My grandmother passed away on Monday afternoon. She was 90… or nearly 90… The age of death leaves the biggest impression when it is unreasonably young or exceptionally old. She was neither, but had a good run.
A week and a half ago she had a massive stroke. At the time, they planned to move her to hospice and told my mother that she would never be responsive again. Of course my grandmother was an incredibly determined person, and decided to run away from that white light long enough to come back fighting for another week. For several days she was too stubborn to die. It was a feat that didn’t surprise me knowing her, but it gave her some time to talk to her kids and get back to a comfortable, known place.
Elizabeth or “Lib”, known to me in my childhood as Nanny, was an eccentric person. Though she wasn’t born into reputed “Old south” money, she aspired to that lifestyle with an adamant passion. She kept two oil paintings of distant relatives in a formal dining room, and showed them off to guests as if they were Michelangelos. My dad referred to them as “Moe and Joe.” Her china cabinets were filled with fine dining sets, silver and crystal that adorned the formal table every year for the Christmas dinner we spent with her and my grandfather. She didn’t set place cards, but lord help you if you decided to change up the seating arrangement.
The table setting was straight out of Gone With the Wind, but cooking wasn’t actually her forte. Christmas meals were predominately made of Stouffer’s frozen dinners, nuked in the microwave and then dumped into crystal bowls. One year she exploded a tray of macaroni and cheese by having the heat change too quickly, something my brother and I found quite entertaining as we watched the adults pick up pieces of macaroni from the walls and ceiling.
She had one culinary star – Nanny could make the world’s best pound cake. These made up for any macaroni episodes, and were so dense you could almost see the butter when you pushed a bite down with your fork. Special ones were covered in a thick, homemade caramel icing. Whenever she came to visit in her younger days, she would bring a pound cake with her. I remember my mom toasting a slice for breakfast the next day.
She unapologetically enjoyed the finer things in life. Before she moved into a nursing, I never saw the woman dressed casually unless she was in her pajamas (still nice, expensive pajamas) or mall walking attire. Her entire wardrobe consisted of pressed wool skirts, tights, conservative shoes and fancy tops. She kept her hair meticulously short and curled around her face. I’ve seen some photos of myself that surprise me, because in a certain angle with my hair done a certain way… I look a lot like her. Maybe one day I’ll be able to pull off the deep red lipstick that she used.
When someone dies, we have a tendency to white wash their life and gloss over anything unpleasant. Don’t get me wrong – this was a complicated woman. My mother was a teen in the late 60’s/early 70’s, and she had perfect, iconic hair for the time… long and blonde and stick straight. One morning she got in trouble over something, and my grandmother grabbed her hair behind the ponytail elastic and cut it all off in fury. As my mother grew up, her relationship with my grandmother could best be described as strained. The hair cut wasn’t the first or last thing my grandmother did that hurt my mom, and I can only imagine what kind of insecurities and fears drove some of Lib’s actions.
Still, she loved us deeply in her own way. She took me on my first real horseback riding experience. It was at a stable in Greensboro, and I was lead around on a Palomino horse without being on the pony carousel at the fair with a bunch of screaming kids around. I can still picture that horse and that riding ring, with my grandmother standing outside the fence in a white wool suit with pristine makeup.
She got me my first Breyer horses, Misty & Stormy, followed by a ton of other Breyer horses because she may or may not have had a wee bit of a shopping problem. But hey, we all have shortcomings.
Her laugh was a shrill, animalistic cackle, but it was genuine. She always smelled like perfume and potpourri, and the scent followed her everywhere. When she visited, my bathroom would fill with the fragrance. As I stared at the innocent bottles she brought with her… I wondered if she had stuffed a pillowcase full of fragrant pinecones somewhere I didn’t notice. Years later, I will smell something similar and am immediately transported back to the house she shared with my grandfather.
Nanny was stubborn and opinionated, with an affinity for pearls. I venture to say she often felt misunderstood. I am not entirely unlike her.
In the end I think she realized some of the mistakes she made in life, but like any proper southern woman choose to keep her chin up and move forward as if nothing happened. Like any of us, she wanted to be loved for being herself. My mom showed the greatest act of love and forgiveness by staying by her side for the past several years of ups and downs.
Knowing her and her story has made me aware of the importance of standing by your family, and knowing that we don’t always mean to hurt each other the way we do sometimes. Nanny left the world surrounded with love with my mom holding her hand – the way that everyone deserves to go.