The last conversation I had with my grandmother was about strawberries.
It was the day we buried my grandfather and we were in the lobby of the nursing home. Sitting next to her, aching at how frail she was and knowing that she had no idea who I or any of the family sitting around her were, I struggled to think of something to say that would reach her. Finally out of nowhere I asked, “Picked any strawberries this year?” She turned and looked at me and said “No, not yet.” “It’s about that time,” I said. She nodded. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then she was gone again into the place in the past that her mind lived in those last few weeks.
A few days later, just nine days after her husband died, she passed away.
My grandmother did not have a happy childhood. Her deprivations were less about food or clothing and more about abandonment and lack of love. Her mother passed away when she was six and her father sent her to live with a stern aunt and her husband on a neighboring farm.
One of the saddest things she once told me was that the first kiss she remembered getting was not from her parents or the aunt and uncle she lived with, but from her Aunt Ella. Her mom’s sister lived in Chicago but would visit every few years. She brought glamor and good humor and, most importantly, hugs and kisses and affection into my grandmother’s life for those few days she’d visit.
Perhaps because of that, she wasn’t physically demonstrative as an adult. Instead, she showed her love with food – in particular, homemade baked goods. My mom always got an angel food cake on her birthday. Her son in law (my dad) always had fresh donuts waiting for him. There was blueberry torte for my Aunt Sue and for Uncle Roger… Well, he wasn’t picky. He knew there were always good things waiting for him in her kitchen.
She loved music and often tapped her foot or hands to the melodies running through her mind. As an adult, I delighted to discover that her sense of humor was often surprisingly devious.
She was a person who showed her love, more than she talked about it. She believed in what you did, not what you said about things.
I never had the feeling she wanted to be anything other that she was: wife, mother, the boss of her own home. For 67 years, my grandparents took care of each other. Many people have commented on how remarkable it was that they died only days apart, but I don’t think it came as a surprise to any of us who knew them. They never did as well apart as they did when they were together. Each day of their life together had a rhythm and ritual to it that sustained them and, while they liked to go visiting, they were happiest at home.
The morning after she died, I thought about that last conversation I had with her. And then I remembered I had some strawberries in the fridge. So I made a strawberry shortcake, just like she used to make the summers my brother and I would visit as children. I cried as I mixed everything together and put it in the oven. I was sad because I missed her and sad for the difficulties she faced both at the beginning and end of her life. And yet, I knew that the balance of her life was wonderful.
In a life that was more about action than words, she taught me to be grateful for the sweet moments we get along the way, and to pass on that sweetness to others.
Rest in peace Grandma. I love you.
Evelyn Myrtle Smikrud Thompson
November 9, 1922 – June 13, 2012