If you’ve followed Minnesota Transplant for any length of time, you knew I had a centenarian grandmother.
She was my father’s mother, and I say “was” because she died earlier this month. She was 104.
I needed some time to process her death, not because it hit me hard—who can profess surprise about the death of a 104-year-old?—but because I really wanted to write about her thoughtfully and in a way that honors her.
She was a tiny person physically, but she loomed large in her family in part because of her longevity. I have clear, vivid memories of her because I knew her when I was an adult, a middle-aged adult. We were pen pals for decades, and as a fan of the written word, I now am the proud recipient of many of her diaries.
When Grandma was 96 (and still living on her own and cooking for herself), she brought the dessert for our family Easter celebration, an elegant looker made from a recipe she’d found in a newspaper.
She was an incredible hostess, and I am honored to have inherited one of her sets of china and a set of flatware. Yes, she believed “lunch” required china cups and saucers, and no one spent any amount of time with her without being offered something to eat. No meal was complete without pickled beets or sweet pickles. And cookies, even if she served another more elaborate dessert. Cookies on the side.
I also inherited her vanity, but I do not consider it a deadly sin. I believe part of the reason she lasted as long as she did is because she took care of her human vessel. She cared about how she looked, and an interest in fashion was part of that interest. I once went shoe shopping with her when she was 100. She accented her outfits by wearing bracelets and scarves right up ’til the very end.
Grandma had a great sense of humor, and one of her favorite holidays was April Fool’s Day. She was also an avid gardener, which is no mean feat in north central Minnesota where the growing season is eight weeks long (I kid, but not much).
But more than any of these character traits and interests, Grandma was faithful. An ardent Christian, she believed with a capital B. Her week revolved around going to worship services until she moved into assisted living four years ago. That faith is what got her through the volume of grief only a 104-year-old experiences. She was a widow for 42 years (she never remarried). Her daughter-in-law who lived two doors down for decades lost a battle to cancer. Two of her grandchildren died young. Her sisters. Her brothers. Her youngest son died two years ago. So many friends and neighbors got to the finish line before she did.
She also lost her hearing, which I think was a difficult thing for someone as social as she was. It happened relatively early in her life; I don’t even remember my grandmother without hearing aids. In the end she was so profoundly deaf, it was easier to get your point across with a white board than to yell. Her eyesight was failing, too, and in recent years she began using a wheelchair more than her own legs. Aging is not for the faint-hearted, quite literally.
Before Grandma died, she planned her funeral, writing down many details so we would get it right. (Among the details she did not dictate, we draped one of her handmade quilts over her coffin instead of a spray of flowers; she was an avid quilter for many years and it was beautiful. And her family, not Grandma, selected the wild rice hotdish for the funeral luncheon, but I found that a perfect choice for a Central Minnesota funeral.) For some reason, Grandma designated me to read one of the Bible readings at the service. Apparently, I had brought my public speaking skills to her attention in more than one postal missive I sent to her. Unlike some of my cousins who probably would not have wanted the burden, I was flattered to do it. When I looked up the verses before the service, I thought they was perfect for Grandma.
21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
~ Philippians 1:21-24
Grandma lived so long she came to wonder whether God had forgotten her or flat out didn’t want her. The pastor at her funeral said her most persistent question was “Why am I still here?” The tone he parroted made her sound like she was cross examining him in a court of law.
Her reason for being is probably as varied as the people who knew her. For me, she was a role model for aging gracefully, if not always cheerfully. It’s hard to get old, but she persevered because she believed in a higher purpose.
Fortunately for all of us and her, too, Grandma died in her sleep. God wanted her after all, He just didn’t want her going out in a blaze of IV tubes and pain meds so He waited out that strong heart of hers.
I’m not sad Grandma died. She lived a good life, and she died a good death. I will miss her, to be sure, but leaving this earthly plain is what she wanted so I’m happy for her. Her send-off was oddly celebratory for a funeral, but perfectly pitched for someone who lived 104 years in God’s grace.