Death and Things

My grandmother recently passed away. Life was exhausting her and she was anxious to go. Now she is free and to those of us still here, there is some peace in knowing that.

Last week I flew to Connecticut to be with my father and brother and sort through her things. When we arrived at the nursing home where she spent the last six months of her life, her sheets still warm, we were directed down the hall to where all her stuff had been boxed and bagged. Ninety-two years and all that remained were two plastic bags of clothes, two small boxes and a few pictures that hung on the wall to remind her of how life once was. I claimed the blown-up photograph my grandfather took of the house they filled with love, family and lots of flowers.

The three of us just stood there looking down at this pile of my grandmother’s things that had been bagged and boxed and shoved in a hallway to await their fate. The staff had to “turn the room” because they had a “new admission” on the way. Other than a yellow sweater, we donated all of her clothes to the nursing home so that others might find use for them. Later that night we would sort through the boxes and pictures.

My brother and I had so much fun dusting off pictures from the early 1900s of my grandmother as a young girl. She was apparently quite an athlete, and underneath that proper smile and those fancy clothes was a wide-eyed, fearless girl—a warrior on the inside.

She kept immaculate records of birthdays and important events. She earmarked poems and bible verses that offered her strength during trying times. Now they offered us strength. My grandmother was wise. But so much of her wisdom we were only just discovering—an unfortunate reality of living so far away.

What I didn’t expect during my visit was to hear all the wonderful stories about her from those with whom she spent most of her days, some even to the very end. She was funny and kind but sharp and direct. So many people came up to tell me how proud she was of me and how I was such a light in her life. I didn’t know this, and it made me a little sad because I’ve been wrapped up in my own life and wasn’t as present as I should have, could have been.

So, there are regrets in life. I wish I had taken the time to ask her about her memories, her dreams, her ideas, her regrets, her loves, passions and hopes. Because when people leave this world, they take with them all of these things.

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My grandmother, Helen, with Anson, her great-granddaughter. This was the last photo I ever took of her.

“Our grandparents’ house was our favorite place in the universe.”

We all remember the first day of school and the dreaded first assignment to write an essay about what you did over the summer. When Ashley Bond suggested this as a topic for my August blog post, I was actually overjoyed. I have a great story to tell!

The story began many years ago. I was married at 22, moved to New Orleans from Houston, and was immediately welcomed into the Levin family as the daughter Lil and Irv never had. They touched my life, giving of themselves in so many ways and sharing their love and support. When my children were born, my husband was a resident working around the clock. Lil and Irv were there for us everyday.

A year ago the phone rang and I heard, “Mom, I’m pregnant!” My daughter Lauren and her husband Tony were expecting their first baby, my first grandchild. Almost without taking a breath, Lauren then asked if I could come to California to help for 3 months when the baby was born. I immediately said YES, not quite knowing how I would manage it.

Sadly, Irv died several years ago and Lil 6 weeks before Alejandra was born. Lauren’s eulogy describes her special relationship with her grandmother, Ganee.

“When my brother Josh and I were growing up, our grandparents’ house was our favorite place in the universe. That’s true, and it meant much more than physical place. Though I’m far away right now, the love I feel for Ganee and the extraordinary person she was keeps me anchored in where I come from, in the person I strive to be and the family I hope to create. She gave me so much love, a sense of self, and a sense of home, and those things can’t be changed by any distance, even by death.”

I did make it work. I traveled to California before the baby was born and was there in the delivery room when Alejandra came into the world. I stayed with Lauren, Tony and Alejandra for 3 months. Getting up in the middle of the night, changing diapers, burping, singing and reading – I loved it all!

Although a number of family members and friends thought the idea was a bit crazy, Lauren and I knew it was right for us. Our bond is stronger now than ever before. It was a blessing for me to be able to share the lessons I’d learned from Lil and Irv —that there’s nothing more important than family, and that we must cherish every moment together.

I will always treasure this very extraordinary time.

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Marilyn Levin and her first grandbaby, Alejandra, read Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? by Eric Carle.

The best part of my summer

We just returned from Connecticut. My grandmother is not well and time is not on our side. It has been so long since I last saw her and she’s never met her great-grandchildren, so I decided to take my oldest daughter, Anson (6), up north to meet her great-grandmother for the first time. What an amazing gift for both of them. I don’t remember my great-grandparents. I was too young. But Anson will remember this. It will shape her.

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While I am an air force brat and grew up no where in particular, my family is from the northeast. My father grew up in Connecticut, my mother New York. I didn’t have a “childhood home” because we moved every three to four years; The one constant in my life was a place called Mystic, Connecticut and a place called New Rochelle, New York. I spent my childhood summers and winters going back and forth between these two towns.

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It felt so good to be back. The smell of the sea, the air, the trees and the sound of fog horns made my mind tingle with childhood memories. It was as if no time had passed. But there I was decades later watching my own daughter leave footprints where I once stood.

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This is one of the docks at Lord’s Point in Stonington, Connecticut, a small New England fishing village near Mystic where my Uncle Bobby has a cottage.

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It’s a dreamy place where families spend their summers and children travel in packs from one dock or beach or playground to the next wearing nothing but their bathing suits.

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They ride bikes without helmets, catch hermit crabs, fish for moon jellies, giggle at the sight of minnows and design jewelry out of seaweed. Children here don’t wear shoes. They are free from the daily chains of conformity that we’ve all come to believe make us feel safe and civilized.

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I set Anson free–free from her younger siblings, free from big sister responsibilities, free from time, free from clothes, free from “no.” The local kids absorbed her as if she were one of their own. She drifted seamlessly into a Norman Rockwell-esque painting of what I imagine childhood to be.

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Watching her memories take shape has been the best part of my summer.

What’s been the best part of your summer so far? Have you taken your child(ren) to a place you once traveled? I’d love to hear your story.

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