In the hour before the church service that would publicly memorialize my grandmother, we immediate family members left the windy cemetery and headed back to her bungalow, where she had lived since moving off the ranch more than thirty years earlier. As we all rattled around in her house, eating bars and leaning against her kitchen counters just as we had in adolescence, I had a few minutes to consider my cousins and who they’d become.
Strangely, although I grew up close to these cousins, geographically, they always felt distant, perhaps because their father’s life had diverged so dramatically from my own father’s. These two sons of Dorothy always got along, always remained companions to each other, yet one, my uncle Larry, followed the life of ranching and eventually long-haul trucking. On the other hand, my dad became a choral conductor and opera singer. At best, their common ground was yodeling.
As well, my dad had one wife in his lifetime, while Larry had several, eventually ending up with three children of varying parentage and, for awhile, a fourth–a step-daughter who remained in his life as long as his marriage to her mother did. Ultimately, I was left with three cousins: Shelley, Mary, and Luke. They weren’t given every opportunity, and none of them had a constant mother. In fact, Shelley and Mary’s mother left them when they were toddlers to return to her “career” tending bar in a casino. At that point, it was my grandma Dorothy who stepped in and essentially raised those girls.
Thus, it made sense, on a day of memorial for Dorothy, that I would look to Shelley and Mary’s lives as evidence of Grandma’s impact. Mary, who lived with Grandma even through the rebellious years of high school, had attended cosmetology school before marrying. Her husband’s job took them to Nevada for some years, to a place Mary hated so much that she finally looked up one day and said, “God, if you get me out of Nevada, I’m yours forever.” Damned if God and his minions didn’t get her husband transferred to Washington, causing Mary and the Lord to strike up a little thing on the side. Luckily, Mary found a way to merge her two passions in life: she shaves “PTL” (as in “Praise the Lord”) into the hair on the back of her sons’ heads–or, in more spartan months, just a cross. You have no idea how much it pained me to type that previous sentence, incidentally.
Less shackled to her faith and her razor, Shelley, too, married well and is raising successful children. Luke, like the girls, was largely brought up by my grandma; he entered the service and likes nothing more than restoring old cars and, speculation has it, growing marijuana. While I have hardly any relationship with these cousins today, due to our lack of anything in common (blank looks greeted me the one time I ventured a “So, read any good books lately?”), I took a minute, leaning against the counter, to marvel at these cousins, and I credit my grandma with giving them the wherewithal to resist taking up knives in their adulthood and randomly stabbing people who might be loitering outside the Rockvale Cafe, waiting for a booth for five. Indeed, I had a little moment, there by the frying pan in Grandma’s kitchen, watching a box elder bug crawl along the linoleum, one in which my bar-fueled brain had a flash: with family in the midst of grief, it doesn’t necessarily matter if people have a lot in common–just one commonality can carry the day.
After an hour of kitchen chat and gnosh, we wiped the crumbs off our chins and went to the memorial service at the Lutheran church. At the front of the church, an 8″ x 10″ photo of my grandma presided up front, which struck the worst part of me as a little hokey, but it ended up being quite affecting–it felt very personal to be confronted with Grandma’s steady gaze as the pastor spoke of her life on the plains, about her always knowing if even one of the cows was missing at the end of the day–not because she knew how many cows there were but because she recognized each of their faces–and about her being a helpmate to my grandpa.
Even more, the pastor talked of my grandma’s last days, as her health faded. When she entered the hospital, she just wanted to “go home.” Later, when she was moved to an assisted-care facility, she was sure it was just a matter of time before she would go home. But my dad knew her stay there would be until the end, which turned out to be only two days. He felt guilty about that. Thus, when the pastor finally said, “Now Dorothy has gone Home,” fluttering shudders of sobbing passed through my dad. Sitting next to him, pressed against him, with no gusts of wind to distract me, I eyed the hymnals and hoped my left thigh felt warm.
Most moving was when the soloist sang “How Great Thou Art.” My grandma’s older sister, Louise, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for seven years and was living in a memory-care home. By the time of Dorothy’s death, Louise did not recognize any family members, except sometimes my mom (not a blood relation…but occasionally she would pull my mom to her and ask, “Who are all these people?” when her sisters were visiting). We had not thought Louise would be at the service that day and, in fact, were unaware that one of her daughters had brought her–until that song. The soloist’s notes rang through the church, but after the first measure, he had a partner in Louise. Her voice, little used, croaked out the song along with him from her pew; she warbled a final duet. Strikingly, she’d forgotten everything else, from her own children to how to tie her shoes, but she remembered her hymns. For everyone in the room, it was humbling. After the service, greeting us over coffee in the basement of the church, Louise’s daughter announced proudly, “Mom never did need a songbook.”
As we made the rounds during the post-service reception, I grasped how important it was that I had made the trip to Montana, despite my initial reservations. With my sister in the Peace Corps in Moldova at that time, and my Air Forcean brother stationed overseas, too, I was Dad’s only kid that day. My father was not terribly touchy, but he kept me firmly by his side throughout the coffee hour, introducing me to every passing soul. At one point, my dad’s 8th grade teacher, Miss Huddleston, came up with her twin, Velma. I asked Miss Huddleston if my dad had been a good student for her. “Oh, yes, he played the piano for our class so nicely!” I pressed her further: “You mean he never misbehaved?” She assured me, “Oh, not Donnie! He was always very well behaved. But that Larry was another story…”
After the memorial service, we went back to Grandma’s house, where Mary and Shelley’s families were staying. We ate deli meats. We watched the kids play Nintendo. We sneaked glances at interesting bits of inheritance. We marveled at how much Stuff a person can fit into closets (Grandma never threw away a letter or card; she kept every aluminum top off of every yogurt she ate; she didn’t throw away milk containers; she had underwear in her dresser that was nothing more than shreds of fabric woven together with safety pins). We leafed through photographs, wondering who some of those faces belonged to, wondering why our mothers had let us wear such hideous orange-striped pants in the ’70s,
and we wondered if the presence of these pictures in her house had kept Grandma firm on the earth,
even when she’d left them in drawers for years,
even when her eyesight had failed.
Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, and my dad (looking rather fey)