Posted on July 20th, 2012
I have a necklace my maternal grandmother bequeathed to me. She bought it in Greece, on a long-ago voyage. Whenever I wear it, I get compliments on it. I say, “It used to be my grandmother’s,” and people are taken aback, because it’s so funky and contemporary-looking. I’ve always simply said, “She’s a really stylish lady.”
About eight years ago, Gramma Sue, as she’s known to us, endeavoured to write down the story of her life, and then recorded herself reading it.
Last Saturday, she shed her mortality. With it, she shed her blindness, her immobility, her increasing forgetfulness, and the frail, uncomfortable husk of her body.
Over the past few days, listening to her voice reading her story, it was wonderful to hear her as I will always remember her: articulate, philosophical, funny, and vital – not to mention grammatically impeccable.
When we, her grandchildren, picture her life as she told it, it’s like something out of a movie. In high school in Indiana, she was popular, a go-getter, participating in (and usually leading) honor societies, student council, social club, dramatic club. When she was eighteen, she read the book Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and developed a passionate ambition to fly a plane. She was turned down at age 19 for a flight-training course offered by the government, but enjoyed working for an airline for several years. (She worked in reservations, which had always been done exclusively by men; she told United Airlines that they would need women in these jobs as the war drew away the men, and they might as well start with her, so they did!)
She was also intelligent, full of humour, and beautiful, with a vivacious, twinkly smile – drawing comparisons to pin-up girls – and was understandably sought-after. But she didn’t date – or kiss – just anyone. In her love life, she wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the real thing.
She met Frank on a blind date set up by her sister; he was rooming with a friend’s family. She didn’t particularly want to go on the date, and did not have very high expectations. On seeing his picture, she dismissed him as “too handsome – probably spoiled”.
But eventually she assented, and found herself “intrigued” by this young engineer, the only child of a widowed mother, who had been president of his class at the University of New Mexico. For him, she was told later, it was love at first sight. For her, it may have been weeks, but maybe only days, before she knew she was smitten. But she wouldn’t say “I love you” until she knew it was for keeps.
Fortunately for both of them, it was.
Sue and Frank fell head-over-heels in love as World War II took hold across the ocean. The war loomed – their wedding cake was only accomplished with the generous donation of sugar rations – but they were wrapped in euphoria, and everything they saw and touched was magical.
It was while Sue was pregnant with their first child (my mother) that Frank, already enlisted in the Navy, was sent to New York to learn naval engineering. After little Bevie was born, Mama and baby did their best to be as near Daddy as they could, while he went through different phases of training.
They were on their way to California so that Frank could take up his commission for active duty in the Pacific when they got the news: the war was over. Thank heaven.
Sue gave birth to two more children, a daughter and a son. All three were (and are) brilliant and beautiful.
For a many years, Sue and Frank lived happily ever after. Their children grew up in a happy home, and in time, made their own homes for themselves. Sue and Frank were part of Friendship Force, and travelled all over the world together, as well as graciously hosting many an international visitor. They retired to a home they designed and built themselves in the bosom of Texas hill country. As a retiree, Sue finally achieved her dream of getting her pilot’s license.
When I think of my Gramma Sue and Daddo together, I remember what a team they were. Together, they played ping-pong; they hiked all over Hill Country; they played bridge with friends; they ran a beautiful household. They had a motor boat called “Sweet Sue”, and taught their grandchildren to waterski, one after another – Daddo as the boat captain, and Gramma Sue as the ski instructor. (When I tell people that my grandmother taught me to waterski – slalom-style on one ski – when I was 17 and she was 74, their jaws drop.)
My Daddo smoked for most of his life. Although he quit smoking when I was still a kid, his lungs were never healthy. They were the part of him that eventually caused his death, fifteen years ago. He had been sick for a while, but you can never be ready to lose your true love. He died in his wife’s arms. Without him, Gramma Sue was “broken, crippled, paralyzed, lost.” Luckily, she was also brave.
My amazing grandma never lost her sparkle, nor her sense of humour. She went through some very hard times, moving away from her wonderful home, coming up to the cold North to be near her daughters… but she was still so stylish, hospitable, interesting, dynamic. Her smile was just as effervescent, and her giggle just as girlish.
(She was also small, fairylike – though not quite as tiny as she looks on this giant chair.)
The past several years have been the hardest. She fractured her hip – while taking a bike ride, of course – which was the beginning of mobility troubles (that would eventually put her in a wheelchair). Macular degeneration later robbed her of her eyesight, and thus many of her beloved hobbies: writing, reading, bridge, etc. We have mourned these losses along with her.
In the past months, more and more of her lucidity and memories evaded her. Even so, she could still insert a well-timed pun into a conversation. She would still correct your grammar if you needed it. She was still lively and interesting, as the staff at the assisted-living home would attest. She never forgot who her great-grandson was, and delighted in his hugs and the sound of his voice, even though she couldn’t see him. On my last visit with her, she seemed thrilled to put her hands on my round belly and know there was another great-grandchild in there.
I think she has been ready to go for a long time. She loved all of us, but she never stopped missing her Frank.
It’s wonderful to think of the two of them together again, finally, out in the great unknown. Both of them free of ailments, perfect.
I miss you, Gramma Sue. You’ll inspire me for always. I love you.