Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a 'Great' woman

Happy birthday to my dear sweet great grandmom, who would have been 105 years old today.  'Great' as we often referred to her truly lived up to her nickname.  My brothers and I were fortunate enough to have many happy memories with her throughout our childhood and into our 'pre-adulthood'.  Even in her later years, as her memory grew fuzzy and our identities jumbled in her head, the memories I have of going to visit her still bring smiles to my face. 

My mom was a single mom of three kids, so as you can imagine, there were plenty of times when we were sick (or just 'sick').  It was impossible for mom to take off work every time one of us was sick (real or really-good-at-pretending), so we'd head to Mom-mom's apartment, where Great was waiting with open arms to care for us.  She had a specific set of television shows she'd watch, including Family Feud and The Price is Right, and of course the afternoon was devoted to her soap operas, which left little time for us to have control of the remote.  The only opportunity that we had was during Great's daily rosary, which happened after breakfast, before Regis and Kathy Lee. 

Usually at some point in the afternoon, Great would amble out of her rocker/recliner and shuffle her frail body into the kitchen to fix a snack.  We'd hear clattering around, and before long, she'd come out of the kitchen with two bowls of ice cream, one for her and one for her patient.  Mind you, Great was a diabetic, and more often than not, we were sick with a stomach bug so ice cream probably wasn't the best choice.  Did it stop her?  No way!  I remember one time I asked her if she should be eating ice cream, being diabetic, and if we should be eating ice cream being sick, to which she responded, "no one needs to know, and if they do, you don't need to have any".  *smile*  Typical 'Great'.  She was always a quiet observer of the world, a woman of few words (obviously I did not inherit that gene!).  But when she said something, it was nothing but profound, and most often hysterical.  In fact, one of the funniest things I ever heard her say described someone in my family as a not-so-nice four letter word that rhymes with 'cut'.  True to her 'little old Italian lady' ways, once you wronged her, it was a black mark on the wall--never to be forgotten.  Her choice of language that night was proof of that.

As the years passed, Great's health began to deteriorate, and she had what we referred to as 'spells'.  One such spell happened on Easter while she sat at the dinner table at our house.  That was a scary sight to watch, as my frail yet incredibly strong great grandmother faded away in front of my eyes, giving way to a vulnerable and sickly old lady.  As the frequency of her 'spells' increased, the difficult and heartbreaking decision was made to move Great into a nursing home, because she required more care than Mom-mom and the visiting nurses were able to provide for her.

Sundays became 'Great' days, not just because there wasn't school, but because we'd pile into the car and drive to the nursing home to visit our beloved Great.  Walking into that nursing home filled me with a mix of emotions and feelings, as it does for many people I'm sure.  We developed somewhat of a routine with our visits, and usually ended up slowly walking around the facility before sitting in either the cafeteria or the snack shop, where Mom-mom or Mom would give us cash to buy some treats.  We'd tell stories while we snacked, or sometimes we'd just sit, taking turns holding Great's hand or stroking her hair and rubbing her back and shoulders.

As her memory began leaving her, I spent most of my time with her quietly sitting next to her, just trying to drink up all the time I could being able to sit next to the matriarch of my family, before her body would faily and she'd physically leave to join other family who'd gone before.  I remember sitting there, staring at her, wondering what she could possibly be thinking about.  Was she able to remember her own childhood?  Did she remember her wedding day, or when she had her babies?  Did she have any recollection of the day she first met my mom, or my brothers and me?  Was she wondering her own fate, fearful of leaving the family she loved, or was she 'ready', prepared to leave this Earth, knowing she had lived a full and beautiful life? 

I'll never get to know the answers to any of these questions, as Great's comprehension wasn't quite 'there' to have these conversations in those last few years and months.  I wish I had done it sooner; found out the answers to all the things I wanted to know as I watched her fade so quickly near the end of her life.  Instead of chatting with her, I was left sitting and watching.  Her paper-thin skin wrapping around the fragile bones of her hand, her non-descript wedding band adorning her ring finger on her left hand, and her pale pink painted fingernails kept my hand warm, even though it always felt cold to the touch.  She warmed my heart, just by holding her hand.  If I close my eyes and think about it, I can still feel her soft skin on my own.

The phone rang early one cold December morning, early enough that when it rang, I knew.  No one calls at 5 a.m. unless something has happened.  I laid in bed listening to the phone ring, just a foot or two from my head, yet I didn't answer it.  Fear?  Intuition?  A mix of both, along with many other feelings.  My mom came into my bedroom to tell me Great had passed away in her sleep that morning.  Although we knew the day was inevitable, and approaching, it's never easy news to hear.

At Great's funeral I sat alone in a pew on the left side of the church, sobbing quietly.  Mom, along with Mom-mom and my great uncle were at the front, receiving condolences from the line of mourners coming to honor my dear great grandmom's life.  My brothers were serving as pall-bearers, and following the Catholic protocol (is that what you call it?!) were seated on the right side of the church in the front row with the others.  Randy and I were dating at the time (is that what you call it?!), but he had finals approaching, along with moving into his apartment for spring semester of his senior year.  I know he wanted to be there with me, but of course it was an impossibilty.  He was with me in his thoughts and prayers, and that did comfort me, despite my sobs.

That was my first experience with a close family member's passing.  It's such a surreal experience to go through, so many things to discuss, ponder, mourn, and celebrate.  Even all these years later I still have tears brimming my eyes as I write.  I'm sure if Randy saw me, he'd tell me to stop writing if it was making me sad.  But it's not the same kind of mourning as when she passed, the reason for tears, not the same.  I miss her, sure, but I know we all will eventually pass.  I guess the reason for my tears is just the memories, the moments of 'Great-ness' that I am blessed enough to have experienced. 

So with that, I want to wish a happy birthday to a great little old Italian lady who influenced the women of my family to be the strong, self-guided, self-reliant, able-bodied women we are today.  You're the reason I don't leave the house without some sort of make-up (always mascara and lip gloss--although being a mom has made me a little more lax on this at times!) with my toes always painted (I can't keep up with manicures!).  My husband, who never had the chance to meet you but hears many stories, thanks you for passing down your cooking skills so that he may partake in my capabilties in the kitchen.  You are loved by many, missed by many, and have touched the lives of many.  Sending love up to heaven to you!

four of Great's last pictures, 2003

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