfather's death, my grandmother opened up and talked about her marriage, which had been awful. i never really liked my grandfather and her stories did nothing to change my mind. after his death my grandmother stopped wearing patched and darned house-coats and started dressing fashionably, finally wearing all the things that had always been in her closet, but which seemed to be waiting for the blessed days of freedom. years fell away from her; she looked better, younger, happier. she still had her son to parent, but my grandfather's death was evidently a blessing.

my mom has always had a fraught relationship with her mother-in-law. my father's relationship with my grandmother was less than ideal - she was great with children, but lacked the ability to let them grow up into independence. my uncle, who died in recent years, remained her small wayward son despite being an elderly man with a serious drinking problem. my father was a dutiful son who phoned his mother once a week, and visited once a year, but had very little to say to her besides talking about the weather - he tried, and she tried, but the walls between them were too high. i was the beloved (and only) grandchild who visited every 5 years or so and tried her often less than stellar best to phone once a month. but i was the person who could talk to her. i could laugh at her (gently) and point out her foibles and she would laugh alongside me. i have always known that my grandma was not the same person as my father's mother or my mother's mother-in-law. i got a different view of her. we approached each other differently. i think i got her very best.

my last visit in 2014

i was in poland two weeks ago and made a conscious decision not to visit her - i could have seen her one last time, but i didn't think i had the time. i am making a conscious decision now not to feel guilty about that - the feelings would overwhelm me if i let them and nothing would change. i can't seem to be able to rustle up any tears. i can't seem to feel any deep emotion. but i know that the sorrow is there and it is real and i will miss her and i will remember her and i will see so many things through the prism of all that she taught me.

 my favourite sort of walk


goodbye, grandma - even though your view of the afterlife was pretty close to mine, still, i hope the gardens in heaven are beautiful!


Lucy said...

My nieces always say that their memories of my mum, with whom they spent long holidays, were so much happier and more straightforward than those of her children, their mum and myself especially, and we conclude she was a better grandmother, or a happier and easier one anyway, than she was a mother.

When my sister died suddenly, and there was the question of flying out to New Zealand to be at her funeral, I felt twinges of guilt - and perhaps a small amount of external pressure - about not doing so.(In fact an Icelandic volcano intervened and made it impossible, and I've always felt a degree of gratitude to Eyjafjallajokull for that!). But on that occasion, funeral attendance really didn't seem to be the point, though other times it has been important.

I like very much reading what you say so vividly and lovingly about your grandmother; these memories of the people with whom we got it right are to be treasured. So tears and guilt are not a duty, I think, but you can allow yourself peace of mind and to enjoy such good memories.

Happy New Year to you and Mr Monkey.

Zhoen said...

Funerals are too late, even last minute visits so often. And grief is fickle and stubborn, will not be made to fit any culture's forms.

Thank you for telling the story, we'll just sit here and listen and nod and murmur understanding.

Geneviève Goggin said...

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly and profoundly. I'm sad you lost your grandma. And glad you have so many memories to hold onto.

Tom said...

A very moving, and human, obituary. Our thoughts and love are with you at this sad time.

Joan said...

So sad about your grandmother! The guilt about not visiting won't help you or her. I also declined one last visit to my father on a trip to PEI and he passed a couple of weeks later, so I understand the feeling.

Funerals are for the living. If it won't help you to attend, then that's the answer.