My Grandma died one week ago at the age of 85. I stayed up late the night before her funeral with a notebook and pen, trying to articulate what I was feeling about her and about the devastating loss of her. The funeral was a beautiful, celebratory, all-day affair. The service itself was two hours long, standing-room-only. We sang, and sang, and sang, as Mennonites in general and my family in particular do. My uncle built her casket, a beautiful unfinished pine--a bit of sawdust still lingered on an edge--and my cousin Darlene and sister Marja sewed the lining and the pillow. My mother, Grandma's only daughter, and my sister Becky and cousin Darlene dressed her for burial and did her hair. I love these elemental, grounded connections to the fact of the loss, and I love that to the very end, it was the hands of those who loved and knew her--those to whom she gave life--that touched her body and laid it to rest.
This is what I wrote the night before, and read at her funeral:
My first thought when I learned that Grandma had died was: I’m not prepared for this. It felt shocking in a way that objectively the death of an 85-year-old should not. But I wasn’t prepared—I was shocked and overcome and heartbroken. Because you’re never ready to lose a person who has been a fixture of your life from birth.
It’s a luxury and a blessing to have such a thing as fixtures in your life, such a thing as a person who will always be there. To have had, in my case, almost 37 years with her.
I’ve been thinking about heritage. Legacy, about what’s passed down, about the thread from woman to woman, from one generation to the next.
My daughter Aphra is a baby in a 4-generation photograph in which Grandma is the eldest. I am a baby in a 4-generation photograph in which my mother looks quite a lot as I do now. In a recent photo of myself, I am smiling a smile identical to the one Grandma’s wearing in her wedding photo at age 19.
There’s a grimace Grandma would make when she was opening a tight jar of peaches or jam. I catch myself making the same face in the same situations. She told me once, in her kitchen, not to bother filling a dirty pot with water for soaking—just set it in the sink and it will soon be filled through the normal course of kitchen activity, as the tap runs for hand-washing and cup-filling and purposes unrelated to soaking the pot. I think of this in my own kitchen nearly every time I set a dirty dish in the sink. Her water-saving tip always bears out.
We moved into a new house at the same time that Grandma and Grandpa were moving out of their home of 53 years on Moxam Drive, and we inherited many items they no longer had use for. I make soup in Grandma’s stockpot. We have two threadbare quilts that hold a lot of history. Our living room lamps are so old they’re cool—a friend told me she was sure she’d seen the exact set selling for a lot of money on Queen West. I cherish these small tangible connections to my past and to the people I come from. I think of Grandma regularly, when I’m making soup, and when I’m opening jars.
I make soup in Grandma’s pot. Afterward, I do not fill the pot with wasted water.
The thing I treasured most about the year and a bit my grandparents lived with my parents was that my children got to develop a genuine ongoing relationship of their own with their Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa. I love that they loved her, that they’ll remember her at least a little bit. That they knew her--certainly with less energy and ability than I did--but with the same puzzles and cookies and delight in seeing their faces. They knew from her the same love—a love that was so unforced and ever-present that it felt normal and unremarkable, that I now know was in fact extraordinary.
On Sunday, March 23 I'll be reading in the Draft Reading Series, upstairs at the Black Swan Tavern in Toronto. After some internal debate over whether I'd feel less vulnerable up there hiding behind some fiction, I'm going with a personal essay, an unpublished creative non-fiction piece called A Real Woman. I'd be delighted to see you there. A limited-edition publication called Draft will also be available. I'm reading alongside Laure Baudot, Anne Elizabeth Carson, Jann Everard, Daniel Karasik, and Koom Kankesan.
Sunday, March 23, 3 p.m.
The Black Swan Tavern (upstairs)
154 Danforth (at Broadview)