Sometimes when life is headed down the line to “crazy-town” you know that it will eventually roll off the tracks and head towards “chaos-city”. Remember a few weeks back when I mentioned I was “taking a break”? Pretty much as soon as I typed that, my life turned into a full-on roller coaster when we lost my dear Grandmother at the ripe young age of 95. We had to make a quick and dirty trip back to Columbus, Ohio for the funeral and spent our third weekend in a row away from home – talk about stressful!
But enough about me, I have to tell you about my Grandmother – get your hankies ready because I just can’t help myself. I need to tell you about a truly great woman who was such an inspiration to me.
My Dad’s Mom passed away on October 22, just two months into her ninety-fifth year, which (if you do the math) means she was born in 1915, back before women could even vote! Can you imagine that? After my grandfather passed away in 1994, my grandmother and I formed a special bond. I really tried to invite her with me on outings. I’d go to movies with her, go shopping, drop by her house in later years when I had a license, etc. Anything to get her out of the house and “get to know her better”. You see, my grandpa was not a well man. He had his first major bypass surgery when I was just a wee one and after that he was a sad, tired, and ill man who spent his last 13 years in and out of hospitals, nursing homes and living a life in general agony – not exactly a happy time. During his convalesence, my Grandmother was consumed with taking care of Grandpa to the detriment of her own health and happiness. By the time he passed away when I was fourteen, even *I* was quick to admit that it truly was a blessing. Even though I know it was incredibly difficult for her, his passing reawakened a new woman. She got out of the house more often, was extremely active, played cards, organized parties, and had a whole slew of friends that looked up to her as this fun-loving, independent and amazingly sweet and gracious woman, which she absolutely was. This is where I came in and really got to know my grandmother fairly well over the years in a way that I was never able to with my Grandpa – something that is very sad for my parents who insist that prior to his being sick he was nothing at all like the man he later became. So with Grandma newly widowed we formed a “bond” over things like music, laughter and old movies that not only “distracted” her from her loss, but served double duty in allowing me to get close to her before things like high school, boyfriends, and ultimately adulthood got in the way.
It was this “closeness” that compelled me to give one of my Grandmother’s eulogies. Side note: in my family, my brother and I are known as the writers and the speechgivers – we got that trait from my mother. While my mom could have given a speech, it would’ve been odd if she gave one and my father didn’t. And since my father and aunt don’t do speeches, the task fell to one of her three grandchildren, which meant either my brother or myself since my sister got the speech giving trait from my father. We decided it was too much pressure for just one of us to give it, so we both did. I’m not sure if you’ve ever felt compelled to give a eulogy and I’m certain there is something in that aforementioned “trait” that compells one to do so. Much like writing, it is a catharsis of the soul that can be very difficult, yet also very beautiful to do. It’s also the ultimate ironic “goodbye” if only because, as was said in the movie The Big Chill, “Amazing tradition. They throw you a big party on the one day they know you can’t show up!” Ironic, but so true!
Because I’m weird….and because I’m mourning and need as much catharsis as possible, I thought I would share my eulogy with you here. If it’s weird for you, you can skip it. I promise that there are some funny parts because Grandma wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. In the meantime, allow me this respite from “home and DIY” to share a little of my grandmother’s life with you…
Anna Grace McDonald Highfield. She was more than just Anna. She was also a daughter, a sister, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, an aunt, and most importantly to those who knew her best, she was simply “Annie”.
Grandma and I had a special relationship. You could even say we had a lot in common. We were both youngest children. I, the youngest child of a youngest child of a youngest child. Her, the youngest of six. We were both musicians, though Grandma was a virtuoso on trumpet and piano and I was simply a wannabe band geek. We both had an appreciation for music and classic movies. I used to drag Grandma to the movies with me all the time, including going to the Summer movie series at the Ohio Theatre downtown, where she would always remind me that “back in her day, it was a nickel to get in!”. We saw The Lion King together, The Wizard of Oz, and even a little low-budget film called Gone with the Wind. It truly is better on the big screen. She was supportive of my musical pursuits, including attending multiple band concerts all the way through college. (Yes, I was a band geek, even in college) I’ll never forget a time when she came to one of my high school band concerts and cheered and howled when her beloved trumpets were given a place in the limelight. I played clarinet. It’s a rivalry that will never die. We both carried calla lilies in our wedding – a fact that came to my attention after-the-fact, of course. Although she liked to soberingly remind me that, after her ceremony, she brought her bouquet to her parents’ gravestones in remembrance.
Grandma had more than her fair share of tragedies and losses in her lifetime, including losing most of her brothers and parents at a very young age before she was even married. But through it all she had just about the sweetest disposition you could imagine and you really couldn’t ever get her down, including her love for a good laugh. Grandma’s cackle was truly the laugh heard ’round the world. I’ll never forget a story my dad used to tell about Grandma going to see him in Arsenic and Old Lace … dressed in drag, playing a woman. Her laugh was a legendary part of that evening. Honestly, if I saw my dad dressed in drag, I’d probably laugh too, so that’s another thing we have in common.
She was born in 1915, the youngest of six. Her father owned a lumberyard, which she began working sometime when she was in high school. She began working at the lumberyard sometime around the early 1930s, and if you think back to that era, that makes her a pretty incredible woman for me to look up to – a fact that is not lost on me. She continued to work and later purchased that lumberyard for her own after her father passed away, which made her a woman business owner at a time when it was more fashionable for women to be donning aprons than dolling out assignments. She was perfectly suited to the task as well. She had a way with numbers that was downright freaky. She could remember her first phone number from her parents house, back when it was letters AND numbers. She could add, subtract, multiply, divide, do the differential equation of whatever all in her head and make you feel real dumb, real quick. Add all of that to her brilliance in music and other talents and her humility through it all and you realized just how amazing she was.
Her humility is what always got me. She really never had an ego or a selfish thought her entire life. I think that is what made me appreciate her and the life she led. It taught me that life is short, even for 95 years. After her stroke, the last 6 years were sometimes difficult, but she never allowed the sadness of living in a nursing home to take hold of her in a way that so many do. She was always quick with a joke and sharp as a tack. You could never pull one over on Grandma especially when it came to cards and numbers and I was always so proud and impressed of her intellect over the years. She had a wry way of winking at you with her sparkly blue eyes that made you smile and remember that life ain’t so bad, even for whatever ails you. We always used to joke that the only grace Grandma was ever given in her life was her middle name and while she may have tripped and fallen from time to time, I hope to live half the life she did some day – as GRACEfully as she did.
I’m sure we all have stories like this of grandparents/parents/aunts/uncles that are long gone that are near and dear to us. And while I was very sad to say goodbye, I’m also joyful that she lived such a great life and to such great length! Ninety-five years is a hard thing to sum up in a few paragraphs, but we should all be so lucky for that. And while she had a stroke in later years and spent her remaining years in a nursing home, she didn’t experience as much pain and suffering as my Grandpa ultimately did, which made her passing all the more beautiful. She sort of had the “ideal death” – the one we all hope and pray for. Warm, snuggled in bed, and in her last waking moments with her loved ones by her side. I know death is not an easy thing for people to talk about and I apologize if you’re wiping away tears and/or just eeked about by my frankness, but Ben Franklin was right. There really are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. In the end, we’re all going to the same place and I do think it is something that in the right context should be celebrated when it is “just right”. Hers was “just right”. Just as it should be.