This is a tribute to my other grandmother. Were she alive she would have turned 97 today. I originally posted this at that other site I used to write for back in 2002 after she passed. I have modified it and added to it a bit from that original version.
Happy Birthday Grandma. I miss you.
I get my collecting “bug” from my Grandma…
I think collecting is genetic and like hair loss, it skips a generation. No one else in my family really had the zeal or drive to collect things like my grandmother and me. Collecting was the main thing my grandmother and I always had in common and I think she always kind of looked to me to “carry on” in her absence. She collected a lot of things, plates, antiques, and truth be told she kept just about everything that passed through her hands. Not in a scary, “pack-rat”, “crazy cat lady” or “Dateline NBC” kind of way, Grandma was a VERY tidy person, you always knew that everything would be the same on each visit, but she kept a running log of her life in the form of “things.”
She was a SHARP lady. Fiercely independent, flexible; you never saw her unless she looked like a million bucks. In the almost 30 years that I knew her I never once saw her without her wig on. In her whole life she never ONCE wore slacks to church; only long skirts or dresses. She always told me that I was like her in spirit, and depending on how old I was and how I looked at the time, she would go back and forth as to whether I looked like my dad or my grandpa. I had never met my grandfather. He died of a heart attack when my father was 17. Grandma never remarried. She lived alone in that house for another 40 years. She always said I had my grandfather’s hands. That always made me feel good, because she would hold my hands for a while and I always felt like I was able to provide her some level of connection and comfort.
I used to see movies with my Grandma. I’d spend a full day with her a few times in the summer, just her and me. And thinking back on the movies we saw, I can’t IMAGINE her having any interest in themâ€¦ but she did watch them with me and she was paying attention. One of my all time favorite memories of my grandmother would have been in 1983. I talked her into taking me to see Return of the Jedi. I was probably seeing it for the 4th or 5th time at this point (because back in those days, kids, you HAD to go back to the theater to see a movie! We didn’t have DVD players and it took 2 or more years from release for something to come out on VHS). I can’t say for sure if she had seen any of the other Star Wars films, but I suspect I made her take me to see The Empire Strikes Back at least once. We were sitting in the theater watching Jedi, and bear in mind, Grandma was in her 70s at this point, and we’re at the part at the beginning at Jabba’s palace, and the mysterious bounty hunter Boush is sneaking up to the frozen block that is Han Solo, and Grandma turns to me and says “That one walks like a woman.” WOW! That blew my 12-year-old mind! Grandma had figured out one of the big surprises in the movie before the reveal. I mean, I knew it was Princess Leia under there because I had already seen the movie a couple of times. But I certainly didn’t figure that out on MY first viewing. I remember sitting there in the theater thinking “Wow. Grandma is cool.”
Cut to a 2001: Grandma was 91, well on her way to 92 and we had JUST convinced her to stop driving in October. We knew something was affecting her mind, but I never heard a name given to it. We knew it was the early stages of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or just age catching up with her. Her memory was slipping, she couldn’t smell things any more, her hearing was shot, and she had a lot of trouble finding the words she was looking for when she talked. She never got to a point where she didn’t recognize any of us, but you could tell the loss of her always sharp mind was starting to frustrate her. She always had a mind for details: names, events, family history, etc. so to lose that, both for her sense of pride in that and the family losing all of that history..you just can’t put words to that.
Grandma had an odd habit that drove most of the family nuts! It always gave her a sense of comfort to know where her collection, where her “things” would go after she was gone. She wanted them to be with people who appreciated them. So, any time you would comment on something in her house or even just pick it up and look at it, she would take a small piece of white medical tape, write your name in blue ink and stick it to the bottom of said item. That meant that when she was dead, this item would go to you. This really drove my parents crazy as I was growing up. They just thought it was morbid and wanted no part of it. I was a kid and in the early stages of my collecting “disorder” and all I knew was that Grandma was promising me cool stuff. So, my name was all OVER that place. Sometimes she didn’t want to wait until she was gone, she just needed more room in her house, or she was just looking to simplify her life, and so she would send you home with another item that had your name on it after each visit. It gave her comfort to give her things to people who would appreciate them as much as she did, it gives me comfort to have those things now.
When I hear about families fighting about the estate of a relative that had passed I think of Grandma and her medical tape and blue pen. Grim as it might have been, Grandma was even sharper than we realized.
That October, she realized her limitations and agreed to move into an assisted living center close to my folks. They hired a moving company, and moved a lot of her furniture with her, but as they were packing up, she didn’t seem interested in taking very many of her antique/collected things. She took several significant pieces: a cup and saucer set her father had given her, a pitcher given to her by her late husband, and a Styrofoam wig-stand that still has the word: GRAND-MA spelled out in hat pins that I had snuck into her closet and made when I was 8 years old. Everything else she left behind in that house. That house her husband had helped build, that house where she raised her kids, that house where her husband… her soul mate died suddenly in his sleep, that house where she lived alone more years than I’ve been alive, that lonely house was now alone.
There was still a LOT of stuff in that house. On our way back from a family celebration on Christmas Eve we stopped by the vacant house; my wife, my older brother, and I. We had been instructed to go through and see if there was anything else we were interested in for the eventuality of either: a. Grandma passing or b. them selling the house. It didn’t have the same feel this time. It was creepy, it was odd, and it made us feel like grave robbers even though she was still alive. Then we really started to get a sense of what all Grandma collected. We saw history: her history, our family’s, and our country’s. Grandma was the keeper of a chronicle over 100 years old. She kept toys, clothes, magazines, and newspapers. She kept almost every piece of personal correspondence, from her 5th grade valentines to the “get well” cards she died surrounded by. She had sheet music, magazines and newspapers from the turn of the century. She had fascinating items that belonged to her parents. She had many of her childhood dolls, my aunt’s childhood dolls, she had touchstones of any memory she wanted to go back and revisit.
That year the end of December 2001, Grandma had a stroke. It was a serious one that left her paralyzed on her left side and unable to swallow. She had a DNR order, so according to her wishes there was nothing we could do for her at that point. We just had to make sure she was comfortable as we waited for the inevitable. She died on January 18th 2002, and we buried her on Monday.
We went to a viewing of her body, just the family. My dad, her son’s family, and my aunt, her daughter’s family. Her family. I hadn’t seen many of my cousins in 10 years, some more. I had never been to a viewing before and didn’t really know what to expect. I remember there was some discussion that she was going to be buried without her glasses because no one had thought of that detail. Everyone agreed that it would have been nice to remember to grab a pair from her house, but she really didn’t need them at this point. And then… we discovered “the drawer.” I loved the drawer. As the top of the casket was open, in the side of the bottom lid there was a drawer. I guess you are supposed to put keepsakes or notes or something in there. I just remembered the jokes everyone was making about what to put in there. I still laugh when I think of my aunt saying “I guess we could put a deck of cards in there.” Had I know the drawer was in there… I probably would have put a Boush action figure in there. So Grandma would always know I thought she was cool.
Then my family was faced with the task of unraveling her collection. Most of her things she had labeled with when she got them, how old they were and who or where she got them from. We also found things like a box full of old BIC pen caps and the lid to every medicine bottle she’d ever opened along with her more elegant, extensive collections of antiques, plates, butter dishes and the like. My family thinks this is odd, but I know exactly where that comes from. And from here on out, every time I pick up some figure by Trendmasters or some odd thing in a line I don’t collect or any time I hesitate throwing away the package or lame accessory to a figure I have opened, I’ll know why that impulse is deeply rooted within me.
In going through Grandma’s things I also found many clippings, letters, and articles from 1895 to 1960’s. Some were from small town news, some were from large companies from New York, and many we don’t know where they were from. We just know that she liked them enough to save them all this time. The one through-line of all of these scraps of her history, is that they all contain a sense of poetry that you no longer find in letter writing or news reporting. Even the obituaries were something you could tell was extensively researched and you could tell someone spent a lot of time and thought. I think that’s what this essay is. It’s an attempt to give her the obituary she deserved, from someone that loved her dearly.
Helen Pickett 1910-2002
Be bold and let the mighty forces come to your aid–Goethe
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