Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Family

Grandma was never the same after Mom died.  The light simply vanished from her eyes.

In 1982, three years after Mom's death, Deb and Brian were married, and Grandma, afflicted with heart trouble and diabetes, couldn't make the trip for the wedding.  I promised to bring my little brothers Tom and Jeff to visit the very next weekend.

"We'll bring pictures of the wedding," I assured her.

I was shocked when she answered the door.  Grandma lived in Beatrice, three hours away, and in the two months since we'd seen her, she'd grown thin and gaunt.  But she grabbed us close to her with the same old vigor.  Grandma was always the best hugger in the world.

"Dearies," she cupped the faces of of Tom and Jeff, who were 13 and 11 at the time, as they nestled against her.

"Grandma!" I couldn't believe my eyes. "Did you pierce your ears?"

She covered her ears self-consciously, then looked me straight in the eye.  "Why not?  I'm 75, and I'll pierce my ears if I want to."

I laughed and threw my arms around her.  "You look like a teenager!"

It was a glorious afternoon.  We went through every picture and told her all about Deb's wedding - how Dad's tux was too short in the arms and about how Uncle Carl, who decorated the church, had us all out at the river gathering greenery for the altar.  It wasn't until Deb and Brian were ready to exchange vows that an alert groomsman observed a problem with the green foliage Uncle Carl had so carefully placed on either side of the altar.

"It was marijuana," Tom informed our grandmother.

Grandma exploded with her deep rich laughter, wiping the tears from her eyes with the perennial tissue tucked in her sleeve.

When Tom and Jeff ran outdoors to play, Grandma and I settled down to talk around her low kitchen table.  We'd discussed to death all manner of things over that table - family events, soap operas and books.  She was pensive this particular afternoon, however.

"Do you believe old grieving people ever hallucinate?" she asked suddenly.

"Well," I said carefully, "I don't believe YOU'VE ever hallucinated, if that's what you're asking."

She stared down at her lap.  "Something happened the other day, and I don't want you to think I'm crazy."

I gripped her hand.  "You're not crazy.  What happened?"

She looked up at me.  "I saw Patti."

I sat very still.  The ticking of Grandma's cuckoo clock all at once seemed too loud.  "You saw Mom?"

She sighed and sat back.  "I was sitting in my recliner, and the birds were singing.  I was so low, and I thought, how can those damn birds sing when Patti's gone?"  Her eyes filled, and her lower lip trembled.  "Then a column of light came through the ceiling right down to the floor, and your mother stepped out from behind it."

I couldn't blink let alone breathe.  Grandma described perfectly the gown my mother wore with a rope belt around the waist.  Her beautiful hair was golden and swept over to one side. 

"Did she say anything?"

Grandma shook her head.  "She only held out her hands to me and smiled so radiantly.  Then she stepped behind the column of light, and it all went back up through the ceiling."

I sank back against the chair.  "I believe you.  I do.  Mom understood how much you needed her."

Grandma smiled through her tears, grateful, and we reached for each other.

"I love you so much, Grandma," I sobbed.

"I love you, too, Dearie."

That evening, both of us recovered, Grandma made our favorite macaroni and cheese from her own special recipe.  Jeff wolfed down the macaroni but skirted carefully around his vegetables.

"Eat your peas, Jeff," I nagged.

Sighing hugely, he picked up his fork and glared mutinously at the vegetables until Grandma pulled him over on her lap and whispered into his ear.

"Grandma," I was irritated.  "I know you just told him he didn't have to eat."

Two pairs of guilty eyes stared up at me, and I laughed helplessly.

It would be the last meal Grandma ever made for us. 

That very night, she died peacefully in her sleep.  When I checked on her the next morning, she was already gone, sleeping on her side with her hands tucked under her cheek and smiling sweetly.

I never shed a single tear for my grandma.  More than any thing in the world, she longed to be with my mother and my Grandpa Al who'd passed 18 years before.  I could only be happy for her.

But my brothers and sisters and I missed her so much. 

Grandma's remaining sister and brother eventually died, too, and it suddenly struck me that nobody from Mom's family was left to us.  I vaguely remembered meeting a couple of Mom's cousins when we were kids, but I could only recall their first names, Carol and Shirley.  Desperate to find them, I searched the internet and even paid for a membership to  It was all a fruitless effort, and sadly, I gave up the search.

Then last month, the OMAHA WORLD HERALD published a story about the prophylactic mastectomies my sisters and I had elected to undergo.  On the afternoon of the day the story appeared, I received a phone call.

"Cathy?" a pleasant voice on the other end inquired.  "My sister saw the article today.  My name is Carol, and I'm your mother Patti's cousin."

After 30 years, it was a single newspaper article that brought our mother's family to us.  My siblings and I were over the moon with excitement.

Last Thursday, four of my big handsome brothers - Mick, Rick, Tom and Jeff- and my sisters and I arrived at Carol's house in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Her sister Shirley, a tall stately woman so like our grandmother, answered the door and enveloped us in a hug.  Carol, just behind Shirley, was shorter with striking blue eyes and a warm welcoming smile. 

"We're so glad you're here!" her wonderful voice greeted us.

It was an afternoon none of us would ever forget.  We couldn't stop staring at those two attractive ladies, both in their 70's.

"You have Grandma's hands!" I marveled.

"You even smell like Grandma," Deb said shyly to Shirley.

While they asked us about our families and set us at ease, we drank in the sight of them.

Reinder, Carol's husband, invited us into the kitchen for drinks, and soon, we were all huddled around the dining room table talking our heads off just as we used to around Grandma's table as if we'd known each other forever.  We found out all about their children, and miraculously, Terri and Shirley's son already knew each other.

"Before I saw your names in the article," Shirley was telling us, "I saw Terri's picture and thought, 'Why, she looks exactly like my cousin Patti!' "

We shook our heads in amazement.

"It was all meant to be," Carol beamed around the table at us.

All too soon, it was time to leave.  But rising from the table, we promised each other we'd gather again this summer for a pot luck family reunion to meet Carol and Shirley's families and Cousin Mabel, the 90-year-old keeper of the family records.

Our time around the table with our two beautiful cousins was a divine gift, pure and simple.  Mom and Grandma felt very close.  I could almost see them leaning in close to catch every word.

Grandma once told me about a beautiful morning around her own kitchen table many years ago.  Grandpa was still living, and Mom was in grammar school.  The three of them sat with the aroma of good coffee and sizzling bacon filling the morning air, and Mom was chattering a mile a minute about her exciting school day ahead.

Grandma remembered that Grandpa looked up at her with a kind of piercing joy.  "Heaven can't be better than this," he said.

I think of the three of them together again. 

Today is April 17th, the anniversary of Mom's death, and it seems no coincidence at all that this would be the week we found her family.

I hope the heavenly table Grandpa imagined all those years ago is every thing he hoped for.  And I hope someday we'll all be sitting around it together again, along with Dad and all the people we love most in this old world, to laugh and talk and love and remember to our hearts' content.

Happy anniversary, Mom.