Grandma’s ashes

Grandma’s ashes arrived via priority mail after a month-long journey during which parts of her were used for research. This idea delighted her; she looked forward to being useful after death, especially since she’d felt so useless during the last years of her life.

That posthumous ride was the longest trip she’d taken since she moved here 13 years ago: to Portland and back (though I suppose parts of her went farther afield). When she first arrived here, I wanted to show her this beautiful country, so very different from the spare, sculpted desert landscapes we both loved. We did manage Mount Baker, Artist’s Point and the snow up that-a-way in June, and a few other, shorter rides. She loved the craggy mountain scenery and the astonishing forests. She liked sitting in the car at Boulevard Park and watching the bay. My buddy Rick G. and I took her down to the harbor for an afternoon even after she was in a wheelchair, bundled up in thick warm blankets against a chilly breeze, and she found it fascinating. A couple of guys were mending fishing net, and she wanted to get right up close and see how they did it. But road bouncing caused her inordinate pain, so all too soon we had to halt those jaunts.

My mother was not a small person by any measure. Even physically, she stood 5’7″ before she began to shrink, and that’s a fairly tall woman for her generation. She had an endlessly curious mind, a lively interest in science, and loved to experiment. For her, that usually meant something cooking-related since the kitchen was the lab she knew best. One of her proudest moments was inventing a perfectly delicious jelly made from the fruit of prickly pear cacti. You can find that easily now, but when she invented her version in about 1962 or ’63, it was, if not unique, certainly extremely unusual. Nobody ate cactus fruit. Except us. We’d go out to the Malpais (it wasn’t a national monument then, just a wide expanse of black basalt lava with no trails and a lot of rattlesnakes) on evenings and weekends to gather the darn things, singe off the spines, and Mom would get to work on her project. She went through quite a few iterations before hitting the perfect formula. We ate a lot of prickly pear syrup on pancakes ’til she got it right. But she did, and hers was better than any other kind I’ve ever tried.

I wish you boys could have known her better before she began to decline. While I was growing up and she was in the midst of her teaching career, she was one of the few teachers who took summer training opportunities seriously. Most teachers took summer as a three-month vacation, with maybe a couple of weeks out for required continuing education. Not Mom. (The big Nambe ware bowl I put goodies in last Christmas is her engraved NM State Vocational Teacher of the Year award.) Her field had so much constant change—in technology, in process, in methods—that she spent most of every summer researching, trying new things, determining which ones would best suit her classrooms, revamping lesson plans and whole units. Then came the hunt for funding, and she was relentless in writing letters to companies and various entities she thought would—or should—contribute, in-kind or in cash. This frequently involved convincing outlander companies that New Mexico was, indeed, part of the United States. (Once, along with a rather scathing letter, she sent Frigidaire a map of the country, with New Mexico circled on it in red magic marker.) As a result, her school kitchen and classroom stations were usually almost as modern as those in the Albuquerque schools. She did it on a pretty minuscule budget. It wasn’t only at home that she didn’t just pinch pennies but squeezed them to death, as Grandpa liked to say.

To the end of her days, she lamented that she didn’t have any (or very many) friends. I could never get her to describe what she meant by “friend,” but what I saw looked like quite a few good friends along with indications that an awful lot of people loved and respected her. She taught three generations of kids in my home town, and was also relentless in encouraging those with college potential to go there, even though education might not be a high priority in their families. For some, she was the closest thing to a mother figure they had. She’d do backflips, hang from electric wires and endure personal humiliation to help her kids, whether it involved hunting down scholarship sources, getting funds for new equipment, or finding answers to questions she didn’t know.

Mom was one of the world’s last truly naive people. Never, ever comfortable talking about sex, she called me one day to ask about how a particular sexual practice worked. Me! Her daughter! I was shocked that she even thought I’d know. I’m not sure which of us was more embarrassed. I told her, but then said, “You know this kid’s yanking your chain, right?”

“You think so?” she replied, genuinely surprised, then paused for thought. “Well, could be,” she finally conceded. “But just in case she really needs to know, I want to be able to tell her.”

Grandma was one of the world’s best listeners. Hundreds of kids poured out their hearts to her over the years, their triumphs and tragedies, their fears and hopes. She listened to them. When she spent a month or more with us each Christmas, after Grandpa died and she could, she loved listening to you boys go on and on about your own little-boy concerns. And you must have enjoyed it, because you kept talking to her. 🙂 She never understood the value in that, or how rare it is. She performed the same function for the women in the Bible study class she taught after retiring and moving to Deming (which is where you boys remember them living) and for anyone else who seemed to need it. But she only ever felt valuable when she was doing for people.

Speaking of church, that was a cornerstone in Grandma’s life. She was a Christian, and one who came closer than most to living her faith. Back in the day, the Southern Baptist Convention held that the Bible was “inerrant in matters of faith and practice.” That is an enormous difference from the change put in place after the ultra-right-wing crowd took over (through foul machinations, it was said) in the early 70s. Those creeps deleted everything after “inerrant,” ushering in the requirement to believe such idiocies as creationism, the literal scientific accuracy of every word of the Bible, and that God dictated each book to its designated writer, word by word. That take-over infuriated her, and she’d practically fulminate when she talked about it. She relentlessly wrote letters about that, too, but got no results. Her beloved SBC was turned into a good-ol’-boys outfit whose primary purpose was to put right-wing fundamentalists into political office and make sure they had a frightened, compliant voting base in the affiliated churches. (We’re seeing the results of that now.) She hated that, but continued to teach what she believed: love God, love your neighbor as yourself, take care of the poor and marginalized, and tolerate and respect those different from you. When her cognitive abilities began to go, she got sucked into the fundamentalist stuff because she watched those wretched TV preachers (some of whom were involved in the earlier take-over). That made me furious, especially since she honestly couldn’t remember her broader, more kindly beliefs and those bastards made her feel frightened.

She (and Grandpa, too) retired early so they could spend more time with us and with you kids. They came out our way for a few holidays and we went back their way for more. She was my stalwart backstop while recovering from Snaotheus’s difficult birth and The Ghastly Flu I had after Northwood’s birth, when your dad had already gone to North Dakota and I was managing two toddlers, a newborn, and a house that had to be realtor-view-worthy 24/7. Though she had a fear of boats (which I didn’t know), she was willing to get into that first tiny boat we had in ND and putter out to a sand island for a picnic and a sandy afternoon, watching you guys, about 1, 3, and 5, dig around in the wet sand, play in the water, and eat sandy chips. Though she had a phobia about snakes, she said not a negative word (nor a shriek) when Bassmaster showed her his latest beauties. Though she’d been born into a family with racial prejudices, she took care to rear me without them. I didn’t know she had them until they resurfaced somewhat during the earlier stages of her dementia, when she was still able to recognize them for what they were and feel ashamed that they existed.

She was not perfect, nor was I, and we had our loggerhead moments. But Mom was, every day of her life, my best friend, my staunch supporter, the one among the multitudes who believed in me, loved me without question, and, as her Bible admonished, prayed for me without ceasing. I remember many times when she held her tongue and did not give advice I didn’t want to hear, but I always understood that if something blew up in my face, she’d be there to pick up the pieces and put me back together. If I have any good qualities as a mother, many of them I learned from her. When we were together, we spent many happy hours in the kitchen, experimenting and talking about anything and everything; when we weren’t, we held lengthy weekly phone calls. She wanted to know about you boys, your dad, my job, you name it. My righteous indignation was her righteous indignation; my joy was her joy; my troubles, hers.

As dementia took more and more of her mind, she fretted constantly about the things she couldn’t remember and relentlessly studied the family charts I made for her, certain that if she just worked hard enough, she could make all the people she’d loved and all the things she’d seen and done repopulate her brain, and she wouldn’t be alone in the dark emptiness that was becoming her mind. She broke into tears about it one day. I hugged her tightly and said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be your memory now. Anything you want to know, you just ask me.” She clung to me and sobbed. Her determination to remember is probably a large part of the reasons it took me so long to realize that all I could give her was a happy moment, this moment. There was no yesterday or tomorrow, only this moment in which to give her pleasure. I hope I was able to do that sufficiently often. I miss her—the strong, pre-dementia mother and even the hollowed-out dementia-ridden version—tremendously.

I haven’t yet opened the box of her ashes. I can’t quite muster the nerve, knowing that this final step in her reduction—from strong and capable to cogent but frail to a tiny, shriveled brain and body, and then just a shell, empty of life—leaves her as small as a person can get. My mother was not a small person. If the pitiful little shell of herself didn’t contain the mother I loved at the end, certainly these ashes don’t.

Posted by wordsmith

0 comments

She thought you were pretty wonderful, too. 😉

She was a good grandma.

Aww, fanks. *sniffle*

Thank you for posting this! I’m still sorry I didn’t get to meet her, and am delighted you have so many wonderful memories.
Selfishly, I am taking her wonderful example and going to try to emulate it with My Problem spawn.
You are dear to me Anna, and I love that I can see some of the ‘why’ you’re such a wonderful friend.

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