You would have loved her.

By Nicole Renee

This probably won't make sense to you. That's fine, because I need to brush death off of my shoulders for a while.

I've been grieving the loss of my grandmother and best friend for almost a month now. For a month I've been trying to write this post which has left me destroying text, crying, walking,1 and falling to the ground. I fell off of the grief wagon and into the pits of depressive obsessive despair. Do not be fooled,2 grief needs its space to move through your body, being felt by every part of you, sharpening the edges of your life through confrontation...until eventually whatever is left at the end can claim the victory. Its a harrowing experience that if avoided, will slowly kill you. I'm stuck and don't know what to do about it. After 24 years, I have nothing but living amends to offer to those that I lost. A week before I found out about my grandmother's passing I got the word that my best friend from childhood killed herself. It's hard not to make the connection between the death of the grandma who raised me after my mom died and my best friend killing herself while leaving behind a three year old child.

I've been living the last month in a fog of sadness without wanting to really do anything. It's true that bad news never has good timing. Some days are great and some I have to give myself a pep talk to breathe in the morning. I'm not very good at death, nor is their a way to measure grief but that is no reason to hide the lives of these two people. I hope you enjoy these stories about my grandmother and if you don't - she wouldn't have cared anyways.

My grandma, Dorothy, died in October and you would have loved her. Dorothy3 was born in 1929 and became the eldest of eight children. She raised eight children, my dad and his three brothers, and then my two older brothers, and myself when our mother died. I consider myself the lucky last girl of 14 children. My grandmother was the perfect grandmother - sweet and cold in the perfect combination. She taught me to read (One of our earliest books being Amelia Bedelia, of which I can still hear her laugh at drawing the drapes and dressing of the turkey.) by reading a page and then making me read the next until the book was finished. The two of us went through so many books that my teachers accused me of lying when I returned them to class. As a part of her mandatory grandmother responsibilities she also taught me how to play cards: war, solitaire, rummy, goldfish..etc. She let me cheat by claiming that two of a kind counted and I called her out on cheating after she expertly put down an entire hand of sets and suits when I had nothing. This was also the woman who did not have a favorite color and refused to listen to any music besides Elvis and my boy, Dean Martin. My grandmother raised 14 kids and never once went to a lecture circuit, read a buzzfeed article, or a self help book; however, she did raise her hands up and go 'all well' when she was wrong. By not giving a shit about pretense, feelings, or what is right by the standards of anyone but herself, I now have a great deal of lessons and stories I'd like to generously4 pass on to you.

Grandma Dorothy grew up as a second generation immigrant in Indiana. Her mothers and Aunts all spoke Polish in the house and especially when they didn't want any of the kids to understand what they were saying. My grandma took this as a reason to learn Polish and spent the next few years of high school secretly taking Polish language classes. This worked out well, as she understood all of gossip about their husbands, her siblings and cousins, and the neighborhood...except for the one day when she made the mistake of laughing out loud at one of her aunt's comments. After that, they stared her down and then never spoke Polish in her presence again.5

Apparently, it was a huge deal to go to the movie theater in the 1930s and my grandma invited her youngest brother along to a show with her. For some reason the kid cried the entire time, until my grandmother dragged him out and beat him all the way home.6

After she got married, she moved into a house in Hammond, Indiana and lived there from her marriage until she died. On any given day, I could bust into her front door and find her sitting at the kitchen table in her robe, eating jellybeans, smoking a cigarette, and reading a book.7 My grandmother loved to smoke Pall Malls and I'm sure they lost a fortunate with her death.8 The tiny three bedroom grey house had yellow walls that were stained thick with smoke and you could see it piping out of the chimney. My brother, Shane, would try and match her with smoking the same number of cigarettes and he'd pass out with us dragging him out -arm on each shoulder- by the end of the night. When she lived with us at my dad's house, he'd often give her ultimatums to entice her to stop smoking - they went something like, "its the cigarettes or the grand kids" to which she grabbed my hand and took me on a walk to buy more cigarettes.

If she wasn't reading then she was playing pogo word games. At 80 my grandma could spell better than anyone in our family and she loved to learn the basic functions of computers. We set her up with an AOL account in early 2000 and I have memories of us chatting over AIM9. Every time something went wrong and she couldn't "play her games" she'd call me with this sheepish tone and see if I could come over to fix her computer.10 As I got older, she'd call me and I'd find out that nothing was actually wrong but she just wanted to see me.

Like most kids in Hammond, we went to the community center to play in the public pool. For the first time ever, I got the nerve to stand in the long line for the high diving boards and when it was finally my turn, I took the long walk to the very top... stair after stair I climbed and after taking one look down at the lifeguard in the deep pool below, I turned back around pushing my way back through all of the kids in tears. I was so embarrassed and ran to my grandma for a hug. My grandma, who was not a fan of crying (huge fan of hugs though) enrolled me in swimming classes the very next day and bought a pool for her backyard. In twenty seven years, she is the family member whom I've never seen cry.

A lot of lessons I learned from my grandma were to not live in fear or make the same mistakes she did11 - she pushed me to drive, graduate college, not depend on people, have my own bank account12 and visit Chicago as often as possible. I opened my college scholarship letter at her house, drove to see her to announce that I got my first job, and she bought me my first mattress for my first apartment. The day before my first day at my new career, I came to her nervous and anxious (often staring off) about how the first day would go -- she pulled up the arms of her bathrobe, lit a cigarette, and said "awe Nicoley, everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time - you can't be afraid of anyone."13

There also existed the somewhat dubious advice, like 'if you show that you are good at something then people will just make you do it all of the time' and 'if you ever bowl a gutter ball just laugh and say you meant to do that.'

I'd often drive the hour and a half from the city to see her in Indiana. Leaving her house was hard and I attached a lot of emotion to her walking me out the door and telling me that she'd lock the door behind me. Her humility came through when she expressed that I didn't have to drive out here just for her and to get some sleep. No matter the time she'd offer to cook me whatever she had, last meal and all.14 Sometimes I turned the car around to come back inside and give her one more hug.15

My dad is an anxious guy and we would often fight at her house about whatever things dads and daughters fight about. One of few people able to calm him down, she'd look at him and tell him to knock it off and then look at me and say 'he came out of the womb like that'. Of course, she also wouldn't let me take her to church because, "the building would crumble" if she entered.

One of my favorite traits of her was her ability to laugh at herself like no one else I've ever met. Like her, I hope I can make mistakes and then laugh seriously at them. As she aged, she laughed at herself about shrinking, made jokes about the various ways in which she would haunt me16, and never stopped reading new books. I'll never forget the kind of happiness she showed when I came back to tell her about a new place I had been or someone I was in love with.17 That's rare in a person and if you find someone like that then hold on to them.

My dad told me she would live forever because she was too stubborn to die and my grandmother promised that she'd live until I got married. Now, I have a bone to pick with both of them. Its true that you would have loved the chain smoking, jelly bean eating, astute, and stubborn grandmother that I had. I consider myself lucky if all of my fortunate left with her.

  1. lots of walking -- how many times can you walk down the same road to ask yourself the same question? []
  2. and grief will try and fool you with fear. It'll tell you that your sadness is coming from a different place, nothing is as important as it seems, and you wouldn't feel this way if you did more living. []
  3. Dorothy though, I mean can you come up with more of a classic name? []
  4. and I mean generously - she became in a shut in for a reason. []
  5. My favorite part of hearing this story was that my grandma never imparted any of her feelings - she always told it like it happened and not how she felt about it. []
  6. "I was so so mad," as she told it. []
  7. I should also mention for science that she lived until 92 and I never saw her drink a glass of water or alcohol. Only coffee with powdered creamer for her. []
  8. The experts say she never inhaled but I'm not so sure. []
  9. This is where the 'Gma' nickname began []
  10. She made me write it down and go slow so she could do it herself. []
  11. This was the woman who told another mother on the block to hit her first and cursed out a teacher who took away my brothers magazine. He got his magazine back. []
  12. Never sparing a dime when I was low on funds in college to do laundry. []
  13. A favorite story of hers was when she got a job at the elementary school that my dad went to. The women all got a new coworker and one them went door to door to tell the others about what trash the new one was. The new woman turned out to be pleasant and the door to door weirdo was not be trusted. []
  14. That's my family though. All of them would give the shirt of their back if you need it more. []
  15. She also did not want to be photographed but I still sent my brothers secret pictures of her smoking cigs to let them know that she was breathing. []
  16. I spend most nights praying she'll haunt me or that I'll at least be able to say hello to her in my dreams []
  17. This includes MP to which she said in stubborn fashion that "he would be handsome without the beard". []

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