Grandma Betty kept an old school bell on the nightstand beside her bed. She rang it whenever she needed help. She must have been reaching for it when she died because when my father found her, one leg was dangling over the bed and an arm was flung out, as if she were reaching for the bell.
While visiting my parents, I heard Grandma ring the bell twice. Both times, I found her lying on her bed, her chest rattling, her skin clammy, her fingers blue as she struggled for breath. Both times, I wiped her mouth, held her in my arms, and waited for her to start breathing again.
As I held her then, I realized how few childhood memories I had of Grandma Betty. What memories I had were of a woman who loved flowers and who would talk to us while sitting at her kitchen table, smoking her cigarettes.
“A nasty habit,” she would say, smoke curling from her nostrils. “Never start smoking.”
Grandma Betty lived in Iowa. She loved its rich, black earth and oceans of cornfields. She raised her own vegetables in a yard covered with fruit trees and hollyhocks.
My mother was the oldest of Grandma’s four children. As a young woman, Mother had left Iowa. Moving to Utah, she married the young missionary who had introduced both Grandma and her to the gospel.
Mother often told us of her home in far-away Iowa. In our minds, we could see her old, two-story house and smell the peonies and lilacs scattered throughout the yard. Mother missed being close to Grandma, regretted that we couldn’t get to know her better. But nine children kept Mother busy, and the chances for us to visit were few.
Grandma was never active in the Church. “Doesn’t Grandma like our church?” I remember asking after one of our infrequent visits. “She never goes, does she?” Mother smiled, but her eyes were sad. She said Grandma felt uncomfortable because she smoked.
“Grandma Betty is a wonderful woman,” she said. “A caring woman. When you get to know her better, you will understand her. It isn’t for us to judge.”
I lost track of Grandma during my teenage years. There were yearly birthday cards and a handmade afghan when I graduated from high school. On the day I married, she sent a card with twenty dollars tucked inside and a scribbled note saying that she wasn’t feeling very well.
I hardly noticed. Soon, my husband, Jeff, was in school. We were decorating our first apartment, and I was working a new job. Over the next few years, we had two children, Jeff completed school, and we moved to Texas. When Grandma Betty injured her back, then developed emphysema, I still hardly noticed.
“It’s too bad,” I told my husband, “but really, after so many years of smoking, what did she expect?”
As Grandma’s lungs weakened, Mother spent more time in Iowa taking care of her. When Jeff and I moved to Missouri, Grandma wrote, wondering if we could come visit her now that we were only one state away.
I went after the birth of our third child. Grandma seemed smaller than I remembered, and her house looked more like a hospital than a home. But she still sat at the kitchen table to talk as she smoked, though she now hobbled with crutches to get there. And before smoking, she removed the nose tube that delivered oxygen from a tank in the corner.
I didn’t see Grandma again until a year later when we moved to Minnesota. Now in constant pain, she seldom made it to the kitchen table. Her oxygen tank bubbled, and she lay on her bed, sucking in breathfuls of precious air.
She was often too tired to talk, so I roamed her house, keeping my three children quiet so she could sleep. I read a lot, discovering Grandma’s vast library of books on everything from ancient civilizations to oil painting.
When we left for Minnesota, Grandma struggled from bed to say good-bye and to slip one of her history books into my hands. I smiled, wrapping an arm around her fragile shoulders. The book was a token of this thing we’d discovered we held in common: a love of learning.
In the next year, we spent a lot of time with Grandma: Thanksgiving, Christmas, any time when we could make the short trip to Iowa. I learned about Grandma’s family, finding pictures of rugged men and stern women staring out at me from faded frames, their names as familiar as their faces were remote.
I even found a box of sermons written by a Scottish ancestor, sermons he gave as a minister in the Church of Scotland. Staring at the meticulous writing, I felt threads of our common history weaving together. “Let us love one another,” he had written.
I could almost hear my mother’s words echo: “Grandma Betty is a wonderful woman. When you get to know her better, you will understand her. Don’t judge her; just love her.”
Over the next few months, Grandma Betty’s condition worsened. She seldom moved from her bed, and even with oxygen, each breath was a battle.
Mother went to Iowa to be with her. When she returned home, she took Grandma with her.
Mother filled Grandma Betty’s “Utah” room with as many of Grandma’s possessions as she could. Pictures covered the walls, and in a cabinet stood knickknacks collected over the years. By her bed was a nightstand piled with books, letters, and the old school bell. Beneath her pillow, Grandma kept a Bible and a well-worn copy of the Book of Mormon.
That summer, returning home for a visit, I brought a stack of magazines for Grandma to read. The house was full of my eight brothers and sisters, their spouses and children. Grandma looked pale and her eyes were swollen, but she looked happier than I had seen her in months.
“There’s a lot of action around here,” I said, laying the magazines on her bed. “I hope you can ignore all the noise long enough to read these.”
Grandma shuffled through them, then smiled. “Unless they’re large print, I won’t be able to. I’m losing my sight to cataracts, you know.”
I promised to read to her, then leaned forward to kiss a cheek that felt like parchment.
“We’re a lot alike,” she whispered. “You like to read as much as I do.”
I nodded. “I just didn’t realize it until now.”
We carried Grandma outside for the family picnics and barbecues. Once, she even made her painful way out to the kitchen table to join in our nightly family chat. Twice, we almost lost her, but she clung to life, enjoying each day that the family spent together.
On the day I left, I bought her a bouquet of flowers. Placing them on her bedside table, I somehow knew that this would be the last time I would see her in this life.
Grandma died the day after the last of my sisters left for Michigan with her children.
“It was like the last hurrah,” my mother said. “As if she waited just long enough to be with us all again.”
I thought of Grandma, remembering how her eyes lighted up when one of us went into her room for a visit. Or how she enjoyed sitting under our large cottonwood tree, watching her great-grandchildren wrestling on the lawn.
We buried Grandma in Iowa, in a country cemetery blanketed with flowers and dotted with trees. Among the many friends and family at the funeral were her visiting teachers, Relief Society sisters, and bishop.
Mother cleaned out Grandma’s “Utah” room, lovingly boxing up a few possessions while keeping others out to remind us of the woman Grandma was. While sorting through Grandma’s cluttered nightstand, she found a poem Grandma had written years ago:
My daughter lives so far away;
My thoughts are with her all the day.
Her home is filled with children dear
That turn a winter that is drear
Into a warmth that feels no cold
And is more precious than any gold.
So though my daughter is miles away,
My thoughts of her brighten up the day.
Mother laminated the poem and sent one to each of her children. Her only regret was that Grandma hadn’t sent it to her years ago when distance had separated them for so long. And before death could separate them again.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I told her after she sent me the poem. “You’ll see her again. And Grandma will be waiting, I’m sure of that. Grandma always said she wasn’t afraid to die because she knew where she was going.”
I paused and smiled, imagining Grandma in a place where lilacs bloom and gardens always grow, where the soil is as rich as the black Iowa sod.