Some of you may recall that I’ve written about my visits with her every summer. Getting Old is not for Sissies She was 96 years old and passed peacefully in her sleep. It’s a blessing to know that her passing was quiet and quick. It’s heartbreaking for me to accept that she is no longer with us. A physical and emotional presence that reminded me every day to be my best self, even when I wasn’t.
This past week our family came together in her hometown of Bloomington, Illinois to celebrate her life and lay her to rest. We are a family strong in Catholic roots, and my Nanny was a devout Christian Catholic woman to her core. So, as you would expect, her service included a Catholic mass in the church where she was raised, and where she also raised her family. I was baptized in this church. My parents were married in this church. My grandfather was memorialized in this church. Our family’s life is intricately entwined with sacraments and services that took place in this church. I spent countless Sundays sitting in the pew next to her, learning how to participate in the Catholic mass by watching my grandmother. Memorizing the responses, imitating her motions of kneel, stand, sit. Kneel, stand, sit. This particular house of God has immeasurable significance for me in terms of emotional and physical memories. To stand in the sanctuary, in front of her casket, was almost more than I could bear knowing it would most likely be the last time I ever had cause to visit this place.
When the service started I was beside myself with emotion. As were the rest of my family. My Nanny meant so much to each and every one of us. We were all trying to manage our grief. The service was lovely, but something was missing. The priest gave the eulogy for my grandmother. This is not common. Typically, a family member would do it. But for some reason no family member had been identified or asked prior to the service to give the eulogy. I don’t know why, and wouldn’t dream of questioning the decision because I was not the one responsible for planning the service. But it felt incomplete. The priest did his best to honor my grandmother, but he did not know her. He could not convey with any depth of emotion or real intimacy the woman that she was, or what she meant to all of us.
I know I wouldn’t have been able to stand at the alter and talk about her without completely breaking down, and I’m talking about some serious ugly crying. And because I need closure I decided to write my own eulogy, of a sort, honoring her and my memory of her. So, this is what I would have wanted people to know about my grandmother….
Kathryn, or Kay, as most people knew her was born in June of 1921. She was an Irish Catholic Midwestern girl who grew up during the Great Depression. She often told stories about the depression, describing food shortages and what little money most families earned at that time. She talked about having one pair of stockings that she had to wash out by hand every night so she could wear them again the next day. She told these stories in an attempt to help us understand how good we had it growing up. I’m embarrassed to say that at the time we were just horrified to learn that she had to live without things like Doritos and Taco Bell.
My Nanny was very meticulous with her appearance. She wasn’t necessarily vain, but it was extremely important that she always look her best. Perhaps this was something learned during the depression, as she had so little material possessions or clothing. She learned to work with what she had. She did her hair and make up every day. She pressed her blouse and her slacks. She sewed clothes for herself and her children. Once, she made herself a beautiful camel colored wool-lined dress coat. She loved cashmere turtle-neck sweaters and wool blazers. She once made my cousin and I matching plaid, wool, pleated skirts to wear to Christmas Eve Mass. I would give anything to have that skirt back. She also slaved to ensure that her husband and children went out into the community every day as representatives of her household. They were meticulously dressed, pressed, and laundered. At her funeral service my cousins and I were laughing and trading stories. One cousin told me that she came to Nanny’s house one day wearing a pair of ripped and torn jeans. Nanny asked her if she bought the jeans like that, and when she confirmed that she did, Nanny said, “Poor girl. Can’t even afford to buy a whole pair of pants.”
She kept her home in the same meticulous manner. She made her bed every day. Hospital corners. She cooked and baked almost every meal from scratch and she always had a cake or pie prepared in case someone dropped by and she needed to offer them something. She knew how to refinish wood floors, kept a garden, and everything had it’s place. She tried to teach me the importance of these things. As a teenager I would laugh. Make my bed every day? Well, that was just crazy talk. But when I stepped into her home I would breath in the smell of freshness, with a hint of bleach, and it was comforting. I loved knowing that I would crawl into a bed that night with freshly washed and ironed sheets. And that I would wake up to the sound of eggs frying in the pan and the smell of biscuits coming out of the oven. My own childhood home was often chaotic and unorganized, so being in her home provided a sense of old fashioned comfort.
Given that my Nanny was a devout Catholic woman, she was truly a servant of God. She took her responsibility as a Christian seriously and every moment was a teachable moment. She prayed openly for everyone. She and my grandfather organized and coordinated a prayer group every week, and they were huge members of the charismatic movement within the Catholic church. No one loved Jesus more than my Nanny. Last summer when I was visiting her, she was worrying quite a bit about family members, and I said to her, “You know what you need to do. Just give it to God and everything will be ok.” That’s what she would have said to me. She looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “You have been listening to me all these years!!!!” Even when I didn’t want to, I was listening.
I have a strong personality, much like my grandfather. Nanny would always remind me that my tongue could be sharper than a sword. She would say, “Mind your words. They are like feathers, and once you let them go, the wind takes them and you can never get them back.” I didn’t want to hear it at the time, but over the years I found myself measuring my actions and words by whether or not she would approve. I can honestly say that in those moments where I held back, or didn’t do something impulsive because I knew she would disapprove, I never once regretted the choice. The thought of doing something that might embarrass her was unacceptable. She would often say to me, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and that covers a lot of territory.” Of course, I often did thing she wouldn’t do, and in my adult years I would sometimes tell her stories of my bad behavior. Sometimes she would laugh and other times she would roll her eyes and say, “Well, I will pray for you.”
She loved the Lawrence Welk Show. She would sing at the top of her lungs while cooking or doing housework. She made me homemade mashed potatoes and gravy every Sunday because she knew it was my favorite. She helped my grandfather manage their drive-in restaurant. She coached the young people who worked for her at the restaurant on how to mind their manners, develop a strong work ethic, and represent their employer and community with pride and dignity. She was an old fashioned, fierce, Godly woman who loved her family and loved her Jesus. She refused to talk poorly about others because she felt it was a terrible sin. She taught me about faith, unconditional love and how to respect myself and others through her actions. She could talk the talk and walk the walk. She held her loved ones to a high standard, and she voiced her disapproval when we fell short. But there was always love. She was love and light, with a little bit of sass.
The last time I saw her prior to her passing was last July during our annual summer trip. Her Alzheimer’s was progressing rapidly and she had become more emotional and confused. I knew it was the last time we would make the trip as a family. Too many people in the room made for a rough afternoon. As I was leaving and saying good-bye, she was the most distant she had ever been, like she was saying good-bye to the mail man. At the door as I was about to walk out, I turned around and said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” In an instant she lit up from the inside and said, “And that covers a lot of territory.”
She was laughing as I closed the door behind me.