Three years ago today, there was a hauntingly ominous ring on the phone in the early, dark morning hours, startling me from my sleep. The news only increased the beating in my heart--my grandma had died.
She was my mom's mother. My father drove to my house and picked me up. My mother sat in the passenger seat crying, my sister Misti and I sat in the back seat, backs straight, hands in our laps, silent. Nobody said a word as my dad drove us to the hospital.
When I was a little girl, and I became aware that we would all one day die, feeling stereotypically invincible in my youth, I knew it would be my grandma that would go first--she was, after all, old. As I think back, she would have been in her late-forties. Old. I would fear the day that she would go, not even able to imagine life without her.
She was with us on every vacation, on every holiday, and she stayed at our house most weekends. I have no family memory void of my grandma. As a little girl, it wasn't Christmas until Grandma drove up on Christmas Eve, trunk and backseat full of beautifully-wrapped presents. She would sleep with me, and it was always a contest as to who tossed and turned the most. She was just as excited as us kids, if not more, for Christmas to come the next day.
OK. These are childhood memories that could be told by most people as they reflect on the life and impact of a grandparent. But there's a history held by my grandma that beats most stories.
The youngest of 13 children born in southeastern Iowa, Marilyn Fiss went to live with her aunt and uncle on their farm when she was a toddler. Her mother was ill, and was unable to care for her little girl. My grandmother's father wasn't available to raise her either--I don't know the reasons why. Eventually, my great-grandmother died, leaving my grandma without a mother.
There was an older sister in Los Angeles who was married, and starting a family of her own. This would have been only months after the great stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. I don't know if the family in Iowa didn't feel that they could raise my grandma due to the financial burden, or if my grandma's sister wanted her to help out with her own children, but for whatever the reason might have been, my grandma was sent for by train when she was only 4 years old. Nobody accompanied her on the days-long journey. My grandma was put on a train, when she was 4--completely alone, and made to leave the only family she ever knew, the only world she ever knew--homemade clothes, homemade toys, laid-back farm life--to live in downtown Los Angeles, California.
Her sister's husband was a violent alcoholic. My grandma went from a loving home on a farm to a violent, angry home in the city. She was made to work in the house from a very young age, and endured pain and violence that she would never speak of in detail, but would briefly mention through the years. Whenever we would press her for more information, she would change the subject.
She would eventually marry a man who held her heart her entire life. She had 3 girls--my mom, another daughter 2 years later, and 14 years after the birth of my mom, my grandma had her third little girl. She loved her family passionately, and was committed to raising them in stability and happiness--something she never had herself as a child.
As so many do, my grandma married what she knew. The man she married, like her sister's husband, was an alcoholic. Seeing the ill-effects of his disease on her family, she made a decision that was unheard of in the late-50's and early-60's. She left her husband.
Trying to make a better life for her girls, she endured the stigma and judgements of a society unwilling to sympathize with a divorced woman. Because of her sacrifices and hard work, her girls were brought out of what could have been a family pattern lasting generations. She insisted on a clean lifestyle, on something better.
Her example championed my drive to provide a better life for my children, once my eyes were opened to all that was wrong in my own marriage. I have drawn on her strength for inspiration, knowing that the stuff that made my grandma who she was runs in my veins. Yes, I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength, but He gives me some of my strength through those He saw fit to set before me as an example.
My entire family is missing her today, still not quite believing that she is gone, and that it has been 3 years since she left. We still feel the pain of her departure, wishing it hadn't been so soon. She wasn't that old after all--just 83.
Death leaves those of us left behind more aware of our own mortality--of the mortality of those around us we hold dear. We never know what the future has in store--when our last day will be, or when the last days of or loved ones will be. It's our job to live the most every day, taking seriously the tasks we have set before us. Somehow the more mundane tasks of the day seem shallow and weightless. It's the big things like listening to the sound of our child breathe as they sleep, or seeing the light in their eyes as they experience something funny. Big things like spending time together, or having a discussion about life dreams over a cup of coffee. It's these things that we miss the most when they are no more.
My entire family is missing her today. It's a gift, really, to feel this much pain. Pain is a symptom. And in this case, it's a symptom of a life greatly missed because she was such a big part of all of our lives. We are so thankful for that, and for all that she was to us.
Thank you, Grandma, for being the example of strength and committed mothering that you are to me. What an extraordinary woman.