She Made Me Strong and Fierce

Last Sunday, I was writing out my Christmas cards. Okay, I was addressing envelopes. Because honestly, even though I know some people will judge me, I do not have the mental energy required to personalize every single card.

Happy Holidays! Love, My Family!

I address envelopes in alphabetical order because, as a traditionalist, I keep an address book. It is the easiest way to not miss anyone if I start with A and go all the way to Z.

When I reached the Ss, I cried. I whimpered and tears filled my eyes. Aunt B passed away last month, and the sadness is still fresh. I had cried the week before while putting presents in the basement because her present from last year is still down there and wrapped. We never made it to her house for a visit like we usually do in December. I had excuses. Now, I have regrets.

Aunt B loved me. I knew it. She loved me as a child, although we shared no blood. When she passed away and I needed a day off, I had to explain. “See, Aunt B was my godfather’s wife. They divorced in my early teens. I didn’t see her for years. I didn’t see him either. He skipped all my important events. She didn’t come in case he was there, figuring he “won” me in the divorce. She didn’t know. And when she saw me again at my bridal shower, she cried tears of joy. Aunt B was back in my life. Anyway… She passed. I am not okay. I’m going to say goodbye.”

So she’s not really your aunt then?

I mean, maybe not by definition, but she is my family. I love her and she loves me. And what else is family but that?

I was nervous about going to her service. I did not think anyone would recognize me. It has been twenty years since I had seen her son. I met her granddaughter at Sunshine’s first birthday party. She was coincidentally dating my brother in law at that time. So I would probably be familiar to her in a I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it sort of way. But otherwise, I could be anyone crashing a funeral. What if I was not sad enough? What if I was too sad?

Thankfully, my mother offered to go with me. My older sisters also came to pay their respects to someone that was part of their childhoods.

And they did know me. “She kept all of your letters,” her son said. “I’d love to get them back to you.”

I cried quietly in the back of the parlor. I let my mother hold my hand. She held my whole body while I sobbed in the parking lot. “I just got her back,” I cried. “I loved her. I just got her back.”

This time of year is difficult. It is filled with joy and anticipation and love, but it always reminds me of loss as well.

“What will you be doing for Thanksgiving?”

This is a simple question.

But the answer is great.

I never leave home for Thanksgiving. See, Thanksgiving was a Grandma holiday. All of the cousins, the aunts, the uncles, everyone… We all went to Grandma’s for dinner. She set up three tables. The dining room for the adults. The living room for the teens. The kitchen for the kids. It was a big event. Grandma was not a great cook, but she had foods we were used to, we expected, and we appreciated.

In 2007, I was a senior in undergrad. I came home for the holiday as I usually did. But Grandma would not be cooking. She was in the hospital, recovering from surgery to remove a tumor.

Dad asked me if I wanted to go see her before break ended, and I wavered. Hospitals trigger my anxiety. The smell, the fear, the death lurking around each corner… It is all too much for me.

In the end, I went.

Grandma passed away less than two weeks later, having never fully recovered from her surgery. A blood clot traveled to her heart. She went quickly. Death had been waiting for her around that corner. She was gone.

I will never forget what happened when I found out. Saint Daddy had left my dorm room about twenty minutes before. It was a Sunday in December. It was dark outside. My roommate was not back from her boyfriend’s. I was watching American Beauty and typing an essay for Women’s Lit that was due before noon the next day. My phone rang. It was my sister. Strange. “Grandma’s gone. She died. She died.” She repeated herself because the words made no sense. I dropped the phone to the floor, and I sobbed. Audibly. In that quiet dorm room. I called Saint Daddy, and he offered to come back. I told him not to. I would find someone on campus who would help me feel less alone.

I did. I had friends in a dorm across campus who told me to come over immediately. We watched something funny that I cannot remember. They offered me silence and companionship, and I was grateful.

In the morning, I went to my Women’s Lit professor and asked for an extension. She told me not to even worry about the essay. She asked if I needed a ride home. She was willing to drive me three hours to be with family. She contacted my other professors. She told me I could miss her final, which was the following week. She was my professor for four other courses in undergrad, I was taking Women’s Lit as an independent study, she knew what kind of student I was, and she did not need more evidence of my dedication to know what grade I would receive in the course.

She did not drive me home. I gratefully accepted a few extensions, but all of my work was in before the semester ended. I took all of my finals. Perhaps that is why the offer was made. I was not the kind of student who would take it unless I was completely shattered.

But I was shattered. Thin, spidery lines of weakness spread over my person. I was destroyed.

Grandma was, and will always be, the strongest person I know. As I grow older, I learn more about her, and I am even more in awe of her. She was born at a time when being a woman came with few choices. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school. Her class ring is in my jewelry box and mentioned in my will. She married, at 18, a man 11 years older than she was. She had four children, peppered with a few miscarriages. She worked long hours on factory floors to help feed her children. She developed fierce lady friendships. Her dear friend, whom I knew as Nana, loved us all. Nana’s piano is in my dining room. She stopped her car to pick up trash in the streets, she threatened naughty kids with her shoe, she gave us presents of things she found in her house, and she rounded up all of her grandchildren for movie nights followed by hamburgers at McDonald’s.

Grandma never missed a concert, a performance, a party, or a graduation. She picked us up for sleepovers. She was the emergency contact at school, and she answered the call a few times when my belly was upset, bringing me to her house where she provided saltines and cartoons until Mom came.

We had picnics in the backyard. She pummeled ramen soup to bits. She taught me every card game I knew at her coffee table with hot tea and butter cookies. She reminded me that seven is the Lord’s number, so we always shuffle seven times. She took me with her to performances at the city’s concert hall. She had season passes, and I was her favorite date, she said.

When I quit my first job, I walked to her house, ashamed. I believed she would berate me for giving up. We had recently talked about how much I hated it. Instead, she told me that she knew I did what my heart told me to do. When I missed home my first year at undergrad, she wrote me letters to remind me that home would be there but I was in the right place.

She was tough and loving. I am lucky to have had her in my life.

When we lost her, I began to think about all of the things I would no longer have. She would not be at my college graduation. She would not be at my wedding. She would never hold my children. She would not know the person whom I was to become.

There would never be another Thanksgiving at Grandma’s.

Saint Daddy and I bought our first home eight months after Grandma passed away. We lived three and a half hours from our families, and we decided together that we wanted a holiday we spent at home.

Thanksgiving is that holiday.

What are you doing for Thanksgiving?

Staying home. Staying home because on December 2, 2007, I lost one of the greatest people I will ever know. I carry her with me at all times. I gave Sunshine her name. But the holiday would always have been filled with sadness if I did not make a huge change.

The thing, what my Women’s Lit professor even tried to tell me, is my grandmother is never not with me. Whatever I believe when it comes to afterlife does not matter ultimately. Because the memory of Grandma is always here.

Grandma helped shape the person I am. She made me strong and fierce.

And sure, I have mental illness, but it turns out, Grandma had her demons too. But she lived at a time when it was not okay to acknowledge it.

But Grandma showed me how to be a mom. She showed me to how to keep going. She showed me how to love yourself and your family.

This time of year is filled with joy and with the remembrances of loss.

I am so lucky to have known people worthy of being missed.

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