My most distinct and tactile memories of my grandma all involve her hands. She had strong hands that wrung out dishrags and mops until they were completely dry. Her nails were so thick and beautiful they stood up to that same dish and mop water and rarely broke.
Whenever she hugged me or squeezed my hand – even when she was in her early 90s – it felt less like a grandmother and more like Lou Ferrigno.
One of my earliest memories of her and her strong hands happened after she and my grandfather came to live with us in North Carolina from their home in western Pennsylvania. Their arrival was unexpected, to put in kindly. They put their house on the market, sold it quickly and called my mom to say they were moving down. They’d be there just as soon as they packed up the house.
I don’t remember all the details but I do recall that my brother and I had to bunk together so my grandparents could stay in his room. Every night at bedtime, my grandmother would come into our room, talk to us, tell us stories about our mom and scratch our backs with her amazing nails until we drifted off to sleep. It was the closest I ever felt to her.
My grandma died this week, peacefully and in her sleep at the age of 93. She was ready to go, had been for awhile. Dementia had strafed her brain, and her body, which had stayed remarkably strong most of her life, had started to give in to the twin forces of gravity and time.
As a family, we thought about the idea of her dying many times because it seemed so likely. I assumed that when it happened, I would feel relieved and nostalgic. So when I got the phone call this week, standing in a fancy corporate conference room in a city far away from her, I shocked myself by bursting into loud, wracking sobs. And I thought immediately of those nights in my bedroom, falling asleep to the sound of her voice and the gentle pressure of her nails on my back.
My grandma, Mildred Twilight Sedei, was much more than her strong hands to me.
In many ways, she was awe inspiring. Born in 1922, she grew up the oldest of seven kids in an upper middle class family with a father in real estate and a creative, free-spirited mother who was fun and impractical. The Depression ended their prosperity and my grandma was the only sibling who remembered the good times. Instead of growing up privileged, she became a surrogate mother to her siblings and took over the tasks of cooking, cleaning and caring for the kids at a young age. She learned to work hard, save everything and expect little. Right up until her last years, she stuffed restaurant creamer cups and butter packets in her purse, washed Styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery and made her bed with military precision. Nothing was wasted, nothing was half-done.
She married my grandfather young – because he was handsome and she liked blond men. It was a silly reason to pair off, and it was mostly an unhappy marriage. But she found joy in other places. She had six children, five of whom survived, and she raised them all on a bricklayer’s salary. She did everything that wives and mothers did in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s from cooking to cleaning to laundry to shopping but she also designed and sewed the entire family’s clothes down to their underwear, drew beautiful illustrations, colored photographs for professionals, painted vivid canvases and tap danced like Gene Kelly. I remember her drawings being better than any Disney animation, and the clothes she designed were so stylish that my mother was often the best-dressed girl at her high school. She invented colorful, patterned boxer shorts, making them for her three boys before it was fashionable and getting them teased in the school locker room. I remember her tap dancing in our kitchen when she must have been nearing 70 years old.
Her creativity and talent seeped into the next generation. We have graphic artists, advertising creatives, hair stylists, photographers, makeup artists and video game designers who can all trace their talent back to her. My mother used to say that if my grandma had been born in a different time, in different circumstances, she would have been an illustrator or a fashion designer or even Martha Stewart.
She loved musicals and Shirley Temple movies, the color pink, the fabric store, my dad’s Lincoln Continental, anything sweet, going to church with her friends and warm weather. She couldn’t sit still or be without a project in the hopper.
There were the harder to take bits too. She was maniacal about cleaning, order and organization. She couldn’t sit at the dinner table if there was a dish to be cleared or a smudge to be wiped. You could always see the vacuum lines in her wall-to-wall carpet. She once rewashed an entire dinner’s worth of dishes because her new daughter-in-law dried them with the wrong towel.
She had trouble letting anyone else do anything she knew she could do better. I once had a knitting project for Girl Scouts – a scarf – that I was fumbling through. I came home from school one day to find it done, with tight perfect rows and a fringe on the end.
She didn’t have much of a sense of humor, which was a shame because my grandfather was a riot with lots of hilarious characters and funny stories from his years with rough-and-tumble men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Air Force and in the bricklayer’s union. She’d just tsk him and sigh and say it was “silly stuff.” She missed out on a lot of laughter.
But she was best known for pushing food on people. She was always worried none of us was eating enough and would keep offering, insisting, prodding until we finally ate one of the store brand vanilla sandwich cookies in the jar or another piece of chicken at dinner.
Once my dad, exasperated and worn down by her insistence he eat more, said, “Mid, you’d be great at selling drugs.” Since my grandma had no sense of humor, she replied, “Oh no, I don’t like drugs.”
I want to remember it all, the good and the difficult, because it is who she was and it all taught me something. Kids are sponges and my grandma was constantly around to observe and absorb. She taught me to love Cyd Charisse, Danny Kaye and Shirley Temple and how to pin a pattern onto fabric. She showed me that staying active is important no matter how old you get and that a clean house isn’t as important as enjoying the company of the people in it. And she taught me that it was better to be alone than to marry the wrong person. That last one has been a guidepost in my life for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure I would have recognized that truth so young without watching her marriage.
Christmas last year, I went to visit her in her assisted living home with my three-month-old daughter, Evie. It wasn’t my grandma’s first great-grandchild but it was the first baby she’d seen in years. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her memory had faded and she didn’t talk or even acknowledge people much anymore. I knew there was a good chance she’d look at my daughter and just not care. But I wanted them to meet.
To my surprise and delight, my grandma sparkled that day. Her eyes lit up when she saw Evie. She wanted to hold her and when she did, all her muscle memory for babies came back. She held her in her strong hands and smiled and commented on how pretty and sweet and chubby she was. It was the most I’d seen of my “real” grandma in years and I was proud that my little girl was the cause. It felt like a small miracle.
It was also the last time I saw my grandma.