I've just returned from Eau Claire, Wisconsin - and more particularly, a town just south of there called Mondovi. Mondovi is where my grandmother lived for her adult life. It is where she passed away last week. We gathered there for her funeral.
At 94, she was my last surviving grandparent - my father's mother, the matriarch of the Bollinger clan. And a clan it is - while my mom's family has just a handful of people, my father's family is expansive. I suppose it didn't hurt that his father was one of 16 children - and that my father and his two brothers had a total of 12 children between them. So going to Eau Claire on Wednesday (where many of my family still live - uncles, aunts, my brother, his wife, kids galore...) was like going to a family reunion. With one caveat. We were missing Grandma.
It was a truly wonderful service at Grandma's church - one of the local Lutheran churches there in Mondovi (yes, there is more than one Lutheran church in this town of just-over 2500). The pastor had named his sermon "A Class Act," and then, as he began, got choked up as he remembered what a special lady Grandma was. Which she was. Always helping where she could - and then, when she really couldn't anymore, living in peace, day to day, allowing life to fade away.
My grandmother always had a kind word about, and for, everyone. She kept track of every family development. Every photograph of every child was on her refrigerator and all around the house. She did not expect divorce, but learned to accept it when one of her children and some of her grandchildren - good people, she knew them to be - had to go through it. She didn't balk when some of her great-grandchildren were Jewish due to her granddaughters' marriage to Jewish men - she just wanted to learn how to pronounce "batmitzvah" when the great-grandkids turned 13. Perhaps that was a shining glory of hers - to accept people as they were, and work from there.
My last visit with her was just in October. I was in Chicago helping my sis and her husband with their two boys, and I took a day to drive up to Mondovi and hang out with her. She had been living in a group home - had moved from that lovely home on the hill where she had lived ever since I could remember - and in recent months had moved into a room that allowed for more caretaking. It still wasn't a nursing home - but she was getting close to that.
I guess that day that I visited was one of her last "good days." She couldn't really say a lot. But still she had comments to make. When I told her I was having hot flashes, she said, "Get used to it." (Thanks, Grandma. I was looking for a little sympathy!) When I told her how much my sister's new baby - her most recent great-grandchild - weighed, she said, "At birth? Big baby." That was Grandma. Even with her fading memory, she was interested in knowing those kinds of details. As the day went along, she was able to say less, so I just kept her company and said things as I thought of them. When I told her how much I liked that photograph of her and my grandfather together (he passed away in 1987), and what a great person he had been, she seemed quite moved. I didn't want to make her cry - but look at all they had built - the foundation for entire generations. So I told her that too. And thanked her for it.
There was no rush to death for my grandmother. It was a gentle passing, over time. At the church service, the song verses that choked me up the most were the ones that talked about being in heaven. For that is where my grandmother would be. Instantaneously, or so I feel. The minister based his sermon on Revelation 2:10: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life." That was my grandmother. She will rest in peace, I know.
We had a dinner later, after the funeral. We told stories - about her wonderful cooking, and graham cracker pie (need I say more?) , about the featherbed in the basement and the comic books there - about how she always stuck up for people, gently but firmly. I thought about how, when the pastor spoke of her myriad children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, he did not know that, early that morning of the funeral, her great-great-grandchild had been born (to my nephew and his fiancee). One more member to add to the clan.
So life will go on, even as Grandma departs from this world. She leaves behind a wake of tears, a never-ending supply of beautiful memories, and a lasting legacy of goodness.