A Remarkable 100 Years

watercolor an old woman lying on a bed with 100 years of memories sad and happy at the same time
Image created via Midjourney

My grandmother certainly lived a life unlike most. From traveling the world to her hobbies to her longevity, she was unique and always had a story to tell.

My grandma — my last living grandparent — passed away last night around 5:00 pm. She was 100 years, 8 months, and 12 days old. She entered hospice earlier this year and had a few health scares, but always seemed to bounce back. About a week ago, though, we knew it was getting close to the end. She slept peacefully but was not taking in any food or water. The slow departure gave us time to process that she was leaving us, but receiving the phone call that she was gone was still hard.

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented my family from surrounding my grandma the way that we would have liked. I would have driven to Wisconsin in a heartbeat to be with her. Instead, her memory care unit has been in lockdown to keep the residents safe. A few of my family members that live locally were allowed to see her out of compassion since she was at end-of-life. But travel isn't safe, and we couldn't all be with her.

The last time I saw her was September 1, 2019. In truth, at her age, every time I saw her I would think it was the "last time." I would always make sure to take a lot of photos. For Thanksgiving this year, my entire family gathered via Zoom to sing "Amazing Grace" and recorded ourselves to show my grandma. I then have a video of her watching us. So, she was able to see us "all together" one last time.

I happened to see my therapist today, and she asked me to tell her about my grandmother.

I visited her and my grandpa often when they lived in a house outside of Milwaukee. My dad would have work conferences, and he would either bring one child, or the whole family would go. I remember every detail of that house, but it only exists in my memory, as "taking random photos" was not common back then. But in a family room at the back of the house there was a large loom. My grandma was a skilled weaver. There was also a small organ that she would play. I remember its deep, rich sound, and the keys, so different from a regular piano.

My grandma went to college to be an occupational therapist. She was a "pen pal" to my grandpa during World War II, and when he came home, they met in person. They got engaged and then married. Not long after, my grandpa joined the foreign service, so with a six-month-old baby in tow, they were headed to their first post in Damascus, Syria. They spent over twenty years traveling around the world, including Egypt, Burma, France, and Czechoslovakia.

In addition to their home in Milwaukee, my grandparents also rented a place next door to my parents. Whenever they would come to visit the coulee, they had their own place to stay. Both in Milwaukee and the coulee, my grandma always had toys and games for us.

Eventually, travel became too hard. My grandpa was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the mid-1990s. My grandma became a tireless caregiver and advocate for him. They sold their house and moved into an apartment in a retirement village that had options for increased support as my grandpa would need it. Eventually, he needed more than she could provide and had to move into a room by himself where he could get more professional care. He passed away in February of 2011, at the age of 91.

Both of my grandparents were prolific letter writers and storytellers. Their life together began through letters, and they both wrote a lot about their life in the foreign service. While other people may tell stories like "Back when I was young…" their stories were "While we were living in Cape Town…" My grandma worked on writing down all of her memories from life in the foreign service for fifteen years. She then had copies printed and bound for everyone in the family.

The letters turned into emails, with a family email chain that has continued to this day. My grandparents, their four children, spouses, and grandchildren (as they got older) circulate the events of our lives. My grandpa wrote into his 80s, until he could no longer type. My grandma kept writing. When it became too hard for her, we set up a printer in her apartment. Whenever an email was received, it would automatically print, and she could read it.

When my grandpa died, we did not have a funeral. Instead, later that summer, the entire family gathered at this magnificent tree in the coulee on my aunt and uncle's property. We celebrated his life and scattered his ashes. Years later, when Nelle and Iris died, Ger and I took their ashes to the coulee and scattered them under the same tree.

When the weather is warm and it is safe to be together, we will again gather and bring my grandma's ashes to that final resting place.