Randomly this week, I remembered trying to write something shortly after the death of my grandmother, my dad’s mother, Mimi. I wanted to write about the life she lived and her influence on me. I never finished writing it and have since misplaced the file. I think I wrote it on my old computer, so the document is probably on the hard drive in our home office. Anyway, I thought it seemed like a good time to take a stab at re-writing it.
My cousin Alicia wrote a letter to Mimi after she died to express in her own way how much Mimi had meant to her and to our family. As she read it to all of us for the first time at Mimi’s funeral, and even as I read it today, I am struck with a distinct feeling of sadness knowing that I didn’t know Mimi as well as the rest of her grandchildren did. Even they, I am certain, only skimmed the surface of her wit and intelligence, the depth of her character. When I occasionally realize how little my husband knows about my childhood and formative years and how little I know of his, I am struck with the question of how any of us truly expect to know another person. Add that to the fact that my sister and I were much younger than the rest of our cousins and that we rarely visited Mimi since our family lived a couple hours away in “the big city,” and it’s easy to see why the memories that Alicia wrote have little to do with me.
And yet, Mimi and I had our own special bond. My parents at an early age encouraged me to write letters. It seemed completely natural to send letters to my grandparents and aunts with regularity because writing has since the second grade seemed an intuitive part of who I am. I’m not saying I’m a great writer…just that it’s how I process information and best communicate with others. The introvert in me would now much prefer to write someone an email or a letter. I’m totally awkward on the phone.
Letters have the added bonus of making a person feel special and noticed. People of my grandmother’s generation loved and appreciated the art of a hand-written letter, and from an early age, I remember being excited to shop for beautiful stationary and imitating the styles of the letters they wrote.
My mother’s dad wrote with a blue roller ball and always penned his letters on yellow legal pads, each row of print sitting neatly beneath the preceding text. In true military fashion, he would note the time of day in the top right-hand corner: “Thursday, 07:00” or “Wednesday, a.m.” His sign off was always the same: “Nothing else to report. Much love.”
Mimi’s script scrolled across the page in loops and curls of ballpoint ink with space between the rows, and I remember thinking she could fit more on the page if she wrote closer together. I now realize this may have been habit aimed at making sure her handwriting wouldn’t blur together since her eyesight was getting bad.
I signed off the same way that Paw did. I imitated Mimi’s syntax and conversational style. I told them about my life, about ballet recitals, tryouts for the drill team, becoming an editor on the school paper, getting braces, attending proms, going on first dates, even my first kiss (actually I’m pretty sure Mimi was the only one I wrote about that particular milestone). I so wish I could re-read those letters now to see how my writing and the things and people I found interesting have changed. I can only imagine writing to my grandparents about my first boyfriend and how embarrassed I would be now to read it.
Letters are immeasurably more personal than emails, Twitter messages and Facebook posts. The fact that the two correspondents are separated by space (and age in my case) doesn’t necessitate the stifling of information. In some ways, it encourages one to share. When you don’t see someone other than at Thanksgiving, when you have no looming Facebook record to hold you back, what else should you share but the important stuff? Who cares about the trivial? It was this approach that allowed Mimi and me in particular to become close though we rarely saw one another. And how thankful I am for those letters back and forth. After Mimi died, my cousins and aunts who lived close by and saw her more often told me that Mimi saved every letter. They were lost when she moved out of her old house, but the knowledge that she held on to them is enough for me.
This post isn’t meant to be a diatribe on the lost art of letter-writing; it’s just that through our letters, I saw how she loved me, her family, even though I didn’t fully understand who she was as a person until after her death.
Mimi died just after midnight on a Wednesday. It was her late husband’s birthday, July 8. Our family couldn’t understand why she had drifted in and out all day the day before. My cousin Jennifer said she might be hanging on to make sure everyone was OK or perhaps lingering until Papa’s birthday the next day. Sometimes the dying will do that…linger until they are certain their loved ones are accounted for. Brandon’s great-grandmother didn’t pass away until Brandon’s mom Kathy spoke to her on her deathbed and told her Jon (Brandon’s grandfather) was OK though he wouldn’t be able to come to the hospital to say goodbye. In Mimi’s hospital room, we weakly joked that every time our family was afraid she was dying in the past, she would end up recovering because one of her grandchildren was always preparing for a wedding or a baby. For the first time, when she entered the hospital in July of 2009, no one was pregnant or engaged. All of us were safe, accounted for, healthy and happy. No babies were due, no weddings pending. She was two weeks away from her 100th birthday party. And she didn’t want that party. Somehow all of us knew that Mimi was going to have the last word.
Brandon and I drove with my parents to Graham that Tuesday to say goodbye. We left a few hours before she died, and I got a Facebook message in the morning that she had passed peacefully shortly after midnight. Papa’s birthday. I’ve since learned things about Mimi’s life and how she cared for her family that I never anticipated or expected. I won’t share them here…they aren’t my stories to tell…but I don’t think even Mimi ever fully understood how God used her to cherish and protect his children.
On Saturday, we drove back to Graham to attend her funeral. The minister who led the service shared with us about the many conversations he had with Mimi as she got older. As her eyesight failed and her hearing slipped away, he would visit regularly. Conversations with Mimi involved a white board and a dry erase marker. On one occasion, she told him she was ready to die and didn’t understand why God had not taken her yet. Writing on the white board, he asked her, “Inez, when you die, what do you expect?” Without missing a beat (and perhaps a little indignantly…she was nothing if not sassy!), she replied, “Jesus!” If my sweet grandmother had any visions of what heaven would be like, she didn’t share them. To her, being in the presence of Jesus was its own reward. That was Heaven. Her desire was for Christ, to see him and hear his voice. It suddenly made sense that we sang her favorite hymn, “I Come to the Garden Alone,” at her funeral.
The church community and faith circle I’m a part of subscribes to the idea of Christian Hedonism…the belief that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I don’t think anyone has ever helped me understand what that meant more than Mimi did. I don’t actually know that she lived her life this way, but her simple expectation–that she would open her eyes and look upon her savior, that he was a treasure to be sought–to me pretty much sums up a life well-lived, a family well-loved and a woman certain of God’s love for her. And that’s the kind of life I want to look back on.