It is the day before Mother’s Day. Instead of gathering family together with overpriced cards and a home-cooked brunch, we are winding through the hill-covered back roads to the cemetery, the same cemetery where we buried my Grandpa, nearly eighteen years ago, another lifetime. It’s not in a bustling part of town and, other than the obvious, there aren’t too many occasions for me to visit the area. But, as we continue to drive, I realize that the route is surprisingly familiar. My brain remembers and my body reminds me that I’ve been here before, I’ve driven past these same fields, for the very same purpose: to bury a grandparent. With each bend in the road memories nearly two decades old suddenly feel less and less distant.
My Grandma’s small celebration of life is being held inside the property’s one-room stone mausoleum. I enter the building, wishing I would have thrown my winter coat in the car, just in case. Today is gloomy, gray, and unseasonably chilly, even for Northeast Ohio. With bare legs and this year’s Easter dress, the building’s cave-like temperature is only making all of this more uncomfortable. The frigid air and the unfortunate fact that there are no restrooms on site have me wishing for the completion of her eulogy.
Although the sting of her death is still so fresh, we have been gradually mourning her loss for years. Grandma suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and it slowly and relentlessly stole away pieces of our family. In the end, it left her mostly unrecognizable, with the exception of her sass; that she kept until the bitter end. Beginning first with her diagnosis and then again with each display of regression, I found myself contemplating what she leaves behind. Each time I circle back around to us, the family she built.
Some of my fondest memories of childhood were the days Mom would load up my siblings and me and we’d head over to visit Grandma and Gramps.They had a long covered back porch that spanned the entire length of their house, complete with a child-sized table and chairs set over in the corner, and along the far wall hung a wooden swing.Three seasons of the year, we would congregate out back. It wasn’t unusual to be joined by a friend “just stopping by” and in need of a glass of Grandma’s perfectly puckery lemonade, or by Dad popping in to check on his aging parents, grabbing a fistful of jellybeans from the oversized jar on his way through. Days on that back porch were slow and sweet, and the low-pitched, rhythmic groan of that swing serves as the backdrop to clusters of cherished memories.
Her holiday tables had a similar draw and, while it has been many years since Grandma hosted a formal meal beneath the crystal chandelier that required frequent and tedious cleaning, I think back on those celebrations fondly and with vivid recollection. Around her table, pies were plentiful and love abounded. And yet I see that she was doing so much more than providing us with a meal; she was drawing us together, investing in our family, in ways that are still making an impact thirty years later.
Always, when the meal was over and the dishes were piled high, cleaning up together was a family affair. Mom and Grandma would hand wash and dry the fine china. My sister and I were always assigned the task of polishing the golden flatware, then placing each piece in its rightful home in the two-tier velvet-lined box. To two little girls, this responsibility felt as if we were handling precious golden treasure. As an adult, this feeling hasn’t changed; Grandma’s golden set is now tucked away in my own home, treasure indeed. While the two of us worked sorting at the dining room table, Dad and Gramps were sitting at the kitchen table, dealing with whatever was remaining of the twenty-five pound turkey. (Grandma never cooked a small bird, even for a small crowd.) Father and son would sit around the kitchen table and sort light meat from dark, palatable leftovers from remaining scraps. When there was nothing left of the bird but a platter piled high with bones, Grandma would fill a paper plate with bits and pieces of the meat that didn’t make it to the leftovers pile. This plate she would carry out back, passed the porch and across the open field, leaving it “for the birds,” as she would say.
After the holiday season had passed and summer was well underway, we would gather together as a family again, out on her back porch. With metal pails in hand we trekked out across the back field, just beyond the laundry line that doubled as a badminton net, to the grouping of three hearty blueberry bushes. Plink!….Plink! Plink! Our pails would sing as we worked in the sweltering summer sun, making memories as sweet as the pies our pickings would soon yield.
But harvest day involved much more than simply picking and plinking the ripe berries. There was still much work to do after the initial haul. We had to weed out any lingering leaves and stems, then wash the berries and divide them up to be stored in large zipper bags, labeling and freezing the portions for use all throughout the year. It took a group effort and was a day we would spend all year anticipating, and then, as soon as it ended, was a day we’d reminisce about until the following harvest. It was on these hot summer afternoons that I saw a beautiful picture of community, family gathered together, spanning generations, with many hands making light work…and, soon enough, making the most delicious blueberry pies.
Then we started losing her, bit by bit, as Alzheimer’s clouded her mind and stole her away. Her decline spanned several years, more still if you consider the years of subtle deterioration before her official diagnosis. Even while she was losing pieces of herself, she still had a knack for bringing us together as a family. She just couldn’t help it; it was what she did, because gathering us together was what she valued.
Through her illness, our family shouldered her daily responsibilities. My dad stopped by her home to check on her, daily and sometimes more, since she became a widow many years before and then even more frequently following her diagnosis. My aunt and uncle moved in to my Grandmother’s house to provide around-the-clock care, and in doing so we mercifully avoided her placement in an assisted living facility. For five years my dad spent every evening at Grandma’s, getting her settled safely into bed for the night. As her health deteriorated, her family strengthened. Past tensions and silent passages of time blossomed into something breathtakingly beautiful as we witnessed relationships restored. Eventually, Grandma would end up passing away in her own home, in her own room, surrounded by her own people, just as she’d wanted.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder in these pews, listening as the pastor recounts a sliver of Grandma’s story, I smile through tear-blurred eyes. Collectively gathered, we are not a large group by any means. Together we fill less than three pews, and with wiggle room to spare. She’s laying up ahead of us, flanked by a lifetime’s worth of photographs, snapshots carefully curated and displayed on easels. We’re all here, the day before Mother’s Day. She’s managed to bring us together again, just as she’s done so many times before.
Dedicated to my Grandmother, Loretta Jones
February 2, 1937 – May 8, 2019
This piece was originally published in 2019 by The Kindred Voice magazine as part of their Community issue.