When my Grandma Patterson died, it was both a shock and not a shock at the same time.
My grandmother was ninety years old when she died, and she didn’t die of anything mysterious or surprising. It was just old age. And yet, no one saw it coming, because she was so healthy when it happened.
Most people who make it to ninety do it on a plethora of medications, and with a variety of aches, pains, surgeries, and hospital visits.
My grandmother was on no medications, and her biggest problems medically were the fact that she was slowing down in her old age, and that her eyes just weren’t what they used to be. She had problems seeing when it started to get dark.
And that was it.
She went the way I think we all hope to. Fit and happy and with all her faculties intact. From what we can tell, she sat down in her easy chair and just didn’t get up again.
I’ve lived a charmed life on the grandparents front. I know people my age (31, as I write this) whose grandparents are long deceased, and who have even lost a parent by now. But I’ve lived most of my life with my grandparents watching over me, still sending me cards on my birthday, still giving me and my family gifts at Christmas.
Death always leaves us with some regrets, and I have two, and both of them are downstairs.
On the dining room table there’s a Mother’s Day card we got for her that is, and will stay, unsent. Life got in the way, and I’m sad that she won’t get it.
Also downstairs is a photo of one of her many, many great-grandchildren. When we had photos of my daughter taken not all that long ago, we set aside four, one for each of the great-grandparents.
We meant to get a frame for the photo, and to get it to her. And we didn’t. And now I’m at a loss as to what we should do with it.
Ultimately, I don’t know that those things matter. These are the things that matter:
Last summer, my extended family threw an adoption shower for Kara and myself and Mihret. It was a pretty large gathering, because we’re a big group of people.
Grandma and I sat on a bench while the younger kids ran around, playing whatever games kids play when they’ve got a few rubber balls sitting available, and plenty of energy.
We talked about this and that, and Grandma remarked that it was the first time she’d seen some of her grandkids in a while. A lot of us live in central Wisconsin, but some of us have flown the coop – and finding the time and the money to visit isn’t always easy.
My Grandma looked at me. “It’s the first time I’ve seen some of ‘em since Grandpa died,” she said. And as she looked over at the kids running back and forth, my eyed glassed over a bit.
Somewhere inside me, I really realized that Grandma wasn’t going to be around forever, even if it sometimes felt like she would be.
I wonder now if she knew, even then, that “not going to be around forever” was going to be such a short stretch of time.
At every major gathering, my Grandma used to make oyster crackers. Or rather, she doctored them up with various herbs and spices, and I would inevitably grab a small plate and fill it with garlic-y goodness.
Over the years, Grandma realized how much I loved those crackers. When each family gathering was over, she would find me and give me the rest of the bag she had made.
And when I was away at college, she gave the bag to my parents, so they could send the crackers to me.
As the years wore on, I discovered that one of my cousins also loved the crackers, and so we started taking turns taking them at the end of each family gathering.
When Grandma discovered we were doing this, she started making an extra bag, just to make sure that both of us got some at the end of every family get-together. She did that right up until last Christmas.
She also gave me a copy of the recipe a few years ago – actually handed me the recipe card right out of her old recipe card box. I’ve made them a few times over the years, but they were never quite as good as Grandma’s.
Two Christmases ago, Grandma surprised all the grandkids. We were all pulled into her bedroom at the same time, and she gave a speech that I hope is captured on video somewhere.
Or maybe it’s better if it’s not, because videotape couldn’t ever really capture what we all felt that night.
With all seventeen of us crowded into her room, Grandma announced that she wanted us all to get our inheritance right then and there. She wanted to give it to us while she was still alive, she claimed, so that she didn’t have to hunt down all our Social Security numbers and put down amounts in her will.
We all got a check for the exact same amount that night.
Kara and I used the money to fly to Ethiopia to bring Mihret home.
My Grandma is tied to Mihret in another way, as well – they both have late January birthdays.
I have struggled for years in an attempt to remember my Grandparent’s birthdays, but I’m awful about it. I can remember Kara’s birthday, and mine, and Mihret’s quite easily.
On a good day, I can tell you my brother’s and my parent’s.
Anyone outside that circle, though? I count on the kindness of my mother to remind me when to call or send a card to my grandparents.
Last Christmas at the big gathering o’ Patterson family, my mom pulled me aside and told me the semi-secret plan.
We were going to hold a double-birthday gathering. The family had picked a Sunday, and we were all going to show up at The Old Country Buffet and celebrate the birth of my Grandma, who would be 90, and the birth of my daughter, who would be one.
There would be food, and balloons, and some gifts.
And so it happened.
That same night, I took the picture you see at the top of this entry – the four generations picture.
The four generations picture is special in a number of ways.
It’s the only picture I have of my Grandma holding Mihret.
Outside of my wedding photos, I’m pretty sure it’s the only time my mother, my wife, and my grandmother have appeared in a photo together.
And there’s something else – it is, almost certainly, the only photo of four Patterson women who became part of the family not because they were born into it, but because someone loved them enough that they wanted them to be part of it.
There’s Mihret, with her arms in the air. She became part of the family because Kara and I wanted a child so badly that we were willing to work through multiple adoption agencies, to fill out mountains of paperwork, and to put piles of money together and send them to wherever they need to go just to find her and bring her home.
There’s Kara, who I met in college and fell in love with and who, on the day I graduated, I asked to marry me.
There’s my mother, Diane, who met my dad when she was in high school, who she married before she finished college, and through whom she finally got her first batch of brothers and sisters after years of being an only child.
And there’s Grandma, who married my Grandpa. They’re both not here anymore.
They’re together again.
There are other stories I could tell. About how she made an afghan for every grandchild, and how we each got one when we graduated high school.
About how, every year, every grandchild got an ornament for Christmas. There must be a half-dozen grand pianos on my tree, each one given to me by her.
About how it was so important for her to have a clean lawn that she would pick up errant birdseed from the bird feeder.
About the time her kids decided to rib her about her always-clean home, by collecting pine needles from their various real trees and sneaking into her house and putting them under her fake Christmas tree.
About how I got an Easter card from her every year, with a few dollars in it, when I was in college.
About how she never missed a birthday card, ever, except for the one time she accidentally put my card in my (female) cousin’s envelope, and my (female) cousin’s card in my envelope. (I still have that card, somewhere.)
About how, when we decided to prank my uncle, and hold his 40th birthday party on his 39th birthday, she went along with it. When my uncle insisted he was 39, my Grandma looked him square in the eye, and said, “No, you’re 40.”
About how, that same day, my uncle mooned (or perhaps just made as if to moon) my aunt, and Grandma, who we feared would be offended, nice Catholic lady that she was, said, “Eh, I’ve seen it before.”
My Grandma lived long, and saw much, and loved many.
And she was loved by many.
And we’ll miss her.