I read somewhere recently that when you lose a grandparent to death, part of your childhood dies with them.
I lost part of my childhood this afternoon.
My last living grandparent, my mother’s mother, died this afternoon.
Her breathing labored, her heart tired and her mind weary, with her eyes closed as if already in sleep she breathed her last holding my mother’s hand on one side and my aunt’s on the other.
Those hands were special hands. Here she is holding my cousin hand just last week –
From a young age she used them to work, to play and to love.
Whether in a shirt factory during the war in East Tennessee or on her family’s farm caring for her 11 younger siblings, she knew the definition of hard work from a young age. She held various jobs over the years, but even during those times when she wasn’t paid for her effort, her hands were never idle.
Small palms and nimble, thin fingers with neatly filed nails could thread a needle, bait a hook and snap endless bushels of green beans. Only in her later years would the knots of arthritis and the effects of age leave their mark on her graceful hands.
When articulating a point, she would point her narrow index finger, slightly bent at the knuckle with a cock of her wrist, to let her listeners know that she meant what she was saying. This was dubbed “The Mother Finger” and all of her daughters, granddaughters and even great-granddaughters have been known to use it on occasion.
My grandmother loved games. Some of my earliest memories of visiting her house involved countless hours of playing Uno and Aggravation. Even through this fall, her hands could be found holding cards, game pieces and Scrabble tiles.
Her pension for math was always keen. Her vocabulary was always growing. Her willingness to learn new things never wavered. She may have never earned a high school diploma and always resented having to drop out of school after the 8th grade, but no one playing her in any game of strategy or skill would have ever known her lack of formal education.
As far as I was concerned, my grandmother was the best, most accomplished seamstress ever. There was no thing that she could not sew or mend. When expecting my first daughter, I could not find any crib bedding that I liked. I described to her what I wanted and she produced the most beautiful set of red and white gingham with chenille accented bumpers, quilt and slip-cover ever done. Her handiwork even at 80 was amazing.
Her quilts will be family heirlooms for generations to come. Many hand-pieced and hand-quilted, but all labors of love with meticulously picked out fabrics and designs are priceless treasures to any of us who have been blessed to be given these works of art. This hand-worked hobby was so much more than a way for my grandmother to pass the time. It was a tangible way she could pass her love from her own hands into the hands of the quilt’s recipients.
Even before I received my first quilt from her at 16 I knew it was special. I received another when Wally and I married. I keep each of the quilts she gifted to my daughters, her great-granddaughters, until the time they set up homes of their own.
She did many more things with her hands demonstrating her love for me and those she loved.
This time of year, she chose to show her love by busying her hands making candy. Peanut brittle, peanut fudge, chocolate fudge (with and without walnuts). Her confections were always a true sign of the Christmas season. Her go-to sweet to make for any gathering or occasion in my daughters’ memories will forever be her lemon cake.
Her great-granddaughters have been left a legacy from their Gee-gee that extends much further and much deeper than beautiful quilts and delicious cakes.
For instance, they may not have memories of her caring for my grandfather in his last years or fishing by his side on the red pontoon at Lake Lockengren, but I do. I remember them building their dream house there at the lake together. Mingling their sweat, tears and sometimes blood to see their dream home become a reality. They worked their garden together and she canned endless jars of the best green beans ever. They would clean the smallest of blue gill and perch to allow my brother and I to eat the fruit of our couple of hours of fishing off the docks. I don’t know how they removed all of those little, translucent bones! But with the meticulous detail, her nimble fingers would find the smallest of bones, then patiently fry up the little fish for us to eat.
My childhood is filled with memories of playing at her house, eating her sweets, listening to her stories of growing up, and growing myself under her guidance. Staying up late, watching more television and being doted on were all perks of being her granddaughter. I liked teasing her, telling her because I was the first grandchild, I was the most favored, but she loved all of us the same yet uniquely. SO proud of each of us . . . We are her legacy, and in-turn, so are our kids.
Yes, my childhood chapters are closed. Here at 42, some would say they’ve been over a long time now, years before her death this afternoon. However, who my grandmother was will live on through the generations for a long time after the works of her physical hands have faded.
I will pass down the quilts and continue to make her cornbread to pair with my soups. But even if the quilts become lost and the recipes forgotten – who my grandmother was -her loyalty, pride and work ethic is ingrained in all of us she considered family – by blood, by name or by friendship.
Who she was, she will always be in all of us.
Tonight, she is finally reunited with my grandfather. Today, she is uttering the “sweetest name she knows” to her Jesus. He has “filled her every longing and keeps her singing as she goes.”
In my pain missing her, I will sing with her and He will keep me singing as I go too.