My grandmother died in the sunlight on Wednesday. She had come home from the antiseptic, alien world of the hospital to her own bed. Here, with the birds chatting and flitting outside, she shed the vestiges of pain and breathed slowly. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.
The sun traced the 92 years of her face. Lines of strength and kindness, etched across decades. Her daughters mirror those lines. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and those yet to come, will all carry some sketch of her as they measure themselves in the wider world. In the evening, we watched photos of my grandma’s nine decades, a tour of change. Descriptions of the past fill the air…she lived in Chang Kai-shek’s China, she sailed across the Pacific, she had a brother who survived polio, she watched a young California grow. The war came and went. Her daughters were born. Pictures of parties in the 60s. Palm trees. She divorced her husband before it was cool. She raised those three girls on her own. The faces at family gatherings grew and multiplied. She always had room at her table; her simple strength made that table grow, prosper, expand the stained wood. Backgrounds of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, Grandma camping under the pines. Soon, grandchildren appeared, more weddings and graduations. Travels to Mexico with margaritas and Alaska in heavy coats. Birthdays and parties. A life is formed at the intersection of events and family and love.
That life taught me so much, so much that is hard to hold onto in the new, vague world. Openness before judgement, kindness over frustration. She taught me to mix fudge in a copper bottom bowl and how to cook simple spaghetti. She taught me to butter the salad bowl ever so lightly. She taught me gin rummy, and we’d play in the sand at Meeks Bay. She always left me the Friday crossword. Food and games–a grandma’s specialty.
I missed so much of these last years wandering the far spaces. But I always knew her door would be open, and she’d make chicken wings, and I wouldn’t have to explain why I was back or where I was going–it was just good to be home. There is no better feeling on earth than to return to my grandma’s street, cold snow starting to fall, seeing the warm light–maybe a decorated Christmas tree or that enormous Chinese lamp–through the window, and know I was welcome inside. My grandma surrounded herself in home.
I’ll miss her in everything I do. But those last few fleeting moments in that shafted sunlight aren’t the sum total of her life. Her blood runs through her daughters, my aunts and mother, who saw her as role model and teacher and friend. Her strength is in my niece, who herself learned gin rummy over the past few days, and her same smile lights the face of her newest great-granddaughter. This great gaggle of family and friends who will gather to remember Mary Jo will raise glasses and tears and laughter to one of the greatest women we have all ever known.
As the morning sun lit the canyons and curves of her face, my grandma breathed out. That last breath was kindness. That last breath was 92 years of beautiful life. That last breath was her daughters, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, her friends, even her cats and dogs. That last breath was home.