Coming to terms with the pain of losing my grandmother

Losing a grandparent is like losing your childhood. It happens slowly at first and then suddenly crashes. As a senior in college, I watched my grandma slowly deteriorate before passing away just after Christmas. I wrote this about six months before she died. This is dedicated to my beautiful childhood and Mémé, a woman who lived a full and wonderful life.

The pavement ends about a mile after we turn onto Homestead Avenue, and from the back seat of my parents’ car I can see my grandparents’ red barn. It is Saturday morning and my head aches and my stomach churns as the car jars from side to side on the dirt road. It probably wasn’t the smartest decision to go out last night and it definitely wasn’t the brightest idea to go out last night when I knew my parents would be picking me up at 10am. But I hadn’t seen my friend since January, and he convinced me to stay up until 4am, drinking and laughing, while everyone else fell asleep on various surfaces around the house. I feel like I can still hear him muttering under his breath after pressing snooze on his alarm. He nudged me awake while barely opening his own eyes, obviously regretting his promise to drive me home. By the time he finally hugged me goodbye at my apartment, I had less than fifteen minutes to shower and get the smoke-smell out of my hair.

Blindfold and spin me in a circle, I’ll still know my way around my grandparents’ farm. I know all the hiding places and which trees are the best to climb. I can show you the best sledding hill in the winter, and I can steer you clear of the old barbed-wire fence that zigzags at the end of the property. I can climb over the hay bales and point out the exact spot where I scraped my knee trying to race my cousin Paul to the top. I walk into the house, screen door slamming behind me, and I feel something between a genuine smile and a grimace cross my face. I’ve been avoiding this for a while. The house used to be so alive, full, loving.

Mémé doesn’t move from her recliner in the far corner of the living room as my sister and I remove food from the coolers my mother packed into the fridge. Mémé has a difficult time hearing, and her diabetes limits her life, and it’s beginning to take the best of her. She often says that life “isn’t worth living” if you are on a low carb, low sugar, low sodium diet. Her skin is soft and wrinkled, easily bruised. I don’t remember the last time I saw her eyes light up, and as I go into the living room to hug her and greet my grandpa, she only half-smiles. Pépé is another character all together. He is over 90 years old but he still jumps up as he sees my sister Julie, handing her the card he and my grandmother painstakingly signed with the usual five-dollar gift inside.

Pépé rummages around the card table, placed permanently in the middle of the living room. He selects sections of the paper: I get the ads, my mom the obituaries, and my dad gets the rest. We all sit. Mémé politely asks me her usual questions about college, shocked (yet again) that no, we do not have to wear a uniform, and yes, we can stay out as late as we want. She would be on her knees night and day if she only knew. Pépé asks me if I want to play cards, his eyes twinkling, knowing that I can’t stand to play his favorite game, “One Thousand.” He settles with teasing me about the boys he is sure I am chasing. As Julie and Pépé focus their attention on the TV, the sound of Bonanza’s famous cowboys rises until the horses and gunshots penetrate the entire house.

By noon, I am setting the table and checking to make sure the silverware I put out is actually clean, as Mémé has a tendency to put dishes away before washing them. It feels weird not to set out extra places for uncles or cousins, bound to pop in during lunchtime; but some moved away and others have their own children to handle. As I work around the kitchen, I can’t help but compare my own movements to the ones I use to see my grandmother use to master the kitchen: stir, taste, salt. I really don’t know what I’m doing, but can’t handle sitting with my silent family in the other room. My mother prepared most of the meal and I’m under surveillance as I watch the food on the gas stove. At my apartment, I’m the “b*tch in the kitchen,” bossy even though my biggest cooking accomplishments involve managing not to boil the noodles too long and successfully making “just add water” muffins. In my grandma’s prime, she kneaded twelve loaves worth of bread at one time. Her counters were always covered in cherry, blueberry, and strawberry rhubarb pies; her cupboards filled to the brim with homemade jams and jellies, pickles and canned tomatoes. Even after she stopped cooking for us she used to call into the kitchen asking, “Can I help you with anything?” Now she is just sitting in her chair, eyes closed, snoring.

I call my family into the kitchen for lunch, thinking of how this felt when I was little. I remember sitting in Mémé’s kitchen, cross-legged, knees scuffed, my clothes covered in dirt, straw sticking out of my blond-streaked hair, mud-crusted farm boots and ladies’ heels thrown on the large rug in the entry. Everyone came to Mémé’s house on Friday evenings. After my cousins got out of school and my uncles finished chores, extra tables were set up and every chair was occupied. I could hardly hear one person speaking because the room roared with communal laughter. Mémé bossed everyone around, forcing second helpings onto all of her sons’ plates. I knew they all secretly wanted more, only protesting long enough so their wives didn’t bother them for ruining their latest diets. I felt safe, secure, and grounded to the people and the smell of chicken mixing with apple pie. I belonged there on that kitchen floor more than anywhere else in the world, slumped over on my cousin’s shoulder, falling asleep on the kitchen floor after a long day of play.

Julie begins grace, and my grandparents and parents bow their heads as I look over their shoulders and out the kitchen window. It used to be difficult to see the road, but three old trees fell two years ago during a tornado. They were my favorite trees to play house and have picnics under, during the days when I led grace and bowed my head. I know that once we blow out the candles and have birthday cake I will tell my mom I have a lot of homework to do, so that they will drive me back to school where I will study until it is time to go out. But right now, I am with my family and we are eating hand-mashed potatoes, chicken, and corn. My grandpa nudges me with his elbow. He winks, pointing to my grandma who is sneaking corn, a treat forbidden by her diet, spoonful by spoonful onto her plate, thinking no one is watching.

Emily C. Koenig works days as a digital editor and nights writing stories in her head. Well versed in long commutes and being broke, she strives to use words for good and time for more exciting travel. Coming to terms with life as an introvert, she loves boldly and hates olives. Find more of her thoughts at Scotch and the Fox, on her blog and on Twitter @Emily_C_Koenig.