My Grandmother died yesterday. She was 98 years old. I don’t think many people live to see ninety-eight these days. The average life expectancy in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, is 77.9 years old. But my grandmother passed 77 right on by. I don’t think she gave it a second glance. I wished, up until a few weeks ago, when it became apparent that her health was deteriorating rather rapidly, that she’d make it to 100. We could send her picture in to Willard Scott, have him wish her a Happy Birthday on The Today Show. Some things just aren’t meant to be, I guess. It was finally her time.
My grandmother was from Pennsylvania, and she could speak Slovak. Still! Even though she had nobody who knew how to speak it back to her for probably the past 50 years. My dad, who doesn’t speak Slovak, learned a holiday song or two in that language when he was a child. Sometimes when the family would gather at Christmas he’d sing it to her, and she’d smile.
I spent a fair amount of time with my grandmother when I was a kid. These are my memories…
She liked to play Bingo. Actually, “like” is too weak a word for what she felt about bingo. She LOVED Bingo. That might be why she died. All those little letters and numbers floating around her bloodstream, one of them just got caught, lodged in a way it couldn’t get loose again…
Actually, the truth is that she had congestive heart failure. It outpaced her body’s ability and the doctor’s efforts to keep her healthy. About a week before she died she became very weak, then mostly unresponsive. She may have suffered a stroke. If she did, I’d like to think it was a tiny clot in the shape of a Bingo number that got her. B98, maybe.
My grandmother went to the Bingo hall as often as she could; not forgoing a night even when she had company in town. She’d invite the company to come along and play with her! I went with her often over years, from the time I was a little kid until I was a teen. At some point, the smoky hall began to bother me and I spent more time in the bathroom trying to breath than I did sitting there marking numbers on my card. But my grandmother could play about 25 bingo cards at once, and still point out the numbers you’d failed to mark on your card, and that the people sitting on her other side and across the table from her had failed to mark. Sometimes she’d win and give some of the money to me, or she’d take me shopping and buy me things with her winnings.
One time she bought me a doll that had a battery compartment in its butt, The doll crawled and rolled over. I think I still have that doll, shoved in a box somewhere. I wonder, if I find her and dig her out, and shove new batteries in her butt, if she’d work again. I might try that some day. I could get back at the dog after she’s peed on my floor again. She’d hate that. Toys that move, seemingly of their own accord, scare her. My grandmother liked animals though, and I think it would give her a laugh to see my dog barking like a fool at that doll.
Another time, my grandmother bought me a globe. I’m not saying she’s responsible, but I did grow up to be a geographer…
She used to cut my bangs, which I hated. She’d tape an IBM card to my forehead and use it as a guide to cut my bangs straight across. Only she’d tape it too high, and so I’d come home from my visits with her practically devoid of hair, my forehead visible like a billboard.
She was always, even until she died, busy crocheting or sewing or quilting. She especially liked to make afghans, usually of two colors and with a zigzag pattern. I still have one that she made me when I was 4 or 5 years old. It’s pink and white, just like the poncho she made me. My son has an afgan that she made for him when he was born. It’s pale blue and white. My son called her “Great Grandma” and has dubbed the afghan his “too nice blanket” because it’s too nice to mess up.
I wish I had asked my grandmother to teach me how to sew. It’s a skill that would come in handy. If I knew how to sew I could hem my son’s pants instead of rolling them up or letting him walk the bottoms off. All of my grandmother’s neighbors, and half the town, would bring her items of clothing to mend and alter. She’d replace buttons, hem pants, repair torn linings inside of jackets. Bring her a pattern and she’d even make you an outfit. She made my First Communion dress. And I remember one green jumpsuit in particular that she made me, and that I favored. I think I wore it everyday of my entire 4th grade year. I felt like a Girl Scout in it, or a jungle explorer. And there then there was the pair of matching mother-daughter vests and skirts that she made, crochet overlaying another material, and which my mother and I wore back in the 1970s.
My grandmother had an old coffee can full of buttons that I used to play with when I visited her. It’s probably more appropriate to say I lusted after that can of buttons. Hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful little buttons of plastic and wood! The colors! The shapes! They were like miniature treasures. I loved to dip my hand in that coffee can and let the buttons run through my fingers before pulling them out and inspecting them, one by one, searching for my favorites. I don’t know whatever happened to that coffee can and all those buttons, it’s been gone for years now, but I would have loved to have had it.
My grandmother’s attic floor was forever covered in bits of thread and scraps of material, small squares cut out for whatever quilt she was working on. Sometimes she’d forget a straight pin or two that she’d inadvertently left in a quilt. You’d cover yourself up only to get stuck by a pin hidden in a seam. It’s funny how I remember the scraps of material, but I don’t remember seeing her sewing the quilts. She probably put them away when she knew the grandchildren would be over, getting into everything. But I still have the quilt she made for me when I was a child. It too is pink and white on one side, but it has a fabulously ugly pattern of odd twisted shapes made up of pink and brown circles that I used to look at and see things in — animals, monsters, birds. I can pick out shapes from the back of the quilt like you might pick shapes out of the clouds in the sky. The quilt is warm and weighty, heavy enough to pin you to the mattress when you try and sleep under it. It’s old now, and some stitches have popped, and so I’ve stored it away for safekeeping. It’s one of those things that can’t be replaced.
My grandmother loved to listen to baseball games on the radio or watch them on TV. She always rooted for the Pirates and she always watched The Price is Right.
She kept a pot holder I’d woven for her when I was a kid on her refrigerator for years. I don’t think it was replaced until I was in my 20’s and another granddaughter, one of my younger cousins, had made her one. I admit I was a little bit jealous to see that mine had been replaced.
Her kitchen was filled with delicious snacks. In her cupboards she had cans of Pringles which we never had at home. She had the fun sugary cereals like Peanut Butter Captain Crunch and Applejacks, whereas at my house, we had only Kix and Cheerios. Dishtowel covered loaves of Kolache filled her countertop, and plates of it, sliced, appeared at breakfast. The kind with the apricot filling was, and still is, my favorite.
Once in a while my grandmother would come to visit us. She’d spend her days watching my brother and me, while my parents were at work. She’d do some mending and cooking for us, cleaning, and ironing. Once, she even saved me from what I envisioned was to be supreme wrath and certain punishment, if not death, for ruining my parents bathtub! I was in 5th grade, and one of my chores was cleaning the bathrooms. I hated that job to no end and so I’d often try to make it more entertaining by pretending that I was actually starring in a commercial for tub and tile cleaner. On that particular day, I remember I’d been pouring everything I found under the bathroom sink into the tub and pretending I was comparing the ability of the various substances to clean the tub. Only there must have been some type of chemical reaction that occurred, because the white porcelain of the tub turned a bright yellow of which my 5th grade elbow grease could not remove! My grandmother found me crying in despair and without asking for explanation, she took the scrubby sponge from my hand, got down on her hands and knees, and scoured that yellow stain away. I don’t think my parents ever knew about it.
My grandmother was fond of playing cards and taught me how to play her favorite games: Gin Rummy and War. I remember many, many, many late nights at her house, sitting at her kitchen table and playing War, willing my eyes not to close, my head not to smack the table as I fought off sleep at 1:00 a.m., trying to stay awake while wishing desperately for a game of war to end so I could crawl into bed.
Two weeks ago I took my son to visit my grandmother. She was in an assisted living facility and she was hooked up to oxygen to help her breath better. Something, most likely the oxygen, had energized her. She was out of her wheelchair. She was walking unassisted, her cane and walker shoved in a corner. There wasn’t a whole lot to do there in her room so we pulled out her deck of playing cards. She taught my son, her five year old great-grandson, how to play a card game called Piggy. We played several rounds of the game with her. When we tired of that we talked. But since her hearing was poor, even with her hearing aid, I wrote her notes so I wouldn’t have to shout at her. She read them and responded. I told her we had been to Disney World. When she remarked that she had never been there, my son decided that he would build Disney World in our back yard for her and she could come to our house to see it. Later, he insisted on telling her about a Starship he was building, how he would bring it back and show it to her one day. She couldn’t really hear what he was saying, so I wrote the words “He’s building a Starship, like a space ship…” on my pad of paper. I think I rolled my eyes a bit, to let her know “Hey, he’s a kid, it’s unlikely his Starship will even fly.” But she shared his enthusiasm. “Ah! A Starship!” she said and she nodded at him, vigorously. Like that was right up her alley. As if she’d won one playing Bingo before, sewed one from a pattern, or crocheted one perhaps. Her eyes twinkled and she smiled.
That’s the last time I saw my Grandmother. But I think, perhaps, it’s my best memory of her. A 98 year old woman teaching a five year old how to play cards, and smiling about his plans to construct Disney World and a Starship in his own backyard.