Five Generations. Who Gets That?
A Eulogy for the Greatest of Grandmothers
My earliest memory of my grandmother was at Brule Lake. I couldn’t have been more than three. The quilt frame was stretched wide and filled up the width of the cottage. Gram, my Mom, and maybe an aunt (I don’t remember how many women were there, or who they were), were quilting on one of the nine quilts my grandmother made for each of her grandchildren. Shiny needles, bending in and out, up and down, creating a pattern on the bottom that was an echo of the kaleidoscope of colors on top.
I can still feel the fabric brushing the top of my head as I salamandered around beneath the fabric, a little moving bump from the top, my own private cave beneath. “Be careful, or we’ll stitch your head!” Someone chided me and so I ran, top speed out from under the frame, only to be caught in a wide swipe of Pawpaw’s arm, netting me like a fish as I raced by where he sat in his chair by the wood stove.
In my little world, Grandma was always a party.
She arrived with a suitcase full of wonder and delight to my young eyes. Long before the advent of the internet, Gram was an expert at weaving long distance relationships. She sent cards and letters, sometimes tiny packages, and she called. I loved standing next to the chair in the kitchen waiting, excitedly for my turn to talk to her on the phone. Josh always took too long. I always tried to be first. Mom talked interminably about boring adult things. I wanted to tell her my interesting kid things. She always listened. More than that, she asked questions. Calling Grammy was a weekly ritual that I looked forward to.
I’ll never forget, one Saturday, in the middle of nowhere Mexico, before phone lines in Central America were ubiquitous, standing in line for hours, HOURS, in the hot, dusty lineup that snaked endlessly away from the single telephone, housed in a whitewashed adobe shack in the middle of some one horse town for our turn to use the phone and call Grammy, long distance. The phone broke down before we got there. Our disappointment was palpable.
To me, Grammy was the embodiment of Christmas and magic.
If I had to imagine what the actual Christmas fairy looked like, it would be Gram, with her big white curls arranged “just so” with an apron over her pressed blouse and a wooden spoon in one hand instead of a wand. In the kitchen of her house on Wagon Road she used that wand, alternately, to stir the pot and shoo us kids out of the way as we ran around and around the loop. From the living room, to the family room, through the back hall and bedrooms, and the bathroom before we careened around the corner and back into the kitchen again, snagging a cookie, or an olive, or a pickle, off of an h’ors d’oeuvre plate as we giggled through.
Gram always helped us fix a plate of cookies for Santa. And he (or Grandpa Mac) always came and ate them.
One Christmas, was when I was six, with hair down the middle of my back and a homemade nightgown, Grammy and my Mom conspired to outdo themselves. It was the year I was absolutely awestruck by the gift of a dollhouse. One that Gram had found in a trash heap and carefully refurbished for me, down to the wallpaper and furniture. There was a yellow and white nursery set, a real ceramic bath tub, and a cook stove which opened revealing a pie baked inside a beer cap pan within. My mother added the tiniest stained glass lamps, real ones, about an inch and a half in diameter, and a television made out of one of my Dad’s old razor boxes with a picture of a magazine slid inside. For years Grammy and I shared the joy of that tiny house as she added to my furniture collection and we played with it together on every visit. It became one of my greatest treasures. I still have this dollhouse, and all of the furniture. Or rather, my daughter does. We remodeled it again for her sixth Christmas.
She was the Grandma of White Castle hamburgers and Chuck E. Cheese, bicycle rides and trips to the pool, Christmas light drives and bedtime stories. My very favourite thing was getting to sleep with her. When I was about eight, I remember telling her once, in the darkness as we fell asleep, that she was “fluffy,” and I still remember the feeling of her chuckle as her fluff got fluffier in waves wrapped around me.
She would come in the summer and camp in our yard in her camper.
Some years, she helped us build the houses. Other years, she helped us shell mounds of peas, shuck scads of corn, snap millions of beans and then blanch, pack and freeze them for winter.
For years I was under the impression that I was the most cunning child ever born, because I managed, every morning, even in our squeaky staired house, to sneak down and out through the noisy screen door without my mother hearing me. Once out the door, I’d run the length of the porch and leap the flower bed and tear across the grass and gravel to arrive, barefoot with leaves stuck to my feet and sleep sticking out of my braids in every direction, on the doorstep of Gram’s camper, somewhere around o’dark-thirty in the morning.
She always let me in, made me hot chocolate, fed me M&M’s for breakfast, (making clear that was our little secret) and talked to me about the really important things in life. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my mother heard every footstep, and she knew about the M&M’s too.
On her summer visits we went canoeing and caught bass, hunted mushrooms, took long walks, had picnics, worked in the gardens, made art, read stories, baked cookies and had competitions over who could stand on her head the longest. Gram usually won. Did you know she could do a headstand and hold it well into her seventies? True story. She beat me every time. I still can’t do a headstand without the wall to hold me up.
When I got married…
…the inside of her apartment looked like a wedding bomb went off. She made all of the pew bows and hung them around the walls to keep the ribbon from wrinkling. Gram was the mistress of all things crafty, from needlepoint, to crocheted doilies and dolls, to embroidered napkins, punch needle and ceramics… and weddings. All the best things are homemade.
When Hannah was born, and Aunt Rosy threw my baby shower (at which I learned that I like chicken salad… at least Aunt Rosy’s) Gram gave me a baby swing. She gave all of her granddaughters a swing when our first babies were born. “The only piece of equipment you truly need.” She was right about that. Jill was envious because somewhere between Jordan’s birth and Hannah’s swings went from hand crank to battery operated and the girls all crowed over what a great upgrade that was… “You won’t even wake the baby cranking it back up!” they assured me. That swing was the best gift. Gram adored her babies.
I’ll never forget Skyping with her all the way from Borneo.
My Dad had it piped into the TV to make it easier for her to see and she sat on a stool in my mom’s living room talking sideways to my parents trying to figure it out… “Is that Jenny? Why is she on the TV? Is she talking to me? How is that happening?” It was her last trip to Wolfe Island. I don’t think she ever quite “got it.”
But the miracle wasn’t lost on me: Of a woman who saw advent of the automobile revolution, a landing on the moon, and pictures live from the Mars, talking to her great grandchildren, real-time, from the wilds of Borneo. This was one of the most important things to Grammy: Her people. She’d do anything to keep in touch, even learn to Skype well into her nineties.
The last afternoon I spent with Grammy was a long and lovely one.
She spent most of it sleeping. I alternated between staring at her, trying to read the roadmap of her beautiful wrinkles, memorizing the shape of her hands, marveling at the perennial perfection of her candy floss white hair, and flipping through the photo book Aunt Shirley made for her.
- Here was Gram, a tiny girl, standing with a serious face next to her mother.
- Now with her own daughters as little girls.
- There she was at about my age… how funny to think of that.
- And then, the Grandma I remembered, round glasses, soft corners and smelling like a sugar cookie.
- Another freeze frame: All of the women in the family in matching t-shirts posed with tea cups at the Brown County Inn… I was hugely pregnant with someone.
- Another of Gram with her grandchildren… and her great grandchildren… and her great-great-grandchildren. I think the five generation photo with Gram, Shirley, Kim, Megan, and the babies is my favourite.
Five generations. Who gets that?
Our family gets that. Grammy got that.
To me, Helen Maxine Rogers Conover McGee has always been the maternal anchor of my world. Until Monday morning around breakfast time, I’d never taken a breath that she didn’t share. And she’ll be with me in every one I take in the future. When I first met her, she’d already lived my whole life to this point and then some. She was just getting started. I’m just getting started.
Grandma was an enduring example of what it means to be a matriarch.
We Rogers, Conover, Kennedy, Ryker, Sutherland, women are a sturdy lot.
- We’ve got longevity in our genes and fire in our hearts.
- We know what it is to work and to love.
- We value our families and our communities.
- We are known the world ‘round for being the women who get things done. We dig in and make big and small things happen.
- We work behind the scenes where no one notices.
- We keep at the hard things, even when we’re tired and we want to quit.
- We stick together, even when we disagree, because love and blood are thicker than all of the thieves that try to rob a family of its strength.
- We know how to laugh hard.
- We are experts at making everything from nothing.
- We delight in our children, and we dig in and do our work. All of us.
Each of these things that we carry onward into the future are the legacy of our matriarch. She taught us, by voice and example, what it means to be family. How to value the past and build for the future. The importance of one person, on one day, doing her best. She taught us how to rise above the hard things, the things we were dealt, the mistakes that we made, the tragedies that find us on a Tuesday afternoon, and build a life out of those things. A life filled with joy and laughter, strength and dignity, Brule bass and handstands.
Tyler said it perfectly on Monday afternoon…
…in the first wave of sadness at her passing: “I just kept thanking her for creating so many bright, strong people to carry all the goodness she brought to the world. I had so much to say but it seemed like that was the only thing I could really do, thank her for being her, for making us. She was just so wonderful.”
Tomorrow is the funeral.
What a privilege it is to gather in Gram’s name knowing that her blood is still flowing in our veins. Her smile is reflected in our own. Her genes are the framework of our bodies and her life will continue to echo off of the walls of history for many generations. She may have moved out of her body, but she has not, and she never will, move out of us. It is an honor to pick up the thread of her life and continue to braid the cord forward into a future we cannot yet see.
Thank you Grammy, for the gift of our lives.