My Grandma Mary Beth passed last summer. I say "passed" instead of "passed away" because, like my Dad says, "They haven't gone away." Transformed, maybe. Gone from this place, perhaps. But not passed away. She was followed by her husband, my Grandpa John last week.
My grandparents lived in Upper Peninsula Michigan, Sault Ste. Marie, right on the border of Canada. My mom grew up there until her family moved south for a few years for graduate school and she stayed, but the U.P. was like a foreign country to me as a girl raised in the sunny south. It was surrounded by the Great Lakes and a huge sky that stayed light until ten at night in the summer. The town was old, settled by Native Americans and, later, French trappers. It looked like something out of the 1950s with hand-painted signs "Welcome to the Soo!" My grandfather's family was Norwegian and came for the fish to a world that must have been very similar to the one they left. My grandmother was Irish Catholic, which was also foreign and exciting to me as a Presbyterian child. I used to love to look in her jewelry box at her colorful prayer cards and beaded rosary.
In truth, even though we visited them every year in the summer, and they came down to visit us every year in the winter, I always felt an initial distance when we met. Their accents always startled me. My Grandpa John, who had been in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed, had a way of smiling without moving anything but the corners of his mouth and his eyes. They played cards for nickels and golfed, had the same friends since childhood, and were rooted in their place of freighters and locks. Routine and sameness claimed their lives. The chiming clock on the hutch struck on the hour, and every morning Grandpa John drove to the store to pick up the morning paper where he had been a journalist for years. After dinner, Grandma Mary Beth knit sweater after sweater. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she played bridge, on Wednesdays she volunteered at the Elementary School, on Mondays and Fridays she golfed with girlfriends.
What would seem oddly simple, even regimented to me when we first arrived always lured me in by the time we left. We read books, took walks, learned to golf, watched the freighters barely moving in the distance until they disappeared. Their love was different than what I was used to. Grandma Mary Beth hugged me lots and was always touching my hair or wanting to file my nails. "You are just a doll!" She would squeeze my hand.
Grandpa John never said, "I love you" until he turned 85. Then all of a sudden I heard my, "I'll talk to you later, Grandpa. I love you" returned through the phone lines. That was right before he became Catholic after a lifetime of reading the papers on Sunday mornings. He didn't have to say it though. I knew because of his letters. Typed on a typewriter, they arrived each month at every address I had growing up: Tennessee, New Jersey, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arizona, Mississippi, Tennessee, and finally Mississippi again.
I had some very rotten and rough years from about age twelve to age twenty-four. I was pretty unlovable to my family. Mostly I was unlovable to myself. I was never unlovable to my grandparents. No matter how horrible I was, the letters always came. No matter how ruined I was when I arrived, I was always a "doll." They saw in me something I was not, but something I wanted to become when I was around them. And their well-lived lives gave me a model for peaceful living.
Almost a year ago this month, I was able to go off antidepressants for the first time since my early twenties. I have finally learned the tools necessary for life with a wonky brain. I got scared that I might sink when life threw curve balls like death in the way. Instead, I am able to feel the fullness of my grandparents' lives. Because they are part of me, I am able to pull out tools like healthy routines, prayer, and exercise and delve into the beautiful sadness of saying good-bye.