Every Easter I miss my grandmothers

Easter aside for a second – I’ve been missing my grandmothers in general lately.

One passed in 2016 and one in 2018. Neither were in great shape when they died, and I suppose most older folks aren’t, but it’s really especially true in both their cases. They were both of the age and the condition where the phrase “quality of life” gets tossed around a lot. Their quality of life by most standards wasn’t great, and so, when it was their time to go, we all let them.

I wasn’t relieved when they were gone per se, in fact, I remember sobbing through a short speech at my Texas grandmother’s funeral so hard that afterward I was pretty embarrassed and knew there was no way in hell anyone understood a word of it. But the truth is that in some ways I had already been grieving them slowly, even while they were alive, because they hadn’t been themselves for a long while.

So that’s why the past year or so I’ve been a little surprised at this welling up of grief that feels like it’s years past due. Lately I find myself jealous of my older cousins who had my Texas grandmother, as good as she ever was, up until their late 30s. I find myself wanting to talk to both of them, who would have had different views, about love, marriage, faith, and politics so badly. The world feels like it has changed so much since I was able to really talk to them last, although it’s probably just me who has gotten older and yearns for their perspective and wisdom in ways I never could have ten years ago.

I have no doubt that I could find a woman in her 70s or 80s willing to be that wisdom and perspective for me, but there’s nothing like shared blood, shared culture, a maternal energy that — through the raising of my parents, who are part of me — knows me better than I know myself.

Every Texas Easter

This feeling always gets worse around Easter. My immediate family has never been big on traditions, but almost every single year of my childhood is marked by our East Texas celebrations. Buckets of crawfish spread out over newspaper, azalea bushes in full bloom, pine trees, First Baptist Church in Haslam with the stained glass and blue fabric pews, a cross with a purple robe around it. 40ish family members. An egg hunt for the littles.

This is just the great grandkids! Probably about 8 or 9 years ago.

I will never forget the way my grandmother’s hands looked. And when I think of them, my mind sees them close up and knows she’s wearing church clothes, and the background is filled with fuzzy images of the pews at First Baptist Haslam. I see her hands in my mind either holding her bible, or rubbing my hair as I laid in her lap while the pastor droned on, or handing me a green peppermint from her bible cover’s pocket. Her nails were always done. And they were always a frosty mauve color. My cousins who might be reading this know. I remember her wedding ring, and her sun spots. I would give a lot to hold them once more. I would give a lot to thumb through the last Bible she used the most, taking note of her notes.

What does she think of me being almost 30 and not married? Is she proud of me? What do I not know about her? There must be more than a million things.

That East-Texas Easter tradition sticks so solidly in my mind that every Easter we aren’t there feels super strange. Sometimes the hardest parts about being my age are these holidays that remind you that you’re in-between traditions at the moment, and you don’t know when certain holidays will feel normal again. And even worse, you’ll be the one in charge of the tradition-making.

Mudbugs forever.
Pineywoods forever.

Those two Missouri Easters

For my Missouri grandmother – Easter marks two very hard moments in our family’s story. The weekend before the springtime holiday when I was in fifth grade, we got a harrowing phone call from my grandpa. My grandma had suffered a massive stroke, and she was in the hospital. We should make plans to come right away. And so we did. I don’t remember much about that weekend except I didn’t like the hospital. My grandma didn’t look like herself. We didn’t know what her recovery would look like.

I remember the adults being optimistic in the beginning, but turns out physical therapy and speech therapy can only do so much. Her physical life would never be the same (her right arm and leg no longer communicated well with her brain), but worse than that – for me – was her speech was mostly gone.

She was in her early 70s. Tragically young.

There’s a photo from that weekend that is framed and still sits on the mantel in my grandpa’s house. It’s of my immediate family, all dressed for church (this time Second Baptist in Springfield, MO). We are standing in front of the fireplace, all smiles with our Easter baskets. I remember the pearl necklace my mom let me wear. You wouldn’t know from the photo that our lives dramatically changed that weekend. To be fair, it probably hadn’t even begun to sink in with my parents yet.

In the years that followed, I’d be taught by the two of them, well really, mostly my grandpa, what the tough stuff of marriage is made of. Their retirement plans were upended in a matter of seconds, and from then on, my grandpa’s life was overtly dedicated to being her caregiver. It’s not for the faint of heart. He might be the best man I know.

He’s as nice as he looks.

In 2015 it was getting too hard on my grandpa to take care of her, so she moved to the nursing home. He visited her every day, even among his own health problems. Six or so months later, her behavior was that of patients who “were ready to go,” according to the nurses. And so around Easter weekend in 2016, she did.

Lately I’ve been grieving what our relationship could’ve been had her speech not gone. The worst part about it is that she knew what was being said, but she couldn’t contribute to the conversation. As a teenager I ruminated on how enraged that would make me, how trapped she must have felt.

I know that she was smart. Her whole side of the family is characterized by how bookish they were. My dad is smart, my uncle was, too. My grandpa will tell you that they didn’t get it from him. And so that’s why I lament not being able to hear what she has to say on everything going on in our state, our country, our world.

She is the one who taught me how to read. I remember the Hooked on Phonics tapes. I remember sitting on her lap with dozens of picture books on the coffee tables next to us. I’m not sure if she’s solely the reason why my reading was well above grade level all through elementary school, but that’s what we’re going to go with. And in that same vein, yes, we’re also gonna assume that she’s the reason why I love books, why I love to write, why I studied journalism in college – in many ways – why I’m sitting here, in Columbia, Missouri today. (A story for another time is the fact that she and my grandpa both attended, and fell in love at Mizzou.)

So while I cry sometimes lately at the thought that I only get to learn more about her now through other people, that I didn’t talk to her enough while she was still here, that in some ways I didn’t get to fully know her and she, me, I hope she sees me writing this on my condo’s balcony and takes all the credit for herself.

Author: Alex Ethridge

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