Remembering Grandma

I am sitting here watching my beloved Michigan Wolverines stomp all over Penn State, and I can’t help remembering Grandma. Six years ago today, I went to work extremely excited. I was leaving right after work to head home for the weekend. A friend of mine had given me tickets to the Michigan-Bowling Green game up at the Big House and I was taking my mom. I have been a Michigan football fan since I was a little kid and I went to BG, so the best of both worlds. Plus, my mother’s Alzheimer’s was starting to show more and more, so I knew such outings were quickly going to end.

Halfway through the morning, my phone started screaming, because I had forgotten to turn off the sound. I saw it was my aunt, and I cringed. I looked at my assistant and said, “I know what this means, but I will wait until after dismissal to listen to it.”

My grandmother was 95 and had just come down with pneumonia after trying to recover from a broken back. We all know what usually happens with people at that age who get pneumonia. I was just so grateful that I had made it home not even two weeks prior to see her for her birthday. In fact, she kicked me out after lunch because the Michigan-Notre Dame game was on, and she thought I needed to home to watch it.

After morning dismissal, I sat on the bench and pulled out my phone to listen to my voice mail. As I had feared, Grandma had passed away that morning. She got up, went to the bathroom, got back into bed and never got up again. I am still teary thinking about that moment, which I had literally dreamed about many times, sitting in that exact spot and getting that message.

I touched base with my father and made arrangements to miss the entire next week of work. It was going to take time to get everyone together to have the memorial service. My coworkers made sure I had food before I left and gave me their well wishes. I headed home and I fumbled as I tried to now pack for a full week instead of just a weekend. Robotically I got into the car and headed west, remembering Grandma and 33 years together.

Soon after I was born, my parents decided to take a new road in life, opening their own furniture business. They had actually met at Dad’s family’s furniture store. And for many reasons, Dad wanted his own. So, while they were building the store and apartment, we moved in with my grandparents and stayed for about a year or so.

Visiting the store in progress with Grandma and Grandpa
Visiting the store in progress with Grandma and Grandpa

After my parents started their store, I still spent a lot of time with my grandmother. If our parents were busy at the store, she would pick us up from school. Mom played the church organ, so Grandma picked us up after first service and fed us lunch, then we played games or read until Mom or Dad would come pick us up. She took us to the library and to Disney movies. I played dress up with her shoes until I outgrew them. I was fascinated by the differences between my city grandmother and my mom’s mother, who was a farmer’s wife.

She had a great smile.
She had a great smile.

As I started getting older, she was patient while I pored over family albums and asked a million questions about all of these people I didn’t know. My only regret is that I never wrote them down.

In high school, I still enjoyed spending time with my grandmother, which isn’t really a normal thing. My parents sold their business at the end of my senior year of high school and moved us 25 miles south. I still wanted to spend time with friends, and my grandmother let me stay over at her condo, even though I was coming in at 2 and 3 a.m. Our agreement was she wouldn’t tell my mother how long I had been out, as long as I didn’t tell my parents that her boyfriend was spending the night.

me-with-grandma-at-graduation

In college, I still cherished our family time at holidays. When I started teaching Montessori, I was at a school just a couple of miles away. We often got together for dinner. The only time we missed our dinner was on her birthday, September 11, 2001. We decided considering the circumstances, I was better off heading straight home as soon as possible.

That last birthday of hers that we spent together was extremely difficult. I knew when I hugged her goodbye and said that I would be back at Thanksgiving that we weren’t going to see each other again. And I remember the look in her eyes that said the same, though neither one of us would voice it.

Christmas 2009
Christmas 2009

Even after I moved to New York, I made regular visits back home. I never missed her birthday. We spent all holidays together. I would spend hours at her apartment, just sitting there. We would chat, but then sometimes sit in silence. In fact, after she died, she came back to me in a dream and told me I had to just sit there. We were just going to sit together, and if I spoke, she would leave. I opened my mouth and said, “But I have so many more questions for you.”

She replied, “I told you not to speak. Now I have to go.” And she vanished.

When my mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, I often confided in my grandmother, as I knew my father was also doing. She really became a surrogate mother for me at that point. We were so close, that when her brother took a turn for the worse, having contracted pneumonia after knee surgery at the age of about 88, I was the one chosen to deliver the bad news and to drive her to Hospice to say goodbye to him. When she passed away, I was nominated by the cousins to represent all of the grandchildren in a eulogy.

Losing my grandmother meant losing a part of who I was. She’s the one who taught me to love reading. She taught me to love taking walks in nature. She taught me to be strong and to help people. I lost a confidante and a friend. It also kickstarted the worst year of my life, losing my mother to the depths of Alzheimer’s, and my father then passing away eight months later. It’s always a tough anniversary for me to acknowledge, yet I do. It’s who I am. It’s my way of acknowledging my loss while celebrating her life.

I have moved on, of course, though I still miss her every day. It isn’t a choice. When life gets tough, you put one foot in front of the other and keep soldiering on. I think she would be proud of me and I still often feel her presence, especially at this time of year. I’m going to leave you with the poem that I read at her funeral. Thank you for remembering Grandma with me.

Grandma Was…

Grandma was grilled cheese sandwiches

And freshly sliced tomatoes.

She was a half glass of milk

And eating her bananas was a no-no.

Grandma was chocolate pudding fresh on the stove

And chocolate chip cookies in the oven.

She never seemed affectionate,

But was full of so much lovin’.

Grandma was Shirley Temple movies

And lots of board games.

She knew every single card game,

Even if not all their names.

Grandma was Disney movies on the big screen

At the local movie theatres,

Always eating all of my popcorn,

And never let me treat her.

Grandma never let me climb her trees,

But I blew bubbles in the back yard.

She never seemed to discipline me,

On my best behavior I worked hard.

Grandma was walks in the cemetery

Or around her condo’s block.

She would tell me lots of stories.

I loved to hear her talk.

Grandma was Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy

And Wimbledon with Federer.

Never interrupt her TV time!

All of us knew better.

Grandma was an avid reader.

She even dabbled as a writer.

My whole life’s aspiration has been

To be just like her.

Dad’s Japanese Maple Tree

I love the Japanese maple tree. The richness of the bold red leaves provide such a great contrast in a perennial garden. They seem to be relatively hardy in partial sun and the shapes of the leaves are mesmerizing.

Japanese maple leaves close up

Back in 2004, when I was in the midst of my first growing season in what was then my new house, I dug up a small section of the yard by hand. Positioned on the side of the house between two little sidewalks going up to the front and side doors, it was really a pain for my sister to mow. (We lived together at the time, and I am allergic to the freshly cut grass.) So, she had less to mow, and I got to play with a brand new canvas of dirt.

During Clean Up Week at the end of that school year, I managed to fall off of my platform sandals and severely injure my ankle. When my parents came out the following week for a preplanned trip, I was still hobbling around on crutches. They had brought with them a ton of river stones that I had unearthed in the yard at my previous home in Ohio, and I was anxious to get them into the garden. I also wanted to get this new garden started. My father had been an avid gardener, so I trusted him to guide me in this new endeavor.

We made quite a pathetic pair as we hobbled around the local nurseries, I on my crutches and he with his cane as he favored a bum hip. Even more comical was the sight of me scooting on my butt around this patch of dirt, as we laid out the new plants and pavers that were going in. I loved the arrangement we designed together, but even more endearing was spending this quality bonding time with my father.

Over the years, the tree grew a little and provided the perfect accent to the bed. It was a variety that was designed to stay small and was often complimented by my neighbors.

In 2011, my father passed away. My world, which was already fragile for other reasons I will likely share in other stories, crumbled. I didn’t know how to process it and neglected the garden more than I should have.

In 2012, the tree didn’t bud. I kept waiting and waiting for something to happen, but it didn’t. I was devastated. Here was this piece of my father that was supposed to still be alive, and it was dead. But I couldn’t bring myself to dig it up. I only cut it back a bit and hoped.

Move forward to 2013. Again, the tree didn’t do anything. I ran into “The Tree Guy” at one of the local farmers markets, from whom I had purchased a threadleaf Japanese maple tree, and asked him about it. He was apologetic, but said sometimes they just don’t make it. I still couldn’t dig it up. The thought of doing it made me ill and a voice in my head kept telling me to leave it alone.

2014 rolled around and I knew I needed to get out to clean up that big bed. Everything was overgrown and weed trees were starting to take root. I also figured it was time to remove the dead Japanese maple tree and consider purchasing a new one to put in its place.

I discovered a miracle.

There at the bottom of the dead tree were tiny new branches starting to grow. I remember shrieking and crying and taking pictures to send to my best friend. “Dad’s tree is back! He came back!” It seemed very fragile, so I was careful to keep other plants from encroaching upon its space. I checked on it almost daily. By the end of the season, it had filled out nicely, almost like a little bush, and its glorious autumnal change was spectacular.

Dad's Japanese maple in the fall

Last year, it was still holding its own and I gave thanks every time I looked at it. A part of my dad was still here and living in my garden. Now this year, it has again filled out and thriving. Something about the wonky winter and spring that we had is making the Japanese maple tree thrive in our area this year. I still like to tell myself that Dad has a bit of a hand in it.

Dad's Japanese maple

Dad’s fifth anniversary was just this past week. For some reason, this year it hit me harder than the past few years. A lot of factors probably went into that, but I have heard that can be pretty normal for those multiples of five. I did spend some time reminiscing and mourning over those few days. The day after the anniversary, I declared that this bed was going to officially be the memorial garden to my father, and I spent several hours cleaning it out. I am proud of how it looks. I am still in love with this Japanese maple tree. It just meshes well with everything around it.

clematis japanese maple tree

I love you, Dad. I miss you every day. But your legacy will live on.

One Week Since Prince Left Us

One week ago, I came home from my part-time morning job in an office in a great mood. The sun was shining and the weather was finally warm enough for me to sit in my outdoor office and work on some other things. I had some captioning to finish and then launched into social media work. As soon as I logged on to Facebook, I saw a post from my manager that Prince had died.

Whaaaaaa?

“Holy $h!t” was my response and then I clicked, thinking it couldn’t possibly be true. More and more posts kept scrolling past, each one confirming something I couldn’t wrap my head around.

How could Prince be dead? At 57 (which didn’t seem like his possible age), he should still be raring to go. He never seemed like a druggie nor an excessive partier. I mean, I was devastated when Scott Weiland died a few months ago and wallowed for several days, but I wasn’t totally surprised. He had been a mess for years. But Prince?

2016 is going to go down as the infamous year where too many celebrities met an untimely passing. Too many beloved parts of my past have been leaving. Perhaps it is some kind of Armageddon that we didn’t know about? Weiland, Bowie, Rickman all shook me. But Prince rocked me to my core.

In a way, that makes sense as he rocked me to my core when I was a young girl. I was only 7 when Purple Rain, the movie, was released. Technically, I was too young to watch the movie. But my cousin, who is three years older, brought it over for us to watch one day. I was immediately transfixed, and didn’t fully appreciate why until last week.

Prince bared his soul to us in that movie. If I remember correctly, it was somewhat based on his life, or at least that was the impression that I had. He had some struggles finding himself and his music, getting lost along the way, as many musicians do. This was the first time that I saw someone who had mixed race parents, though that was lost on me at the time. He had to deal with abuse and protecting his mother. Then there was all of the politics involved with being a musician back then, landing your gig and finding your voice and making an impact on the fans. How do you stay true to your own craft while embracing the talents of others around you? That anguish of being so deep in love and wanting the other person to also be successful in his or her own ventures.

And then the music. With Prince, it was always the music. I couldn’t possibly fathom at the time the greatness that I saw on the screen before me. I just knew that I felt something in every single song that he sang. I couldn’t comprehend the power between his lyrics and the masterful musician behind the captivating music. I just knew that I loved all of the songs, but Purple Rain got to me every time. Yes, part of my young mind was probably entranced by the fact that Prince loved the color purple and wrote a song about purple rain. I was, and still am, totally attracted to the color purple. I am penning this post while wearing purple pajamas and sitting in my bed of purple bedding. I even had a purple car through the majority of adulthood. But there was so much more than that.

Take a look at this clip from the movie.

Watching it as an adult and really paying attention, there is so much more going on here. I knew that this was the point in the movie where he made amends for his missteps. He is apologizing to Appollonia and to Wendy and Lisa, his bandmates. This is the performance that redeems him in the eyes of the promoters and fans. That much I was able to figure out, even at a young age. But now I notice the emotion. That man wasn’t acting at that point. He is exuding raw, heartfelt emotion and love for those in his life, and is seeking repentance for his mistakes. When he sings, you can feel the power of his penance and cry inwardly for him. Or, maybe you are crying outwardly. I know I can’t watch it now without getting teary, though for me that is nothing particularly new.

Looking back now, this was perhaps the song that taught me that even pop music could have feeling. This was likely one of those moments that helped to shape who I am today, though I wouldn’t have realized it at the time. This song is often stuck in my head for one reason or another. In fact, I was just singing it to myself within a few days of Prince passing away. Once I got the news, it started to play in a loop in my head and just won’t stop. When I finally hear it on the radio or online, I get super emotional all over again.

Lately I have been seeing posts on social media complaining about people focusing more on the loss of Prince and other celebrities, instead of focusing on “real heroes” like those who gave their lives fighting for this country. Here are my thoughts on that.

Yes, we need to mourn those who give their lives to protect our rights. Yes, the media circus has been kind of crazy. I mean, I heard a ton of Prince-related conversation on NPR this week, which I was not expecting. But the thing is, celebrities like Prince are significantly more personal to us than a soldier, unless that soldier is a personal acquaintance. It sounds shallow, but it is reality. Music is the soundtrack of our lives. Songs will elicit memories, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Those memories are a part of our core being. So when one of those celebrities dies, we feel like a part of ourselves has died. You don’t have the active and live reminders of things that you cherish about yourself. It hurts.

This is not to say that I do not feel sad when soldiers die. This does not mean that I am not concerned about the flooding in Houston, which was another complaint that I saw floating around. The difference is I do not know those soldiers who have died. I may have a few acquaintances and friends who live in Houston, but I am not the one who is living there. But I do have numerous personal connections to Prince and his music.

Watching Purple Rain was one of the ways that I could pretend to be cool around my cousin, to whom I looked up because she was older, and therefore, cooler. My childhood best friend sent me a message on Facebook reminding me that the first time she had ever seen the movie was over at my house. It was one of our bonding moments and something that we alluded to for years. When Prince released Diamonds and Pearls, one of my friends was lucky enough to get her hands on the tape and dubbed a copy for me. I was over the moon when she gave it to me. When 1999 rolled around, you can bet your arse we were dancing to that all night long. (I would post a few pics from that night, but some of my college friends may not be too happy with that.)

Prince’s voice was unique, his musical stylings unable to be truly replicated. His face became as familiar to me as a personal friend or a member of my family would be. While watching videos that fateful night after I heard he had died, it was reminiscent of looking at photos of my father or grandmother, who both died five years ago. It’s that familiar face that you have memorized but want to memorize even more because you know you won’t see it anew ever again.

A week later, it still hurts. There is still a hole left inside of me and millions of his fans. We have bonded over our love and memories for a man who was the most talented musician of our lifetimes. I was never fortunate enough to see him perform live, though it was always a goal of mine some day. Instead, I will just revel in the videos that have been left behind and will still try to make sense out of all of this while reminiscing my childhood and jamming to some amazing music.