|February 15, 2000
This is the selfish story.
Not the story of a rare soul, not the poetry required to
explain her. This is the story of my failure to deliver
The problem is that I don't know how to untangle my love
for her from the anguish that death brings. And so I've
I have many photos of my grandmother, but one which is a
true image. Standing there in her white gloves and coat
next to Grandpa in the camera shop, it's the picture that
best represents who she was on the inside. Her name was
Bertha, but she hated that name and went by Polly. If you
were a child, she was Mrs. Eades. If you had met, you
would have received a proper greeting and a smile.
I got the call at work.
My mother's very reasonable tone was masking her state of
shock. The tears came unbidden. I was going to the
hospital that very afternoon to see her, knowing that it
may be my last chance. And now she was gone.
Why hadn't I gone that morning instead?
I grew up in a Washington mill town. Grandma lived in
Portland. Every Thanksgiving and a few other times a
year, we'd pile into the station wagon and make the trek
to the city. The Union Pacific Railyard, the old iron
bridges traversing the Willamette River and the Coliseum
slid past the car windows. And as the freeway arced up
and up, just before sweeping east, the skyline shone in
the night with the great White Stag neon sign four
stories high all but singing, welcome to the city.
And in that way, this was her city.
"We waited for you like one hog waits for
another", she'd say if you were late to dinner, with
a mock hillbilly affect, belying her refined manner. The
good china is out, because that's why you have it. One
time my sister broke a plate and everything stopped for a
moment. Grandma dismissed it, helping her clean it up and
reassuring her that it was just a plate.
I drove in silence from my work across the city to her
house. I found my older sister there, tears staining her
face. Soon my mother arrived, with an unsettled and
distracted look. She had just made the most difficult
decision a child ever has to make for their parent.
No one looked in each others eyes.
We knew that this day would come but somehow it still
left us uncomprehending.
And then my uncles arrived (whom I
love and respect).
Nonchalant. Reasoned. Even talkative. I know they loved
her and I know that this was a shield for them. But on
that day I hated them for that.
It wasn't until late in her life that I began to learn of
her life before grandparenthood. She was born to
Norwegian parents in Illinois who couldn't care for her
and gave her up for adoption.
Her adopted father administered federal lands. She spent
a lot of her growing up years in Montana. One of her
childhood memories was of an Indian woman who came to the
door in a buckskin dress asking for food. Another time
when her father was away on work, she was piled into a
Model T Ford to pursue horse thieves. As the dark
descended, a family friend with a lantern sat on the hood
and yelled out "stop!" as they skidded to a
halt just feet from the lip of a cliff.
Her parents sent her to college in Boston. She came back
to teach physical education at an eastern Washington
school. There is a picture of her in the yearbook in a
fine leather jacket. In her early twenties, she looked
the age of many of the students. With a sly smile,
"One of the boys asked me for a date".
Inside I cringed as my cousin phoned the newspaper for
obituary requirements. She filled in the blanks verbally,
out loud as she wrote down the facts of my Grandmother's
life, the ones that meant nothing. The ones that would be
saved for all time in the paper's archives.
She lived in the same house for more than forty years. As
everything in life shifted, tilted and turned, her home
was a sanctuary of sorts, barely acknowledging the
passage of time. Two crossed swords in scabbards hung
over the fireplace right above a mantelpiece clock that
hadn't worked in years. One was a great saber from the
Civil War, a real weapon; the other a ceremonial
officer's sword from the Mexican-American War that had a
whistle built into the guard which was used to call the
men to attention.
Asian art, gifts from her sons who served there in the
military, adorned the living room. A pair of simple
paintings of a doe, a ceramic of a seated Japanese elder
eating pieces of fish from a skewer.
Her home was at once worldly and domestic, comforting.
She wasn't shy about death. In fact, I thought it odd how
she would bring it up when we were little. My younger
sister was fascinated with Grandma's music box. It played
a Mozart minuet. So Grandma promised it would be hers
after she died.
We were headed to Grandma's church. For years she had
walked to that church for Sunday service and the
occasional church function. I dreaded it. Not because it
was a religious rite, but because I knew that there would
be no eulogy from a family member.
Her story would not be told.
The service was well attended. The minister spoke of her
with warmth and affection, but no more so than someone
who knew her little better than an acquaintance. How
could this be happening?
I lived with Grandma for the latter half of college and a
few years on and off after that. We got along famously.
Grandpa died about four years before I came to live with
her and I think she liked the company. She gave me
encouragement and approval for getting a job at a time
when I was feeling I had fallen short of my parents
And I learned some of the little things about her. When
something struck her as particularly funny, she would
laugh with a great "ha YUK-YUK-YUK!" Some of
her vocabulary was from another age. "Short order
restaurant" was what she called fast food and vans
were "panel wagons". Scallops made her
violently ill. She recycled like religion, years before
they came to your curbside to pick it up. She hated
Johnny Carson. I don't know why, she was such a kind
soul. At night, we would watch public t.v. No matter what
she wore (in this case, pajamas and a yellow robe), she
had a regal quality. Impeccable posture. For a snack she
cut up an apple, placing the pieces in a little yellow
bowl. Sitting back in her chair, she would set a green
wooden tray across her lap and play solitaire as she
watched the show.
Occasionally, she would smoke. But when she did, she
would smoke only one cigarette.
I've never felt so lost, so angry, such despair.
Her story would not be told. Why hadn't her family
spoken? How can we have failed so?
At wit's end over my failure to act and numb with loss, I
walked out of the church. I saw my father outside. I
stepped to him intending to give him a quick hug but then
found I couldn't let go. I've never felt so grateful in
my life for my dad as I was that day. A grown man can
still be a child with his dad. And a child can try to
hide great shuddering sobs into his father's shoulder,
even with strangers all about on the steps of a church.
I had death figured out. I knew that it was necessary -
the price of life. But what do you do when everything you
know about death is wrong?
1910 - 1994
forever in my heart