It was Thanksgiving Day. My mother’s kitchen was comfortably warm from the cooking and was filled with the fragrance of apples, cinnamon, sage dressing, and roasting turkey.
“Smells good,” I said. “When will it be ready?”
“About an hour.” My mother was slicing bananas for a fruit salad.
I reached over and took a piece of banana.
“You can wait.” She looked up and smiled and then handed me a bowl filled with potatoes.
“Peel these and cut them up.”
I sat at the table and started peeling. The potatoes were from our garden and had a sweet, earthy smell.
“Eric and Tammy.” She took a roll pan from beneath the stove. My mother is famous for her rolls. They are lighter and better tasting than anything you could ever imagine.
“Carol and June.” She hesitated. “Grandma’s coming.”
I looked out the window. It had been raining, but now it had stopped, and the sky was clearing up. There were patches of blue, and the shadows of clouds were drifting silently over the soft brown and gray colors of early winter. A few leaves were still clinging to trees, as if they couldn’t accept the coming winter.
“It’s stopped raining. I didn’t think Grandma was well enough.”
“She’s been a lot better lately, it’s good for her to get out. She doesn’t like being there.”
With a spoon she dropped sticky dough into the pan. When it was filled, she covered it with a cloth.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen her, hasn’t it?”
I nodded. It had been a long time, almost two years. They’d put her in the rest home while I was away from home for my first year of college.
“You should have gone to visit her.”
“Why? She wouldn’t even know who I am.”
“She knows,” she said, washing flour from her hands. “She forgets names sometimes, but she still knows who comes to visit her and who doesn’t. And even if she can’t remember anything, you should still go to see her.”
It was an old conversation, and I had known my mother was right the first time we’d had it. I should have gone, but I hadn’t. I had even avoided it. The stories I’d heard—my grandmother fighting with nurses, not recognizing her own children. Somehow the words senile and old didn’t fit my grandmother. She had always been so strong and self-reliant. She never forgot anything. She sent birthday cards to her children and her grandchildren, all 42 of them. She never forgot. I didn’t want to see her changed. I’d always looked up to her.
During the summers, when I was young, I would work with her in her garden. It was one of the largest and best kept in the area. The furrows were all neat and even, and it was filled with almost every vegetable that would grow in our climate and even a few that weren’t supposed to. The outside edge of the garden was surrounded by flowers and berry bushes. I can still see her moving along the furrows, the hoe coming down fast and hard, her head covered with a wide-brimmed straw hat tied down with a red scarf.
That is how I wanted to remember her. I didn’t want to see her any other way.
My mother was taking the turkey from the oven when they arrived. My aunt Carol set pies on the table and then helped my grandmother into the room. Grandma was thinner and paler than I remembered. My mother put her arms around her. Grandma smiled. I thought about leaving the room, but I didn’t. My mother, my aunt, and my sister started setting the table. Grandma was standing near the table. She was looking at me. I tried to look away. My mother was putting the turkey on a platter. They were all talking and laughing. I looked back at grandma. She was still looking at me. I tried to smile. She raised her hand, motioning for me to come to her. The hand was shaking. She reached up and put her hand on my shoulder. She smiled and looked into my eyes. She put her arms around me and hugged me.
“It will be all right,” she said, comforting and counseling me like she’d done a hundred times before.
Her eyes still held the fire they’d always had. They were still strong and full of love. I knew then that what she was inside would never change. The body might grow old and weak, the mind might fail, but the spirit never stops existing.
My grandmother died the following summer. My brother Jeff gave one of the eulogies. In his talk he read a note my grandmother had written in her husband’s funeral book. The entry was dated August 3, 1941.
“Dear Husband, I thank my Father in Heaven for showing his love to me when we met. I have loved you ever since. I hope we will soon be united again. Each passing day is a day closer to you. It has been heavenly to be the mother of your children. They are the most wonderful gift of all our earthly journey together. May we go on and on forever. Your wife.”
There is always sadness at a funeral. We feel a sense of loss. But mostly what I felt at my grandmother’s funeral was something else. I knew that what she was—the heart, the love, the wisdom, the gentleness, the spirit—would never die. It couldn’t be conquered by death or old age. She would always live. And because of that, I felt a strong connection to an eternal family.