While at the airport today, awaiting my flight to DC, I got some bad news from my mom. My grandma, whom I’ve called Grammo for more than decade for reasons I can no longer remember, had slipped into a coma in the long-term care facility in which she’s lived for the last several years. The nurse who called told my family that it was unlikely she’d make it through the night. I spent the entire layover crying in the most deserted gate of DFW I could find.
Anyone who knows me in real life and who has heard me talk about why I bake and how I learned will understand just how devastating this is to me. Grammo was a home economics teacher, you see. I don’t remember how many years she taught, but I have friends whose mothers and grandmothers were her pupils, so that should give you an idea of how much time she spent in the classroom. She was in her mid-sixties when I was born, and I am pretty sure she was retired by then, but she never stopped teaching us.
Some of my earliest memories are of spending time with Grammo in her house with the green shag carpet and matching green-and-orange textured sofa. Grammo’s house is where I learned to love ramen noodles with peas, carrots, and diced hot dogs (confession: I still sometimes eat this). It’s where I learned about movie musicals and fell in love with Howard Keel and every musical he ever made. It’s where I first remember eating pot roast, and Yorkshire Pudding, and my family’s super-secret trifle recipe.
It’s also where I first remember learning about how fragile life could be: watching my mom clean the tracheotomy opening in my grandpa’s throat, the devastating results of emphysema. My grandpa died when I was about 4 years old, I don’t remember a lot about him, but I have some great memories of eating Planter’s cheese balls with him, of fishing in mountain rivers with him, of laughing at every meal when he, without fail, would manage to knock over an entire glass of water.
I have decades more of memories with Grammo. I could literally spend all night writing down the memories I have of her. Actually, that is something I probably will do sometime in the near future–create a written memory bank so that I don’t forget all the little things about her that made her so special. But while that list will likely be private, I would like to tell you all a little bit about her.
She was born in 1919 and would have turned 94 this year. She lived her life in Utah and Idaho. She had one older sister, and they were never very close. I think this is why she always tried to make my siblings and I get along. She had lifelong knee problems which were caused by a terrifying car accident that happened when she was a child: she fell out of a moving car, got caught on a piece of metal, and was dragged down the street on her knees for several blocks before the driver of the car was able to safely stop. Because of the knee injuries she used a cane for almost as long as I remember, and in later years my siblings and I used to tease her about buying her a sword-cane that she could whip out anytime someone annoyed her or walked too slowly in front of her.
She loved cooking and baking treats for family parties and events. She used to work with my mom to make us epic birthday cakes when we were little. Every Sunday for years my family would meet at her house for a big family dinner. The parents usually ate in the kitchen around her small round table while the kids got to eat in the living room, on what we thought were fancy aluminum TV trays. We always watched the ABC Sunday Night Disney Special while we ate dinner, and somehow she always managed to serve dessert during a commercial break. In later years the dinner would rotate between her house, my aunt’s house, and our house, and I can’t remember a time when she missed one because she wasn’t feeling well or because she made other plans. We were her plans come rain or shine.
Every year she and my aunt would start Christmas shopping in September so they had time to buy us all boatloads of presents. She went to Europe with my aunt one year and bought I think about 5 years worth of Christmas presents for me, all 5 of my siblings, and my cousins. Actually, about three years ago she and my aunt gave me a set of paper dolls that they had bought and misplaced on that trip, more than 15 years ago. I loved the set when she gave them to me, and I will love them even more now. She loved animals and over the course of my childhood she “raised” two cats, Bootsie and Missy, and two dogs, Mitzi and Peaches (though not all at the same time).
She loved movies and had a crazy huge collection of them. She had so many that we used to have to check them out from her so she wouldn’t lose track of them. I’ve already mentioned how she got me hooked on Howard Keel movies, but she also owned pretty much every Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe film, most of Elvis’ movies, and every single Disney movie that ever came out on video (including the live-action ones from the 60s, 70s, and 80s).
One year she bought banana chairs (remember those??) and oh man did we love them. I remember rocking on them so hard she said it was making her dizzy to watch. She also had the only video game console anyone in my family had until I was well into college. I used to sit in the kitchen while she cooked, playing Duck Hunt or Weapons and Warriors on the tiny TV she kept on a small stand in the corner. Sleepovers at her house were the best because she’d make popcorn and let us stay up late to watch a movie, and if we were really good and didn’t keep her up with our late night giggling, talking, and occasional fighting, she’d make us English Pancakes (which are kind of like lemony crepes) in the morning.
The year I got married, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and about two months before the wedding she underwent a double mastectomy at age 88. We were all worried about her flying across the country for the wedding, so my intrepid aunt packed up the car and drove with her for 5 days from Utah to Pennsylvania. They turned it into a fun-filled Americana road trip, stopping at Mt. Rushmore among other sites along the way.
I told you I could sit here all night and do this. She lived a good life, although the last few years have been hard. Dementia claimed much of her memory, but every time I went to see her she remembered me, at least for a little while, and I know it meant a lot to her to have family visit. My aunt is staying the night with her tonight and my uncle and his family were with her for part of today. Both of my parents are in DC for swearing-in, and I feel kind of terrible that they won’t be with her at the end. I’m actually pretty sad that I’m not there too. I haven’t been home in over a year at this point, but I spent a whole morning with her last summer. Her memory did falter for a bit that morning, but we were able to have a long conversation after I helped her eat breakfast. She remembered that I’m a diplomat now and that we lived in Mexico. She made me promise to always take care of my “sweet husband.” I gave her a big hug and a kiss when I left, and I remember thinking then that that just might be the last time I saw her.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Juarez over the last year, but one thing I am so grateful for is the proximity I am to my family. This might seem juvenile, but one of my big fears in joining the Foreign Service was that Grammo would pass away and that I’d be halfway across the world and wouldn’t get to say goodbye or be there for the funeral. Thanks to Juarez, I was able to say goodbye to her last year and I will get to go home for her funeral.
Just got off the plane. Between when I talked to my aunt around 6:50 pm MDT and now, just after 1:00 am EDT, Grammo died.