My grandmother, Dorothy Mudge, died yesterday evening, with her children at her side, with words of love paving and smoothing her way. Everything in our beings tries to keep us going, and it isn’t easy, letting go of life. My grandmother was a strong woman, and it took some long days, this letting go.
For the first ten years of my life, we lived around the corner from my grandparents, in Westernville, NY, pretty much a two-street town. They lived on one street, and we lived on the other. We were at their house almost every day. We ate dinner there almost every night, where we always sat in the same places, and my spot was right next to Grandma. I spent every Friday night at their house for years, along with my big brother Jim. Jim would hang out with my Uncle John, in his very cool bedroom that I hardly ever got sight of, and I would spend my time with Grandma and Grandpa. We’d watch Dallas and Falcon Crest. We’d watch country western music concerts, and baseball games. (I still associate baseball with boredom, since I always fell asleep on the couch once baseball came on.) Grandma would tuck me in on the couch with the “magic blanket.” It was a blanket that was so worn and torn that my grandmother had sewn a new cover for it, but she used this white almost illusion-like silky material, that felt so fancy and dream-like to me and my cousins that we all loved to be covered up with it.
When Grandma would tuck me in at night in the little bedroom next to hers and Grandpa’s, she would tuck the blankets in around me so tightly that there was no chance I would even be able to roll over, much less fall out of bed. Popcorn and homemade chocolate shakes were a Friday night mainstay (even if I always got very small portions compared to Jim…), and she always had my favorite Little Debbie Nutty Bars, and those single size cereal boxes (of which I always ate the cocoa pebble first, impatiently, and was left with frosted flakes at the end) in the cupboard.
Grandma taught me and many of my cousins how to bake. She always made the communion bread for our little country church, and for years I couldn’t dissociate the two. Communion bread = Grandma’s homemade yeast bread. She’d always make us our own little loafs to keep (which once caused Todd to exclaim as he ate his loaf in the backseat of our car, “I’ve got the bones of Jesus back here!”) and eventually helped with the bread too. I remember kneading the bread taking what seemed like an hour to be ready enough. Every year we made dozens of “bunny cakes” for Easter, and delivered them all around town. As a child, I was responsible for coloring in bunny years, and placing the jelly beans for eyes and nose, and in the coconut-grass the bunny sat in. It took me years to graduate to more advanced roles!
Grandma lived her whole life in such a small region of Central New York – Marcy, Verona, Westernville, Rome. She worked for a few years outside the home – that’s how she met Grandpa, working at Rome Cable – but mostly she was a homemaker, raising my mom and her siblings and taking in foster children and planting beautiful flower gardens and going to church and being in the UMW, and so on. Her family was her life. But she loved to get little tastes of the adventures her children and grandchildren were having. We’d print her out itineraries when we went on trips, and she’d follow along, day by day, thinking about each place we visited. At Thanksgiving, she thought it was very wild that she’d be willing to try the Tofurkey (“just a bite”) that the vegetarians were having for dinner. She’d attend a play of Todd’s. She ventured to Ohio and New Jersey for my graduations – big deal trips for her – and to Georgia when Aunt Bet lived there – her children being the only things that would get her on an airplane. She emanated joy when Uncle Bill was installed as a District Superintendent, and took visible pleasure, just last week, in hearing that the Bishop had called Bill to see how she was doing. She was content with where she was and who she was, and thrilled to see her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren go places and do things she’d never dreamed of doing.
One of my favorite things about Grandma was hearing her talk about Grandpa. My grandpa, Millard Mudge, died 15 years ago. They celebrated their fiftieth anniversary just months before he died, and Grandma would always say that she “had a fifty year love affair.” My Uncle Bill would say that Grandma was Grandpa’s one weak spot, the person he hardly ever said no to. When my grandmother talked about Grandpa, her whole face lit up, always. She looked radiant whenever she was talking about him. I realize that one of the things I mourn in Grandma’s passing is that one of the last living links to Grandpa in his younger years is gone. My grandpa was nine years older than my grandma, and he and his siblings have all died. Grandma was the only one who could tell stories about Grandpa as a young man, about their courtship, about those earlier years. Of course, the rest of us have our own memories of Grandpa, but Grandma takes a precious piece of those memories with her, and I wish I had written down every story. Of course, we never do. And we’d never enjoy the living if we were too busy recording, I know. I just want both.
A dozen or so years ago, Grandma was diagnosed with uterine cancer, fairly advanced. She was from a generation of women who generally went to the doctor only when absolutely necessary, and after months of experiencing symptoms, the diagnosis indicated a pretty serious cancer, the same cancer that claimed her own mother’s life. Grandma went in for a hysterectomy, and during the surgery, the surgeon nicked her bowel. Grandma developed necrotizing fasciitis, more colloquially known as “flesh eating disease.” She spent months in an induced coma, and more than once, nurses called family to the hospital, expecting her to die. She lost most of the muscle in her stomach forever. And she was ready to die. She was ok with it. Except, it just wasn’t happening fast enough. My grandmother was a determined woman. She knew what she wanted, and usually could make it happen! And so when she wasn’t dying fast enough for her plans, I think she just decided to be done with that whole cancer thing. She started to get stronger, to heal. She started telling people she didn’t have cancer anymore. We told her that wasn’t right. But we were wrong. The cancer was gone, and stayed in remission until sometime last year. She had a dozen more years than we believed possible.
I think we were in denial, for a long time, that Grandma’s health was failing for just that reason: she was so tough, so determined, that it was hard to believe she would ever die. I know that sounds silly. But if you knew my grandmother, you know what I mean. She had a strength of spirit that was hard to match. That strength of spirit meant things weren’t always conflict-free in my family. She had an opinion about most of the life choices of her family members, and she usually let you know it.
But one of the gifts I experienced in these last weeks was a letting-go of all of that conflict. I watched Grandma’s face light up, even when I thought she wasn’t aware enough for it to be possible, as each person came to visit her, and that radiant smile was there again, free of worry or stress or anything but taking joy in her loved ones. Another gift was watching my Uncle John, her caretaker, blossom with his skill and strength as he took care of her every need. I can’t tell you how many hours John spent by Grandma’s side, how many of his own plans he put aside for the time in order to make sure she was ok. She was able to stay at home, despite the high level of care she needed, because of him, which was her deepest desire. Another gift was watching my mother demonstrate unconditional love in ways that are so deeply moving I can’t really even convey it.
Another gift is the strange joy that comes in the midst of sorrow of having my wonderfully large and close family be together. We’re not good at doing things in small and subtle ways in my family. If many families might be sensible enough to have only one or two people at a hospital, for example, when someone is ill, we’ve never been able to function like that. We all turn out. We all go. We all watch and wait together. Even today, meeting with the funeral director, there were seven of us there, all squeezed around a tiny table that clearly usually only had two or three at it. This is a part of our family identity that I treasure so much. I love that I’ve grown up with cousins who see each other regularly, with aunts and uncles that I depend on, with a “Gigi” – great-grandmother – that my nephew Sam will have known well – even if it means that at five, he has more knowledge of mourning then I had as a teenager. One of my biggest fears is that we’ll lose touch with each other, drift apart. I’m always surprised when I hear about families that don’t stay in contact with each other. I would hate that. We work best together, and one of the reasons I’ve gotten so interested in genealogy is because I’m bound and determined that we’ll stay together.
I still can’t believe that Grandma isn’t at her house right now, sitting on her couch, watching her birds, or squirting the squirrels with her water gun, so they wouldn’t eat up all the birdseed.
I love you, Gram, and miss you already.