The holiday season is here and for many of us, it's a bittersweet time. Since Thanksgiving, yoga classes have been filled with students whose eyes glisten with tears while they talk about loved ones they've lost, family members who are ill, rifts between friends. The holidays can be a conundrum...this time of intermingling nostalgia and hopeful anticipation.
My grandfather died suddenly in December, 1990 and for years, Christmas was never the same. As the winter solstice approached in 1994, I remember saying to a friend, "God will have to bring me something very special at Christmastime to make up for the loss of my grandfather." I waited twenty-two years for the fruition of that gift, but it was worth the wait, for I recently started seeing a man who has shown me that while no one can ever take the place of Granddaddy, someone can come along and make me feel unconditionally loved. Yesterday, after a wonderful afternoon out and about, I told him, "You embody so many of the qualities my grandfather had...he was kind and generous and compassionate. Since he died, you're the best man I know." Christmas this year might still be bittersweet, but when I'm with my new sweetheart, each moment is both magical and mysterious.
So here's a bit of my memoir which recalls that day in December, 1990 when my life was irrevocably changed. This year I hope my incomparable grandfather is looking down on me with a twinkle in his eye, overjoyed that I've finally found more happiness than I can hold.
"December 13, 1990"
It’s Thursday night and I’m supposed to be at choir practice. Ms. Francis, the director, has moved me from the alto section down to the tenors in the hopes that I can keep them on pitch. We’ve been practicing in earnest for Christmas Eve and they have yet to learn the chorus to “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It’s the “Gloria” part that skunks them every time.
But tonight I can’t speak, so I certainly can’t sing.
I need a night off. I’ve been taking classes for my Master’s Degree and in addition to singing in the choir, I’ve been subbing for Sunday School and handbells. I like to stay busy. It keeps me from thinking about how lonely I often feel, especially during the holidays.
This year I’m teaching first grade and really love it. Who knew? The kids give me hugs and sit on my lap when they read Sun Up and Happy Morning. My advanced group is already in Magic Afternoon! They draw pictures of flowers and dogs and sharks that I proudly hang on my desk and the surrounding walls. “I love you, Miss Ingersoll,” many of them print with their colorful crayons.
One of them came to me the other day to have his glue bottle refilled. “This thing sounds like my aunt’s dog when I squeeze it,” he announced. Leaning in closer, he whispered dramatically, “It FARTS!”
I could hardly keep from laughing. I can't imagine a better grade level…and what a surprise it’s been.
Still, all the sniffles and tears leave germs everywhere, so I’m struggling with another round of strep throat. The doctor has me on antibiotics that take away the pain, but I still can't talk. So here I sit on this cold and snowy night, reading a book and sipping hot tea with extra honey.
The holiday break is coming next week and I can't wait for two weeks of freedom. I’m thinking of adopting another cat to join Scout, my one-year-old tabby, who’s been a treasure. I still can’t believe I used to be terrified of cats! Now I can’t imagine my life without her. Granddaddy says I’m nuts, that one cat is more than enough. He says I should get a dog, but I can’t. The apartment I live in is " cats only," which is why last fall Scout joined me instead of a puppy.
Granddaddy is coming up for Christmas again this year. He just retired in September, right after his seventy-fifth birthday. He told me that he’s set aside some money for my sisters and me (for a little nest egg), but that if he wants a steak, he’ll eat a real one, not a “tube steak” (a.k.a. a hotdog).
“You spend all that money, Granddaddy,” I told him smiling. “You worked long and hard to earn it…you enjoy it.”
I’m glad he’ll have time to relax and rest and do all the things he wants to do. I’m not exactly sure what all those things are, but I imagine he’ll stay busy with the library guild and his church. My grandfather personifies “practice what you preach.”
Now I go into the kitchen for another cup of tea. The clock on the stove says “7:30.” I wonder if I should call in sick for tomorrow. I spent the whole day resting and am feeling better. Maybe I'll wait until the morning and decide then.
I go back into the living room and sit in the rocking chair. Karen Carpenter sings “Ave Maria” on the tape deck. My Christmas tree glistens in the corner and I have a small water pistol nearby if Scout makes a mad dash for any of the low lying ornaments. For now she’s curled up on the back of the couch, her tail wrapped daintily around her pink little nose.
The intercom buzzer startles me with its shrill noise. Who’s over here this late? I wonder. I get up and cross the room, then press the button. “Yes?”
I let Greta into the building, then open the door to my apartment. A wave of cold air follows her as she climbs the stairway. I know something’s wrong. Her face is puffy and her eyes are red.
“What’s the matter?” I ask. My voice is hoarse and gravely.
We step inside the door.
“Mom and Dad wanted me to come over and tell you…they didn’t want to call.”
I dissolve into tears and feel my heart pounding in my chest.
We sit on the couch while Greta explains. “Dad has been trying to call him for the past two days, and he got no answer. This afternoon he called the neighbors and they found him sitting at the bottom of the steps.”
Greta shrugs. “They think so…or maybe a stroke.”
“He’s pretty upset. They’re going down there tomorrow. The funeral will probably be next Monday or Tuesday.”
I nod, not knowing what to say.
Greta fills me in on the details and lets me know we can all make the long drive to Granddaddy's house together over the weekend.
When she leaves, I curl up on the couch, tears falling down my face. My throat feels raw. My head hurts. I don’t want to do anything but lie there in the dark and stare at the lights on the tree. I think of the fruitcake I had made for Granddaddy at Thanksgiving so the brandy could steep for a month before Christmas. It’s been our annual tradition since I moved out on my own. I make the fruitcake…he makes the hard sauce and everyone enjoys the once-a-year treat after Christmas dinner.
Now I’m tempted to just throw it away.
I don’t want Christmas this year if my grandfather won’t be there.
A few days later my family sits in a small alcove in the funeral home, waiting for the service to begin. Granddaddy’s friends fill the outer room and I can hear the soft murmur of their voices. Uncle Bill sits to my right and I give him a weak smile. He nods and pats my hand that clutches a wad of soggy tissues.
I can’t stop crying. For the past few days we’ve been walking through the fog of funeral preparations and planning when we can come back to close up Granddaddy’s house. Last night I slept in his bed, covered with a quilt Great-Grandmother Ingersoll had hand-stitched years ago. This morning while everyone was getting ready, I walked through the clothes hung in the basement and pressed my face into my grandfather's sweaters and coats, breathing in the spicy, sweet scent of his aftershave. That’s when I started crying, and for the past three hours, a steady flow of oily tears has slipped down my cheeks and chin.
The service begins and the pastor reads some passages from the Bible. One of the scriptures startles me for a moment: it’s the same verse I had taped to my kitchen cupboard when I moved back to Toledo. “We live by faith and not by sight.” I smile through my tears...wondering if this is one last message from my grandfather.
After the eulogy, the pastor says a prayer for our family. Near the end, he says, “Our thoughts and prayers are with John's family." He proceeds to read a list of names, ending with my cousins, Lori and John. "May they all find peace and comfort in the days ahead.”
My heart pounds and my throat tightens. I sniffle and wipe my eyes, unable to look at anyone. The pastor said everyone's name but mine. I have been forgotten, and for some reason I can’t explain, I feel ashamed and irrelevant.
Afterwards we drive in a huge limousine to the burial plot. I pay no attention to the winding road that takes us there. Instead, through swollen eyes, I gaze out the window and watch the barren trees and snow-covered mountains in the distance.
Of all the losses in my life thus far, the pain of losing my Granddaddy is the most lingering. The pain was intensified by the shock of losing him too soon, by the grief of never getting to tell him how much I loved him…just one more time. While I'm thankful that Granddaddy didn't suffer through a long illness or the need for extended care, I still wish he could have lived longer. But doesn't everyone who is blessed with a kindred spirit for a grandparent?
Before his death, I had attended many funerals. My Auntie Veda’s was the first. She was a close friend of the family and I was only sixteen when she passed. The memory of seeing her darling granddaughter toddle through the funeral home and do somersaults in front of Auntie Veda’s casket reminds me that the endless circle of life and death will forevermore keep this world turning.
Granddaddy’s second wife, Mary, died a few months after Auntie Veda. Her visitation was packed with former students, friends, and colleagues and the line outside the funeral home wound around the building for nearly a city block. During both nights, I often sidled up to Granddaddy, offering him a glass of water or a tissue. More often than not, all he wanted was to hold my hand, his bony fingers squeezing mine. I leaned against him and he leaned back, allowing me to be a support for him as he had always been for me.
Of course I knew death was finite. By then our family had lost a couple of Schnauzers and a handful of hamsters and gerbils. The neighbor boy across the street had died in a motorcycle accident. Older members of our church were mourned in memorial services every year. I thought I knew the power of death.
But then Granddaddy passed, and I realized there are endless opportunities to learn how to mourn. In the midst of letting him go, a very familiar thorn was once again thrust into my heart. As the final prayer was said and my name was omitted, it felt as if another nail was being hammered into the coffin of my identity. As if I didn't even exist in one of the most pivotal moments in my life.
After the funeral, there was a wake at Granddaddy’s house. I was standing in the kitchen making a cup of tea when Uncle Bill came up the narrow stairway. He gently cupped my shoulder and apologized for the pastor’s mistake. “You know your Granddaddy would never forget you.”
Tears stood in my eyes as I nodded silently.
“And that’s what’s most important, Katie,” Uncle Bill continued. “You meant the world to him.”
More than two decades later, it is still a bittersweet memory and every time I see my Uncle Bill, I am reminded of his kindness and generosity on that sorrowful day.
In the years following Granddaddy’s death, I would often dream of him. The dreams were vivid, tangible experiences. I could feel the touch of his skin, the smell of his aftershave, the sound of his voice. We would sit and talk about my life and the afterlife. Granddaddy's body was the same, but his eyes seemed brighter, his spirit more open.
In gleaning pictures and keepsakes from Granddaddy’s house, I was gifted with photographs from the late sixties in which my grandfather is holding Patricia and me. In every single one, I am tucked into his left arm, near his heart, and he is smiling at me. One of them sits on the altar in my yoga studio, a constant reminder of the gentleness that was the great gift of my grandfather’s spirit.
I was also given the beautiful hand-made quilt that had covered his bed for decades. Just this morning I was airing it out and marveled at the intricate flower pattern and the endless hours it must have taken Grandmother Ingersoll to complete such a remarkable heirloom. Infused with the richness of my heritage, it is one of my greatest treasures.
Since December 13, 1990, I have experienced a host of transitions. With each one, no matter how terrified I might be to take that next step of living by faith and not by sight...of walking through doors that are open instead of banging on ones that have been locked forever, I choose to remember Granddaddy’s words the night we had dinner together.
“You are strong and brave and I know that you’ll always be able to land on your feet,” he had said. “You can be on your own and you’ll be fine.”
Granddaddy was right. I've always been able to take care of myself. But I'm not all that certain I've always been alone. For after my grandfather's passing, providential experiences began to open my awareness to the great mysteries of life, and even today, I still feel his spirit with me...always.