Grandma Winnie made quilts, mostly, and when I was a kid, it was very rare to see her sitting down without an unfinished quilt in her lap. She would hum a never-ending sort of rambling melody to herself, completely unaware that she was doing it, as she held onto the embroidery hoop and made countless tiny stitches by hand. She had a room in her house totally dedicated to her quilting and sewing, with shelves of meticulously organized fabrics, arranged by color and texture. She had a closet full of patterns, templates, and stencils, because she believed that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing it by hand. She made my mother’s wedding dress. And all of the bridesmaids’ dresses. And innumerable baby blankets, bonnets, booties, Christmas stockings, tree ornaments, flower pots, ceramic figurines, pies, cakes…you get the idea. If there was something happening in your life, no matter how small, she had something that she had made at the ready to commemorate the occasion.
She passed away last Tuesday, a few days shy of her 94th birthday, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Her strength was in her determination to live a simple life that was filled with things she loved. She married my grandfather right before he left to go fight on a battleship in World War II. She gave birth to my mom, Diane, while he was still out to sea, and had to wait for him to come back from across the world to meet his first child.
She was an effortless hostess, working hard behind the scenes and never even thinking to complain about the fact that she had yet to sit down while everyone else was already having their second helping of Christmas dinner. She collected porcelain dolls and romance novels. She grew mirlitons and figs in her backyard, and she loved to travel.
When I was a little girl, I was inundated with pink things. Pink stuffed animals, pink clothes, pink hair accessories, pink everywhere. By age 12, I was sick of it, even the beautiful Cheer Bear quilt that Grandma Winnie had made me for my 5th birthday. I wish that I could find a picture of this glorious quilt where it wasn’t completely obscured by stuffed animals, but trust me when I say it was super cool.
Just imagine this adorable bear surrounded by diamonds in every conceivable shade of pink. Cute, right? I know.
Anyway, I railed against the tyranny of pink in a big way. Even though I was a spoiled ungrateful child who had absolutely no idea how long it took to make a full-sized quilt for a double bed, she listened. She sat me down at her house with a huge pile of quilting magazines, and we went through them together for hours, picking out just the right pattern with exactly the right fabrics for my new, grown-up, pink-hating self.
She stitched down every single flower and kitten by hand with blanket stitches of love. And I returned the favor by laying on top of that quilt and doing my homework every single day until all of those stitches wore out, and the appliques were peeling off. And then she did it again, fixing every piece and mending the holes with embroidered hearts. She knew that these things that she spent the time and effort to make were meant to be loved and enjoyed. They were useful objects that had no place hanging on a wall or being folded up on a shelf somewhere. If it fell apart, she could fix it or make you a new one. That was what she loved best.
She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease several years ago, and at first she was just forgetful. She would misplace things and forget about the fact that she had already made dinner that night. When my grandfather passed away, it wasn’t the sudden downward slide into dementia that people were expecting, more like a slow fading away of the parts of her personality that were uniquely hers. She didn’t make things anymore. She forgot that she even knew how to do so.
The moment that most broke my heart was when I once went to visit her in her assisted-living facility when I had just started nursing school. She sat down on her bed to look at the crossword puzzle books that I had handed her and started absent-mindedly patting the crocheted throw on the bed next to her. I complimented the blanket, saying that it was very pretty (a very cool, seventies sort of retro zig-zaggy thing in shades of red and gray), and she smiled and said, “Oh, thank you. I don’t even remember where I got it.”
I said, “You made it.”
Her eyes got wide as she looked at me, and looked back at her blanket. “I did?”
I nodded. She said, “Well, I don’t know how to do stuff like that.” And then she traced the outlines of the ridges with her fingers. “I used to, I guess.”
I wanted to cry and give her a hug, but I decided against it because she wasn’t really sure who I was. She could tell that she was supposed to know me, but had decided that I probably worked there, given the fact that I was wearing scrubs at the time. Instead, I went and cried in my car after I left.
She was the one who had taught me how to crochet. She taught me how to quilt, how to embroider, how to work a sewing machine even though it still terrifies me. How to be delighted in the small and the handmade. How to love bird-watching. How to do crosswords. Right now, my brain can’t even process what it would be like to forget how to do these things. These things that were such a large part of who she was. Of who I am now.
However, she never lost the core of herself to Alzheimer’s. She was, till the very end, unfailingly kind. She was always up for eating something delicious and watching everyone around her have a wonderful time.
She still graciously accepted gifts. She loved chocolate. She made an effort to smile at you and ask you how you were doing, even if she wasn’t totally sure she knew who you were. She didn’t understand why everyone wanted to take pictures with her and why she was so popular, but she smiled all the same.
She danced at my brother’s wedding reception, with all of the people who loved her most surrounding her and holding her up.
On that night, when I walked over to her sitting near the edge of the dance floor, I held my hands up at her in a boxing stance, like one of those boxing nun puppets, wheeling my hands around as I came towards her. She returned the gesture and punched me in the arm, and said that she’d knock me out. I used to do this to her in her kitchen all the time when I was in high school and had started to grow taller than her. My cousins and my brother and I all did, for some reason. She punched my arm on the dance floor, and I almost cried. And then we danced.
I can’t even deign to compare myself to this amazing woman, this woman who was full of nothing but patience and kindness and good advice. This woman that knew that most problems could be solved if you just talked them over with a glass of milk and some vanilla sandwich cookies. I couldn’t say that she was even the grandparent that I am most like, but she’s definitely the one that I most wanted to be. That I still want to be. I make things, too, and I put a part of myself into every stitch or recipe, just like anyone would, I suppose.
But when she made things, she made people happy. She made a beautiful life. May we all be so lucky.