Love, Your Very, Very Old Grandma

I’m lying in my childhood bedroom. On the other side of the wall, my little sister is in the living room, quietly playing church songs that we grew up with. She hasn’t played the piano in years. I listen to her peck out the familiar songs, one timid note at a time. We’ve just returned from the funeral for our 96-year-old grandmother.

The church had been packed, like everyone in my small hometown had shown up to pay their respects. Five priests officiated the service, a small tribute to this woman—the best person I knew.

I spent yesterday looking through old family albums, trying to find pictures of my grandma. She’s there, but not in the ways you might expect of keepsakes. The back of her head. Bending over to pick something up. An arm. A leg. Always doing something, always in motion, never standing still long enough for a proper portrait. But I suppose when you’ve raised eleven children (nine boys and two girls), along with innumerable grandchildren, that’s the way it is.

 Christmas at Grandma’s. Grandma opening a present in the foreground. I’m with my mom in the background, sporting a Strawberry Shortcake dress and admiring my new See N Say. 

Christmas at Grandma’s. Grandma opening a present in the foreground. I’m with my mom in the background, sporting a Strawberry Shortcake dress and admiring my new See N Say. 

I was raised Catholic. I went to mass every Sunday with my extended family and was an altar server when I was old enough. I remember feeling so solem and so proud to be at the front of the church, serving the mass, and so proud to know that it had been my grandmother who’d fought so girls could finally become altar servers at my hometown parish.

She lied to me once. She told me raw potatoes were poisonous to eat. But really she was tired of me eating the uncooked potatoes intended for dinner as quickly as she could peel them. I was (and still am) a good eater, much to her delight. No trip to grandma’s was complete until she’d fed you to her satisfaction, even if you hadn’t been hungry to begin with.

Her hands felt like bread dough, which she made from scratch every week. They were always soft, with a pleasant sheen like if she’d used Crisco as lotion. She would prep dinner and I would sit at the kitchen island listening to her stories about growing up on a potato farm during the Great Depression and how she didn’t have running water and electricity in her house until she was married with two children. Her stories are a major reason why I became a historian and why I love telling and writing stories myself.

She sent Christmas cards every year and signed them “Love, your very old grandma.” At some point over the years she added another “very” to her signature and would write, “Love, your very, very old grandma” in a squiggly cursive at the bottom of the card. And my very, very old grandma always addressed the card and envelope to both myself and my wife. I’ll never be able to grasp the vastness of her unconditional love.

I already miss you, Grandma.