My grandma Dena passed away last week, and she was 101. I loved her very much; we had a deep bond. This was her, just before her 100th birthday.
Yesterday, at her service, a cousin came up to me and said, “Even if I didn’t know who you were, I’d know who you were, you look just like your mother. I just loved your mother.”
That was about the last thing I expected to hear (especially since my grandma was on my dad’s side of the family) but it was sweet. My mom and my grandma were close too.
My family on my father’s side is frankly extraordinary… it would take some time to tell their tale, and even if I did, no one would believe me; its colours are as absurd, as unreal, at the desert my grandma loved to paint.
There is a family graveyard up in the mountains south of Tucson, where my great-grandfather and his companions made their home at the turn of the last century. My grandmother was born there, in the summer of 1914, and now she is buried by my grandpa Charlie, her parents, her brothers, sisters, cousins, and her sons, Randy and Stan.
Stan was my father, who died in his 60s. Randy was his younger brother, who died when he was only 13.
Randy’s death was an accident that was no one’s fault, and happened while I was a babe in womb. His loss almost destroyed my grandparents; he was a sweet, funny boy, and their youngest. My grandma was still in very tough shape when I was born some months later. The circumstances of my birth were difficult, my mother was hospitalized for months, and I, newborn, fully aware, and furious to have awakened in a crib on Terra, refused to eat.
My father did the only thing he knew to do, and flew me home into my grandmother’s arms, and we saved each other, and that was that. Although I forgot (in the way that babies must) who I was and where I came from, I never forgot the relief for each of us when she took my tiny little body into her arms and told me that everything was going to be all right, all right.
I don’t know that anything was really ever really all right for her again after Randy died. Certainly my grandfather changed forever; he died almost 40 years later, still angry at a God he didn’t even know if he believed in. My grandma, though, was made of different stuff, and had enough bandwidth to feel everything at once.
Like my mother did, she helped me understand that I could be both wild and free, destroyed and undestroyable, fearless and thoughtful. And she was truthful in a simple, clear way; however unlikely, however unbelievable, she said and she painted what she saw in her everyday life.
It felt very strange to take this painting off of her living room wall. But it also helped me understand that she wasn’t coming back to that small house again.
And in a way, the painting really was of yesterday; the vigor of the plants still alive, still blooming, brought into context by the beauty of the other plant, finished, but heavy with seed. The death of the one gives full context to the life and ephemeral nowness of the others.