Four years ago I lost my first grandfather. A year later, my second grandfather and my first grandbaby. Then my uncle. This summer I lost my first grandmother. The day after Christmas I lost my second grandmother, the last of my grandparents.
Over the last week, I kept seeing an image of myself as a marionette whose right side was held up by a cluster of four strings. Three of those strings had been severed, but the fourth was bearing the weight. Then the last string broke.
I was fortunate to have my grandparents as long as I did. They lived into their late eighties and early nineties. My parents were fairly young when they had me. Both came from fairly tight-knit families. Both sets of grandparents modeled true married love, but in different ways. Both raised amazing, loving children who became amazing, loving parents.
One set of grandparents were both from farm families and stayed farmers. The other set chose a different path, with my grandfather working on and off in industrial settings and my grandmother picking up the slack with hard jobs, like working laundry in a hospital. Both lived through the Depression and WWII. One grandfather was drafted and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The other prospered as he grew the food that fed the troops.
One set struggled with a daughter who became pregnant as a teenager in an era when such things were not acknowledged and a son who married a woman who just did not conform to anyone else’s expectations and who took away their oldest grandchild for years. One set struggled with a daughter left at the altar who then married an alcoholic and another daughter who ran away from home to marry her sweetheart, but not because she “had to.” Their youngest daughter later fell in love with and married a black man at a time when such things were more common, but not in our small farm town.
I had many questions I wanted to ask them about their lives during those epic times, and, more recently, about how they survived and seemed to navigate so well all of those parenting challenges. But I was always so busy. They were always there, waiting to be visited. Until they weren’t. And now my heart breaks because I didn’t spend the time I should have and I didn’t ask the questions I wanted to and now I will never know. My link to that history is broken.
Losing my last grandparent means so many things. Dealing with my own regrets. Feeling the anguish my parents must feel at being set adrift in the world without parents. Missing people who were such a big part of making me who I am.
When I walked into the room, my grandparents made me feel like I was the most amazing person they had met. They praised me and surrounded me with their love and pride. I wanted to be the person they saw and I strove to be. Because they were grandparents, I could at least pretend they did not know about all of my dark and weak spots. There is a hole in my chest knowing I will never see those loving faces again. Will never feel those wrinkled cheeks and those soft hands. My grandmothers had the softest hands.
We have “done” too many funerals over the last four years and this is a sign of a stage of life. There is a time for weddings, a time for births, a time for graduation open houses, and a time for funerals. The weddings will now be those of my children, the births of my grandchildren, the open houses the same, and the funerals for my parents and their siblings. While I am ready for the first two, I am not ready for the latter because I am not sure they will occur in that order and I am not ready to contemplate a world without my parents, a world in which no eyes look at me and love me despite knowing all of my failings. When the thread of history that contains most of my life memories snaps and the marionette is left to stand on her own.
In the face of the many sorrows, there are also blessings in saying goodbye to my last grandmother. I was there. I held her hands in my face and will believe until I die that she saw me and heard me tell her that I love her and that she felt me holding her hand. I have watched four grandparents face death with bravery as, to the end, they role-modeled how life should be faced. My faith tells me that my grandparents, who loved each other all of those years on earth, are together again, the way it should be.