For a year I wrote obituaries for my hometown newspaper. There I learned one thing: if someone lives a great long life, don’t just remember their last few years, remember their entire life. Not just the times where they were ill, had lots of wrinkles, maybe watched too much Wheel of Fortune, or did the sanctioned things we allow our elderly to do. Don’t list their past times based on only classes they signed up for at the senior center.
My paternal grandma, Evelyn, passed away in the early am this Christmas at age 87. She’d received a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year, and after spending the year before battling breast cancer, she decided to enjoy her final days instead of going for a treatment that wasn’t likely to succeed. Grandma was able to live her final moments as she wanted: in her home and with her family. And I can’t help but wonder what the family will list as her hobbies and interests.
I hope they write about my Grandma’s travels. How age and the dreams of the travelers, who crashed at the bed and breakfast she and my Grandfather started after they retired, propelled her across the world. How she went to Scotland to seek out genealogy and relatives. How she discovered that there are 22 different spellings of our shared last name. How she saw castles while the rest of us stayed safely within the confines of Oregon.
When I was 12, my Grandmother took myself and my two cousins, Sean and Kristen, to Alaska. While it was the second time I’d flown, it was the first time I remembered being on a plane. My cousins and I looked out windows for mountain peaks and entertained ourselves by reading magazines. My Grandmother remained calm and nonplussed as we pinned flying wings on our lapels and met the pilot. When I travel for business, I imitate my Grandmother’s attitude about being on a plane and being on airports. It helps with the stories in my head.
In Alaska, we met and stayed with distant relatives Grandma had met on her dives into genealogy. We stayed up all night getting to know our relatives, but also unsure what time it was in the constant light of summertime in Alaska. Even our relatives laughed when they realized it was 2am and they still had neighbors over after a Club Scout meeting. Before we headed on in our itinerary, we met more distant family, and I remember the first thing that surprised Grandma about Alaska was finding out we had black relatives.
Grandma navigated our travels in Alaska as if she’d taken the holiday already once herself. She had maps and pre-made plans. This was before GPSs and when only early adopters had cell phones. But we made our way from town-to-town, and Grandma had used her bed and breakfast connections for the rest of our stays. The places were overly frilled with tacky wallpaper and pillowy beds. Pinks and blues and Victorian prints seemed a theme.
Before Alaska, I’d had my hair cut short. I wanted to look like Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but instead I sported the infamous bowl-cuts of the era. My hair matched my brother Jonathan’s and my cousin Sean’s. I was as tall as I am now and as thin as a beanpole. In Alaska, it seemed that girls and non-elderly women all had long hair. They had curves and fat, and I had none of these things. And when one odd, ginger B&B owner told my Grandma that the two twin boys could share the candy caned stripped room, I flushed with embarrassment, but my grandma, not for the first time, correct the man that I was a girl.
We went on a day cruise to see icebergs and whales. As we loaded the bus, it was clear my cousins and myself were the only ones under the age of 60 on the tour. A man started to comment on the twin boys, but then he shouted, “oh, one’s a girl” when he noticed I wore a white jersey dress with pink and blue striping. Though this may have given away my gender, it was not appropriate clothing for the deck of a ship near icebergs. But I didn’t care the moment I saw humpback whales.
My Grandma and I were never close. To say she didn’t get me was an understatement and perhaps I didn’t understand her that well either. She was like the icebergs we watched, barely peeking above the surface with more below we never saw. She seemed accepting of the hand that life dealt her, in a way I don’t think anyone born after World War II is. Practical to a fault. But I imagine there were many things she just chose not to say. My Grandfather may have died when I was four, but I always felt this specter of the patriarch lingering. And it wasn’t the huge portrait of him and my Grandma, in full McGillivray tartan regalia, hanging at the end of the darkened hallway. I often felt like an outsider in this no-nonsense place for boys: my father, three uncles, two brothers, four male cousins, and our grandfatherly ghost.
I visited my Grandma about two days before she died, and she asked me if I remembered playing with paper dolls at the B&B log cabin house. How I’d sit for hours, creating new fashions for the paper dolls of Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae. Dolls my Grandma had kept from her own youth and packed away for decades until her sons gave her five granddaughters. She seemed surprised that I remembered this and eager to connect over this feminine activity. Because even though she rejected it, my practical Grandma never realized just how much we’d both needed feminism and how we were just different failures of stereotypical femininity. I kind of wished we’d talked about Alaska and icebergs instead.
I remember lying in the upstairs loft in the log house, staring back at the heads of moose and deer lining the walls. Looking for hidden specters and creepy monsters, listening to the great clock ticking away all throughout the house. While it felt cabin-like, I’d never describe my Grandma’s log cabin as cozy or warm. There were drafts and the strict tidiness of always having guests. (Even after she sold the B&B, my Grandma’s house remained utilitarian and uncluttered.) Only at Christmas, when 20+ people arrived and my cousins and I tore through our gifts littering the place with wrapping paper and new toys did the log house become warm and full of life. Perhaps that was why Grandma chose Christmas Day to die.