Happy Birthday, Mima

Today would have been my maternal grandmother’s 99th birthday.  She died in January 2008.  The following was the column I wrote immediately following her death.
When I tell people about this column, I say I write about “life issues.” But that means that necessarily I write a lot about death. And that doesn’t sound as nice, somehow, does it? Which is funny, if you think about it, because if we really believe what we say we believe, shouldn’t we all be looking forward eagerly to the end of our lives, even wishing for the advent of the end times? Yet most of us aren’t–we fear death, our own, and that of those we love.
We had a death in our family in February. It was an event we had been dreading for a long time. I’ve written about my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Carroll a.k.a. Mima, in this column before. She would have been 90 in October; four years ago her doctor told us to expect her to die at any time; we knew she couldn’t live forever, yet somehow we were taken by surprise all the same.
Family was everything to Mima, and she was the glue that held our extended family together. “Blood is thicker than water,” was what she always said, and she meant it. Even though she had only two daughters, her progeny have been more prolific: she left seven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. It’s really amazing, when you think about it, the living legacy that just one couple can set in motion by falling in love, marrying, raising a family.
I spent Friday night with Mima every week from the time I was a toddler until I was a teenager. I wore her fancy nightgowns and slept in her bed with her. We played Sorry, Crazy Eights, and double solitaire. She made me pancakes to eat while I watched cartoons. We went to Kmart to buy Nancy Drew books, to Sue’s Fancy Fins to buy fish for my tank, and to Krystal to eat lunch. When I was a teenager, some Saturdays Mima would take me to restaurants she had enjoyed–the Orangery, Ruffles and Truffles–and she always let me drive. After I had a baby of my own, we would make trips to Wal-Mart where she let me throw anything in the cart I wanted for Emily, whom she also babysat regularly while I worked.
After her first stroke, Mima had aphasia–even though her mind was as sharp as ever, she could not find the right words to express her thoughts. Out shopping, she would try to explain something to the clerk, and then would say, “I’m sorry, I had a . . . what was that I had again?” she would ask me. This was hard on someone who had always had strong opinions and lots of advice that she was not shy about offering. Then four years ago her second stroke put her in a wheelchair. Even though she couldn’t go shopping for presents for her little great-grandchildren anymore, she would save bananas from her lunch, or candy people brought her, so that she always had something to offer them when they visited. Unable to travel, garden, crochet, read, play bridge–unable to do most of the things that she had always enjoyed–she still milked every ounce of pleasure out of her life. Her last night she played Bingo–we got a letter from the Bingo caller saying how Mima always made Bingo fun and how much she would miss her.
That was one of many, many letters and emails we have received–not to mention the loving words from the steady stream of over 100 people who came to the funeral home–letters saying, “She was a wonderful person. We loved her too.” Many of her grandchildren’s friends called her Mima. One of my friends realized, when he got to the funeral home, that he didn’t even know her real name to ask which room she was in!
Mima’s aphasia had grown worse over the past year. Sometimes she grew very frustrated–not by her inability to express herself, but by what she interpreted as our inability to understand! But I hope she knows that she doesn’t need to worry about our having received her most important messages. In the end I find in the example of Mima’s last years all of the wisdom that she could no longer pass along in words: Give. Love. Live.

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