I cannot imagine many people on this planet have had the good fortune to have all four of their grandparents live in such close proximity to them as my brother, sister, and I did. I can’t imagine that any of them had finer people for grandparents, either. The two couples were as different as night and day in many respects, but we loved them all fiercely and their legacies in our family are powerful.
My Grandma Phyllis is my maternal grandmother and now 91. She is the last of our grandparents still living, and she is the very essence of what it means to be a stubborn Swede. She is made of sturdy stuff. Our family didn’t do lots of hugs or kisses when I was growing up, but we were in no way concerned that we weren’t loved. We most certainly were, and unconditionally at that. All four of our grandparents just had a way of being there for and with us without having to say much. We Swedish Lutheran Iowans are a rather stoic people, so showing lots of emotion would just have seemed silly.
Not getting hugs didn’t mean we didn’t get affection. We had so many acts of love that demonstrated to us regularly how much we were cared for. My Grandma Phyllis was an outstanding cook, so her love language was often the food she prepared for us. She also had a knack for finding treasures at yard sales, so all of us have dish towels and silverware and vases from her treasure hunts through the years. She knew I loved apples, especially the ones from her trees, and on many occasions she would call me to come over and get the jar of baked apples that she had made just for me. Those gooey, cinnamony brown gems in the mayonnaise jar were all mine, and I never shared.
When my father died many years ago, I held the hand of my father’s mother seated next to me at the burial site, and my Grandma Phyllis stood behind me with her hand on my shoulder. Even through my own shaking shoulders I could feel her strong hand there. No words were needed. She was just there, as she always had been. It is probably my most vivid memory of that day.
When my grandpa died in March of 2012, Grandma couldn’t really get around physically. She chose to stay in the car near the burial site. One of the great joys in my life is that I was able to stand next to the car and hold her hand while we celebrated my grandpa’s wonderful life just as she had done for me years before.
More recently I got to hold her hand again when I visited her at Garden View, the care facility where she has lived for several years. These visits are bittersweet, of course. I have a hard time seeing her in her diminished capacity. The woman I had known all my life is vibrant and bustling and busy. She didn’t suffer fools lightly, and she had little use for long phone conversations or long hours spent on a porch sipping tea and telling stories. Now all she has are hours and hours. She doesn’t have much hearing or sight left, so she has little stimulation for her very active mind.
However, some of the civilities and stoicism of her younger years have been stripped away by age, so we are all more open with our hugs, kisses, and words of affection. In this last visit we kissed each other on the cheek. We said “I love you” to each other. But most importantly, I sat next to her bed and held her hand while we talked about all of the grand kids and great grand kids, the other residents, old memories, and the home made ice cream we were treated to. While I know the days must seem long and dreadfully boring to her, I feel blessed to have these quiet hours to hold her hand and simply be present, as she has always been for me.