“Kim, Grandma Beach died last night,” my mother’s voice said. I had picked up the phone expecting to hear anything but that. I should have known something had happened. My mother rarely calls me at work.
Although it happened only three years ago, already I can’t remember what I said next. I know my mom said something like “everyone will understand if you don’t come home. It’s such short notice.” I remember wondering why she had said that, feeling the only place I wanted to be was home.
I know I didn’t cry. Not then. Instead, I calmly walked across the building to my husband’s office. “My Grandma Beach died,” I said. Tears stung my eyes, but none escaped down my cheeks. “Sweetie, I am so sorry,” he said. I knew he understood more than anyone what I was going through. He had lost his own grandmother a few years before. But for me, it was much different. We had often talked about my regrets, my mistakes.
We began planning our trip back to New York. We would miss the museum’s Holiday Open House, and the opening for my latest exhibition “It’s Music To My Ears.” But such things hardly mattered.
As I started to comprehend what a Beach family gathering would mean, my heart began to race. What if my father showed up? It had been years since he had removed himself from my life. I had no idea where he was, or if anyone would even bother to tell him his mother was dead. I doubted he would care. I began to panic, wondering what I would say if I saw him. It wasn’t the first time a funeral had reunited us. Fifteen years before at my cousin’s funeral, I had been seated next to a shaggy, bearded man who vaguely resembled my father. It turns out he had been living in Costa Rica, and had hit it big in the textile industry. He gave my mother a corporate check for $14,000 in back child support. It bounced.
I don’t really know what my husband might have been thinking. He had never met my father. I have often wondered what it would be like never to have met your father-in-law.
The next morning as we headed back east, my catharsis was just beginning. Guilt consumed me. I had not been the kind of granddaughter I had always wanted to be.
A few years before, in the strange place between graduate school and starting my first job, I was staying at my mother’s. It was only a few days, but it seemed much longer. I was moving to a new city with my fiancé, where we would start our careers. It was scary and exhilarating all at once. The future was full of promise, of all the lives we’d change with our fresh degrees in hand.
I can’t remember where we had been, but I remember coming home to the sound of my aunt’s voice on my mother’s answering machine, telling us my grandmother had fallen. She was in the hospital. My sister and I went right out to see her. My aunts and uncles were gathered in the waiting room. They warned me her face was swollen and bruised, but they kept saying she was “still Grandma,” as if I was 4 instead of 24.
When I first saw her lying in that bed, I admit I was startled. But nothing could prepare me for the conversation.
I asked if she was feeling okay. She said something I can’t recall, but her next words I will never forget. “Are you a friend of Donna’s?” she asked.
Though we all lived in the same city, after my parents’ divorce we didn’t see much of my dad’s side of the family. When I came home for short breaks from college, I often didn’t bother to let them know I was in town. There were too many other things to do – visit my mom’s family, catch up with old friends, hang out with my sister.
My husband often tells me I can’t blame myself. “You were only a kid,” he says. It was up to someone else to keep you in touch with the family.
But my father was the missing link. He had been in and out of my life so many times. When he was there, we would get together for holidays and birthdays and weddings. When he wasn’t there, they seemed to forget about me as much as I forgot about them.
I always managed to write letters. After her death, my aunts found a few of my old letters from college and gave them to me. I hold on to them now as a concrete symbol that I did make an effort, that I did show her I cared.
We usually got together over the summer, when there was more time to spend with everyone who pulled me in separate directions. Our get-togethers never varied. We would go to Denny’s for lunch, then to J.C. Penney’s so my grandmother could buy us something. In their retirement, my grandparents didn’t have much money, so my sister and I were always careful with what we picked out. One shopping trip, I fell in love with a blue barn coat with brown corduroy cuffs. It was a little more than I wanted to ask for, so I picked out a shirt and told my grandmother I would buy the coat with my own money. She wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted she buy the coat for me, even after looking at it and asking, “Are you SURE that’s the coat you want?” I knew she hated it as much as I loved it. I still think of her when I wear it.
As I neared the end of college, our trips started to become a little strange. My grandmother stopped reading the menu, and always just ordered what the person before her had wanted. “I’ll have that too,” she would say. For years she had been telling us the same stories, but now she was repeating herself more often, sometimes within a few minutes. When we would go to the store, she couldn’t quite remember if Grandpa was going to meet us out front, as he always did. My sister and I worried about her, but didn’t talk much about it.
Information trickled in now and again. Grandma had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I knew damn well what that meant, but in a way I was in denial. I knew what it would lead to, and yet I could not accept that in my own life. For MY grandmother, it just meant she would be confused now and then, and order things she usually wouldn’t have eaten.
Until that day in the hospital, when I stood there and my grandmother didn’t know who I was.
After that, I made an unconscious decision not to visit her again. That may sound cold, but I justified it by saying she wouldn’t know who I was, or even remember that someone had been there minutes after I left. But it was more for selfish reasons. I couldn’t stand visiting my grandmother when she had no idea who I was. It was too painful, so I took the easy way out.
More than three years passed. I would receive occasional updates from the family, but not much changed. She only got worse. When I came home, I busied myself visiting my mom’s side of the family, trying to pretend that my Grandma Beach was not wasting away in a nursing home I passed regularly going to and from my mother’s house.
And then came that call. It was over. There was not going to be a cure in her lifetime. I was not going to get a chance to be the granddaughter I had been to my other set of grandparents. There was no time left.
We met my mom and sister at my mother’s house, then drove together to the funeral home. The snow was falling. I can’t remember when I found out my father wasn’t going to be there. I do remember being relieved.
As we went inside, I was nervous to see the family I had neglected. My cousins were all grown up. My aunts and uncles were slightly older versions of themselves.
We entered the room with the casket. I glanced at her right away. I don’t know if I would have recognized her if I had passed her on the street. In just a few years she had aged decades. Her hair had been dark gray since I was born, but now it was snow white.
We chatted with the rest of the family, and my eyes avoided the casket. People wondered how I liked my new job, how married life was treating us.
The funeral home was very busy. Of course, I had no friends left in town, so they weren’t coming to support me. No one, actually, came for me. I had left my hometown, and everyone I had known scattered to the four winds. Since my cousin and uncle were police officers, the entire department came to pay their respects. Many who filed past were strangers to me.
After all of the people had come and gone, I walked up to the casket with my sister. As we looked down at her, I put my arm around my sister. Though I am three years older, she is much taller than me. We stood there, without saying a word.
Afterwards, we went back to my grandmother’s house. For me, it was like stepping back in time. Nothing had changed since the last time I had visited, which was years before.
The same framed photos of my sister and I sat on the small upright piano. A portrait of my great grandfather hung above the couch, the very same one whose eyes had followed me around the room as a child, forcing me to ask my grandmother to remove it when I spent the night. The same behemoth couch occupied the far end of the living room, with end tables featuring the same knickknacks that had always been there. I saw the “#1 Grandfather” wall hanging I had bought for pennies at the school Christmas fair in 3rd grade, the mysterious black and white photos of a dandelion seed floating through the air that had mystified me as a child. I was astonished at how time had not been allowed to march through this home. It was just as my grandmother had always kept it, right down to her Walmart greeter nametag hanging in her bedroom.
Having everything in its rightful place was comforting to me, even though it was eerie at the same time. I expected my grandmother to come around the corner, asking what we wanted to drink for dinner. This was quintessentially her house, like she had never left it, though she had moved into a nursing home three years before.
That night, we told stories that made us all laugh. My sister and I remembered the times we came over as little girls and covered the kitchen with flour while making cookies with my grandmother. Then the three of us would get lemonade and go outside to sit in the shade of the giant tree in the front yard while Grandpa cleaned up our mess. He never complained. Not even once.
I told the story of when my grandmother let my sister make the garlic bread. She was just three years old, and dumped most of the garlic on the bread. At six years old, I reeked of garlic for days after eating it!
My aunts filled in some of the blanks of what had happened over the past few years, things my grandmother had done or said during her battle with illness. They told us that my grandfather hadn’t understood her disease, and had continued to believe she would get better and come home to him.
The next morning, the family gathered in the parlor of the church before the services. The same man who had baptized and married me would conduct Grandma’s funeral. As the time neared, he asked if we were ready to go in.
As we entered, I was astonished to see an empty church. Only three people had come. Two were my aunt’s mother and sister. The other lady I had never seen before. The family crowded into the first three pews, which seemed ridiculous to me, since there were so many empty seats.
The service was beautiful. Since the Reverend had known her personally, he was able to tell stories about her life, the kind of person she was, and what she believed in. Though I have strayed far from religion, his presence there was an important touchstone for me. I was comforted by his words.
The family had decided my male cousins would act as pallbearers, and the three granddaughters would follow behind. It was then that my sister and I broke down in tears. I put my arm around her, as I had the night before, and felt every much the part of an older sister. I wanted to comfort her, but I needed it as much as she did. The boys took her out of the church and down the steps, and my sister and I stood in the vestibule. My mother came down the aisle then and the three of us hugged, sobbing the whole time.
That Christmas, we decided to get together with the Beaches on December 26. We gathered at my grandparents’ house again, and this time I was prepared for the time capsule of the scene inside. I looked forward to seeing all of her things still there, almost as if she was not gone. It wasn’t as if my grandmother consciously kept things the same. I think it simply never occurred to her to change anything. In our newfound grief, knowing the house remained the same gave me great comfort.
A year passed, and we decided to continue our new holiday tradition. In the meantime, a woman had been hired to take care of my grandfather, who could no longer get along on his own. I was horrified to find that my grandmother’s house had been invaded by a stranger, who had the nerve to move my grandmother’s things and bring in her own furniture.
The sturdy, hideous couch had been replaced by something foreign in that setting. A computer sat in the corner of the living room. But worst of all, the house smelled of smoke! Since I could remember, my grandfather had bummed cigarettes from his sons, smoking with them out on the porch because my grandmother wouldn’t allow it in the house. I think she knew my grandfather never quit, but she never let on. She would have been mortified to know that he and a strange woman were smoking in her home.
Recently, that woman gave my family her resignation, forcing them to make some tough decisions. When they told my grandfather he would have to move to a nursing home, he cried.
Although it has now been slightly altered, knowing that the house was still there has kept me from facing the reality that an era of my life is truly over. I grew up in many places, none of them for more than a few years. My other grandparents’ home has changed with the styles of the time. It holds many memories for me, but not in the same way. Old pictures in that house seem like they came from another time, because so much has changed over the years. I have a framed photograph in my house now, sitting on Grandma Beach’s lap on that couch. I was two years old, and it looked no different than the day of her funeral nearly 30 years later.
I think of her often, especially when I’ve done something at work I know she would have been proud of. I have connected with one of her nieces, who sent me old family photos I never knew existed. I have many questions to ask my grandmother about growing up in Oklahoma, something she rarely talked about. Not long ago, I realized we would have had a lot in common, Grandma and me. She moved far away from her family and friends, just as I have. I wish we had gotten the chance to talk about that, and so many other things.
I am hoping to get something from the house that reminds me of her. As a curator, objects are very important to me. But despite the significance of tangible things, memories are far more important. And as the house is cleaned out and put on the market for the first time since my grandparents built it, I will treasure my memories, the stories I have to share, and the way my heart smiles when I think of her. I can still hear her voice saying, “Kimmy, I have lived a good life.” And I believe that she did.