A few days ago my grandmother died. It’s poignantly fitting that “Grandmom Peggy” made her exit from this life just before Mother’s Day. She was after all a mother to six children.
I only quite recently discovered how much Grandmom Peggy genuinely loved kids. During occasional visits to the Rio Grande home that she designed, built and spent most of her life in, raising her children, she would insist on knowing who my children were and that they sit on her lap. By that time (well into her mid eighties), Grandmom Peggy had begun to drift into that state unclouded by memories that once troubled her more than they needed to—she had been a life-long artist after all, prone to anxieties and intuitions—so her brief intervals with my children were spent in asking their names and being reminded that they were her great grandchildren. To which she would smile, as if something vaguely familiar had touched that distant shore where she spent most of her time now, maybe daydreaming in colors as vivid as those she once painted in soft brushstrokes in Georgia O’Keefe-like abstractions on canvases that seemed twice her size. (The Holy Spirit was among them. In luminous yellows and gushing blues.)
Towards the end of her life, Grandmom Peggy seemed often to be smiling. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I actually ever heard Grandmom Peggy laugh, but her smiles were frequent in her last years. Big, guttural, unrestrained laughs were not her way. But that smile that in earlier days seemed tinged by a certain melancholy knowingness, and that in much younger days emitted the rare beauty and dignity of a Grace Kelly, was, towards the end, so often on her face—without the subtle casting of an implicit sadness I intuited as a child.
About two days before Grandmom Peggy unexpectedly slipped away in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 8, a memory of her having to endure my adolescent self came to me. One summer—as kids we often spent a week or two at a time here or there over the summer—we were sitting at the kitchen table (the same 1970’s white-lacquered ensemble that it is now and probably will be for a very long time); and we were enjoying (or trying to enjoy) one of the many creatively reinvented meals Grandmom would make, employing her artistry in the kitchen for better or worse.
That’s when we somehow found ourselves on the topic of children and childbearing. I, a boisterous teenager at the time, made known my strong views on the subject, clarifying for the record that I would “never ever” have children. Period. End of subject. Grandmom Peggy begged to differ, with the result that we went back and forth in an argumentative volley of declarations.
Needless to say, she won—even if it never really was about winning or losing. Years later, after the birth of my first child, Grandmom Peggy sent me a James Dobson book on parenting. I kept it, but wrote a polite “thank you” note clarifying that Dobson would not be my role model for parenting. (I didn’t hear back, maybe because Grandmom Peggy had learned long before me that life isn’t ultimately about winning and losing.)
Grandmom Peggy was also an avid lover of nature. Before it was popular or hip, and for as far back as I can remember, Grandmom Peggy was faithfully composting. And she would take us on short trips to the mountains or to the zoo. Then sometime during my later childhood she opened up a wing of her house to make it a sun room that she in turn populated with plants and with her eccentric parakeet Chico, her moody companion. That sun room was, in addition to her art studio, where she spent much of her time: its spaciousness, vegetation and the warmth of the sun streaming through its windows were her cloister of sorts.
This past Christmas was my last with Grandmom Peggy. In the years when she was still with us mentally, Grandmom Peggy’s favorite time was Christmas. That was when all or most of her children and grandchildren would come home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and her roost would again be full with the chatter, laughter, drama and of course children that made Christmas so special. My dad (Grandmom Peggy’s first child) knew this well, which is probably why I can remember numerous Christmastime car trips from Southern California to Albuquerque, New Mexico, punctuated by the occasional sibling spat or stop at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, at the end of which would be Grandmom Peggy to greet us always with great big, appreciative hugs and “Are you hungry?” As far as I can remember, apart from one time when we intended to surprise her with a visit, Grandmom Peggy was always there— just as she was when it was time to leave. In those times, too, she would be there, standing at the end of the long, dirt driveway leading to her house, her small figure framed by alfalfa fields and overhanging pinon trees, and she waving until our car was no longer in sight.
Grandmom Peggy believed in the Resurrection—that the same Holy Spirit that inspired her paintings over the years and gifted her with life and six children and many more grandchildren would resurrect her to life everlasting. This same Spirit would some day reunite her with her husband of more than 65 years, who survives her, and the many family, both alive and dead, who she will meet some day in the Kingdom of God. So it is not just with tears of sadness that I say “goodbye” to Grandmom Peggy, for I can’t help but take comfort in the hope that she’ll be there again to greet me at the end of another long driveway, this one leading to that House with many spacious, light-filled rooms. And I can’t help but wonder if there I’ll find her painting and gardening and speaking to the birds. Godspeed, Grandmom, until we meet again.