Monday, December 6, 2010
The week before Thanksgiving, I was at my parents house with Jack when my dad got a phone call. His mother had died. It came as a shock to my dad and the rest of the family. She was eighty-three years old but still living in her house, taking care of herself and even volunteering at the hospital each week. She wasn't sick at all.
We all went to Dallas that weekend for the service - my aunts, uncles and cousins. My family handled the next several days in a way that was beautifully balanced between sadness and celebration. This is one thing I love about them. They have the heart-warming ability to tend to the practical business of death without ignoring the pain everyone feels and the tears that need to be shed. And there is still a sense of gladness we are all together, still jokes to be made and laughter to share in the midst of grief. In the spirit of this ability to celebrate, I'd like to dedicate this writing to my grandmother, June Saint Germain Coover, and all that she was in life.
It didn't really hit me that she was gone until Friday night, when Jason took my cousins and mom to the airport to pick up my sister. I was alone in her house, with Jack asleep in the bedroom. I walked around and looked at all of the things I had seen countless times throughout childhood in visits to my grandmother's house - the shells on the window sill in the bathroom, the tiny african violets in the kitchen, the blue and white china dinner dishes. But what really got to me was her sewing room. I saw neatly folded fabrics, meticulously labeled with type, number of yards and whether or not she had washed it. Laid out on a table, I saw a pattern for a skirt with fabric and lace trim obviously meant for that pattern. I could tell she had intended to make the skirt for herself. That's when I really felt how abruptly she had gone. She had all of these things she intended to do that would now never be completed. I was much more hesitant to disturb the fabric and pattern than other things in the house. It was as if I still expected her to come back and finish it, and I didn't want to disarray it for her. I think that sentiment ran throughout the family, too. Later that weekend, my dad found an incomplete "to do" list in the study. He held it up and exclaimed, "She can't leave us yet. She hasn't finished this list!"
When you look through the house, you can see a little of who my grandmother was, but things do not tell a person's true, complete story. I did not spend a lot of time with her as an adult, but as a child growing up living thirty minutes from her house, we went over there on a regular basis. Here is what I remember about her:
I remember her "tee-hee" laugh. It was almost like a cartoon grandmother laugh, and I thought it was cute even when I was five years old. I remember when I'd stay with her, she'd let me put sugar on my cereal and we'd have ding-dongs for dessert - things we didn't do at home. But, it was only one spoonful of sugar and only one ding-dong. June Coover liked sweets, but she was all about self-control and reasonable limits. I remember there used to be a swing that hung from the huge sicamore tree in her front yard. It was the kind made out of a board and two ropes, like something out of a fairy tale. I'd swing on that swing and look at the white ceramic cats on the roof of the house across the street, wondering if they were real, watching for them to move. I remember my grandmother's love of dogs and babies. Both seemed to gravitate towards her instinctively. Fussy babies instantly slept on her bosom, and dogs were all wags around her. She had a beagle named Tex when I was really young. That dog wore a path in the grass where he walked the same route around the house every day. Later, she had a golden retriever named Lilly. I remember helping Grandmother bathe her and brush her and the big fluffs of golden hair that would drift across the lawn afterward. My grandmother loved to swim. I remember when she finally got an in-ground pool in the back yard. She got in that pool to exercise or to relax. We spent many a birthday, and fourth of July over there swimming in that pool. The whole family would get together and cook out hot dogs and hamburgers. We kids (and some adults too) would fill up water balloons and have a blast breaking them all over the place.
I remember my grandmother as a warm, loving person. She indulged her grandchildren to some extent but never to the point of gluttony. She was fun. She always had great toys and books at her house. She knew what children liked. She had her rules, though. There was a bedtime, even at her house, and toys were to be picked up and put away when you finished with them. She was a disciplined, organized person. I imagine that's how she managed to raise four children for a time at least, in a two bedroom one bathroom house without totally losing her sanity. My grandmother worked hard for a lot of her life, and she didn't complain. She simply did what needed doing and still managed to be a pleasant person, to boot. Circumstances that would have made a lot of people bitter, did not seem to affect her spirit much at all. Hardship that might have given her an excuse to lie down and not "do" did nothing of the sort. Her concern for others - her children, her family, her community - often superseded her attention to herself. Several times since her death three weeks ago, I've heard people say she was a saint. And, while I try not to deify those that have passed away (after all, no matter how wonderful they were, they were still human with faults like the rest of us) in this case, I tend to agree. I am not a religious person, and I don't know what the qualifications for sainthood are, but my grandmother surely hit close to the mark. Only once in my life did I hear her say something even remotely negative about another person. And while I know she wasn't perfect, I think she truly strived to see the good in all people. I think she honestly and pervasively worked to be nonjudgmental of others. Through her work at her church and the hospital, she put her beliefs into action, something so few of us do, but she did not pontificate or preach at people. In that way, she was a woman of action.
I love and admire my grandmother - yes, I always oddly, formally called her "grandmother," while my younger cousins came up with the warmer moniker "Grammy June." And even though as an adult, I only saw her a couple of times a year, I miss her. I missed her at Thanksgiving, and I'm going to miss her next year when we all gather at the lake for the Fourth of July, but even now, here in my own house in Austin I miss her. I miss the idea of her in the world, because it was a better place for her having been here. This writing is not just for her, but for the whole family, because whomever she was to us - June, Mom, Grandmother, Grammy June - she can live on not just in our memories but in who we choose to be, in our actions that we learned from her.