Today is my grandma’s birthday and so it seems fitting that I’ve coincidentally reached the point in my vacation recap of writing about her memorial services. We called my grandma Mamoo and so I refer to her committal and Celebration of Life events as her Mamoorials and these were the real reason we went to California in the first place. When I tell people that my grandma died, I’ve noticed two common responses: “How old was she?” and “Were you close?” It is as if people are evaluating how “sorry” to be or much condolences to offer, with the older the person, the more appropriate the loss, or something like that. Anyway, she would have been 84 today. She has a beautifully long and vibrant life that was full of activity and experiences right up until the end. However, I had great-grandmas of my own until my late teen years and I fully and completely expected my kids to have the same experience. I heard from my mom that my grandma’s life insurance company still had her life expectancy at 15 more years, so forget the “how old” question and believe me when I say that her death came as an unexpected shock, even if it was in the “right” generational order and even though she was “old enough” that it doesn’t count as tragic. Since we always lived far away from each other and thus often went six months without seeing her, it is easy to forget that she’s gone and not at her home in California volunteering at the zoo and working in her sewing room. There is a definite sense of her life being “cut short,” regardless of her actual age. When we were at the beach following her Mamoorials, Zander found a whole tiny crab. He saved it and took it back to the condo saying as we walked, “I’m saving this for Mamoo! She’s going to love it!” (She did the children’s program at the zoo and she often carted strange artifacts of the natural world back to California from her visits to Missouri, including a whole donkey skull, but also things like a turtle shell and a hummingbird’s nest, and a whole well-preserved stag beetle. My dad often saved weird, dead things for her and she was always happy to receive them and add to the zoo’s demo collection.)
When I left off my vacation recapping last we had finished a fab stint at Legoland and were still in Carlsbad, California, which is about a six hour drive from Fresno, where my grandma lived. We opted, perhaps bizarrely perhaps geniusly, to fly to Fresno from San Diego, rather than making a long car trip. Tickets were only $60 each between the two and it seemed worth it to us. However, in my frenzy before leaving, I neglected to notice the difference between AM and PM on the tickets and accidentally booked a 10:00 PM flight to Fresno. After some intense lamenting that actually involved flinging myself on the bed and sobbing hysterically and then yelling about my own stupidity and what kind of IDIOT does that?!?! Someone who is too busy and MUST QUIT EVERYTHING AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, I decided to then, again perhaps bizarrely and perhaps geniusly, to buy new plane tickets for the correct AM flight, thus completely wasting $300, but restoring the “rightful” order of my plans. I tried to never think about it again, though as we enjoyed pizza with our extended family that evening in Fresno and rehearsed for the Mamoorial, I wondered if they were paging us for our PM flight back in San Diego…(why not switch tickets you ask, because there was a $200 penalty per ticket for doing so? I may not be a genius, but I can do enough math to realize that paying $200 to change a $60 ticket is not a realistic option).
The San Diego flight was awesome and easy and we got to Fresno right at 11:00 (a.m. 😉 ) and my dad picked us up at the airport in my grandma’s car. I knew as we started to descend into the Fresno airport and saw those so familiar flat, flat, flat squares of irrigated desert farmland, but without my grandma waiting there to meet us for the first time in my entire life, that I had significantly underestimated how difficult this was going to be. Getting into her familiar boat of a car that smelled like her and that had her sunglasses under the seat and her water bottle in the console with her name tidily written on it with Sharpie was hideous. Pulling into her little condo was even worse, but going inside was the worsest. My aunt and mom and sister were already there and had been there since the night before and they had a sort of rhythm and plan going on with sorting through my grandma’s things. The “bandaid had already been ripped off” in their case, as my aunt put it. I, however, was a complete mess. I could NOT believe how awful it was to be there and see her home without her in it. Again, there was that sense of her life cut short—her mousepad by the computer, her zoo jacket hanging on the door, her calendar on the wall with her writing on it, her exercise video in the VCR. So familiar and so over. I cried and cried and felt sort of stupid and also “drama queenish,” because everyone else was so busy and methodical and I felt like I was all like, “but look at me, I’m totally sad!” My aunt sat with me and then suggested I go ahead and keep ripping the bandaid by advance-watching the memorial slideshow for the Celebration of Life luncheon the next day. This was a spectacularly good idea and really helped. Her house was so full of things familiar to me from my childhood and it was also remarkably and beautifully full of us, pictures of my kids all over, things I made for her on walls and shelves. It was a mirror experience of what I already observed at my own home on the day that she died:
…it is amazing to think about all the ways her presence is woven through my days even though she lives 2000 miles away–the sweater I put on every morning is one she knit for me, her quilts are on my kids’ bedroom walls and on all our beds, magazine subscriptions she gifts us with are in the car and bathroom…we’re connected in many ways and I don’t know what life will look like without her in it.
via Goodbye | Talk Birth.
After losing it with all the pictures and memories, I then sort of helped my mom, sister, aunt, and sister-in-law go through my grandma’s things. Later we checked into our hotel and Mark took the kids down to the pool while I rehearsed for my Mamoorial speeches/service. I cried and cried as I practiced my speech until my eyes were horribly puffy and I looked awful. “At least I’m getting this out before tomorrow!” I thought optimistically. I texted my mom that my plan for the next day was “teary-eyed and with a tasteful catch in my voice” rather than the wreck I was today. We had a family dinner that night at a cousin’s house and while there, I enlisted my cousins in a plan for a grandchild responsive reading of a version of “Song of the Open Road” at the first Mamoorial. We actually had a really fun time laughing and rehearsing our poem.
We stayed a horrible hotel with the worst breakfast in the history of hotel breakfasts. We so missed our beloved Drury Inns on this trip!
We headed over to the Chapel of the Light where Mamoo’s ashes were to be placed in the above-ground chamber in which my grandpa is interred. I was asked to officiate at a brief committal service before we placed the ashes and this ceremony was attended by only close relatives. After my grandpa died in 1989, my grandma remarried so my step-grandfather and most of his children and their children were there. Mamoo always kept our families kind of separate, even though she was married for more than 20 years to this “new” husband. It was easy for me to forget that she had another life with a whole set of other local grandchildren that I didn’t have a lot of contact with, but for whom she was the only grandmother, the only Mamoo, they’d ever known too. I quickly enlisted the aid of these grandchildren as well for my Song of the Open Road plan. The service I planned went well, but the grandchildren piece was the highlight, in my opinion. I’m not sure if other people specifically liked it, but it was so important to me that each grandchild’s voice be represented during the ceremony. While I don’t know that she liked Walt Whitman at all, my grandma was a traveler and so this poem felt absolutely perfect to me. My grandpa loved his boat and they used to go on boat trips together as well and so the section about taking to the seas, to me, felt like this perfect tie-in to our return of the remains of her body to his:
Song of the Open Road (responsive)
(modified from Walt Whitman)
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me.
Henceforth, I ask not good fortune—
I myself am good-forturne
Strong and content
I travel the open road.
I inhale great draughts of space;
the east and the west are mine,
and the north and the south are mine.
All seems beautiful to me;
I can repeat over to men and women,
You have done such good to me,
I would do the same to you.
Whoever you are, come travel with me!
However sweet these laid-up stores—
however convenient this dwelling,
we cannot remain here;
However sheltered this port,
And however calm these waters,
We must not anchor here;
Together! The inducements shall be greater;
We will sail pathless and wild seas;
We will go where winds blow,
Waves dash, and the Yankee clipper
Speeds by under full sail.
Forward! After the great companions!
And to belong to them!
They too are on the road!
Onward! To that which is endless,
As it was beginningless,
To undergo much, journeys of days,
Rests of nights,
To look up or down no road
But it stretches and waits for you—
To know the universe itself as a road—
As many roads—
As roads for traveling souls…
It was a lot of pressure to be responsible for this ceremony. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted it to be what she deserved. I wanted it to “speak” to every person there. I wanted it to be worthy of her. I hope it was enough.
Before she died, Mamoo got some details l all planned out with my aunt. She wanted a specific banquet center for a celebration of life lunch with chicken salad, no traditional funeral. She wanted the theme music from Out of Africa played and she wanted chocolate chip ice cream bon bons (which was the only thing that couldn’t be worked out–we had chocolate chip cookies instead and the rest was just like she asked for). After the committal service, we went to Tornino’s banquet center for the Celebration of Life. People came and came and came. We exceeded the capacity of the banquet room and emergency additional food had to be prepared. She didn’t want a “funeral service” type of feeling and it wasn’t. The slideshow played, the theme music from Out of Africa played, we ate chicken salad and visited with distant relatives and friends. My aunt spoke briefly and explained the planning of the event. She did a beautiful job honoring my grandma’s wishes and planning an special, lovely lunch in her honor. My grandma’s stepson read a poem written by my step-grandpa about “My Lyla, My Lyla.” It was heart-rending and I suddenly realized I might have made a huge mistake in saying I’d be the last speaker. My grandma’s stepdaughter spoke. My uncle spoke. And, then it was my turn. I was speaking on behalf of all the grandkids, each had sent me a favorite Mamoo memory to share. Remember my plan for the tasteful, teary-eyes? Yeah, that. Instead, I failed to even see the handy Kleenex on the podium and instead wiped my nose with my hand while I was talking. There were 260 people there, which is a much larger group than I’ve spoken before in the past. I didn’t feel nervous really, but I did feel sad and I cried much more than I’d wanted to or expected to. People afterward told me they’d never experienced anything like what I’d said at a memorial before and they hoped someone would do the same for them someday. I apparently talked really fast, but that is not a big surprise. It was hard, but I did it.
For the story from my boys for the speech, they had this to say: Mamoo was really epic.
And, she was.
For my own memory contribution I shared that I picture her in a little jacket and jaunty scarf and zoo necklace and her ball ring, with slightly bent knees and open arms ready for a hug of greeting and she’d smile in that welcoming way. We got too big to be greeted in that way, but I saw her do it again with my own kids. And, I shared what I wrote in my last card to her:
I’ve always been proud of you—your smart, creative, adeventuresome self. Best. Grandma. Ever. You’ve been a beautiful example to us of how to live, both in the practical sense in terms of being frugal and in the more esoteric sense of how to be of service to the community, to take risks, to be productive, and to age gracefully and with a neverending zest for new experiences. We’re grateful to you also for her generosity over the years, particularly for the gift of my college education and the debt-free legacy that left for us and our children. I don’t know that I can ever explain in full what a potent gift that was—one that lasts our lifetime.
I closed with a slightly edited version of a poem I originally shared here:
We learned from you
we loved with you
we heard you
we saw you
we hugged you
and held you
we mourned with you
we mourned for you
we have been dazzled by your radiance
inspired by your adventures
and touched by your generosity.
Three generations of people
sat in your lap as children
were covered by your quilts
and zipped into your sweaters
you carried each of us on your hip
and held us each in your heart
We respect you
we cherish you
we appreciate you
we’ve learned so much from you
we’ve laughed with you
and lived with you
and traveled with you
Go in peace
go in love
and go knowing that you have left behind
something that matters
The fabric of a life well-lived
the hearth of a family well-tended
the heart of a community strengthened
and a never-ending chain of generations
You’re our Mamoo
You’re our grandmother
and we say goodbye
and thank you.
into the arms and lap
the great mother of us all
She holds you now.
We let go
Then, we left the Mamoorial and headed out for the beach, a little over three-hour drive. We drove her car…
One of my earliest memories of Mamoo is of sitting on her lap and playing with a gold ball ring on her finger. I don’t know the story behind that ring, I feel as if I should, but from the time I was a tiny girl she always wore it when she visited her grandchildren and we all liked to play with it. I imagine it was a coincidence that she wore it around a grandchild in the first place, but then it became a thing that she did and that all of us associated with her. When my aunt and mom were going through her jewelry they asked if there was something I wanted and I asked for the ring. Later, my two sisters both mentioned it as well and I feel guilty or selfish for being the one to get it. At this point, I can’t wear it. It makes me feel awful to see it on my own hand. Its hers. It belongs on her hand. The whole reason I wanted it was because it was something that reminds me very concretely of her, but that is the exact same reason that I can’t wear it right now. I hope my own grandchildren will play with it though when I wear it to meet them. It fits on the same finger on my hand that it fit on hers.
They also gave me her Hitty doll. Hitty: Her First Hundred Years is a classic children’s novel by Rachel Field. It was published in 1929 and was one of my grandma’s favorite books. Hitty is a small ashwood doll who travels the world. In 1997, my grandma bought her own Hitty replica and did, in fact, take Hitty with her on some travels as her travel doll. My dad made replicas of Hitty’s key furniture pieces for my grandma and they were all set up as a display in her house, along with a tiny wooden peg person Hitty I’d made for my grandma, but completely forgotten about. I sat the ball ring on a Hitty’s lap for a while and then ended up putting it into a little shadow box with her on the replica of Hitty’s bench that my dad made for my grandma and a set of my grandma’s Dionne Quintuplet dolls. Those who know me in real life may puzzle somewhat over my extensive and non-frugal American Girl doll collection, but I come by this doll thing genetically, I swear. It is in my blood! I remember the Dionne Quintuplet dolls from when I was a little girl. They were my grandma’s when she was a girl herself and she was fascinated by the story of the Quints.
Last month, I took the ring to the woods and wrote a sort of “poem” about it, excerpted below. After doing so, I became obsessed with finding a picture of her wearing the ring, because suddenly I worried that I’d imagined or exaggerated that she always wore it to see us. Indeed, I don’t know if she ever wore at other times, but around the grandchildren, it was a fixture. And, I did readily locate pictures from her eightieth birthday party in which you can see the ring on her hand where it belongs and pictures from when I was younger and pictures from when she came to meet Alaina.
has been a lot of places
told a lot of stories
seen a lot of things
and it is still here
of what has gone before.
Happy birthday, Mamoo! My mom sent me a text to tell me that your birthday club friends went out to lunch for your birthday. They’ve been going out to lunch on birthdays for 50 years.
And, today the investment statements came from the college funds you set up for my kids. Thank you.