Words cannot describe the sadness throughout my family today. Our matriarch, GGma, passed away today just 7 1/2 weeks away from her 100th birthday. Today has been a day of steel magnolias. Of wondering why God took her when I wasn’t ready, and yet rejoicing that she went quickly, which is just how she wanted it. Of weeping at the idea that we won’t get to tease each other anymore, and keeping it together to sign the medical examiner’s paperwork and release to remove her from her apartment. Accepting condolences of many, many friends, and feeling terrible for not getting there in time to say goodbye.
What can I say about GGma? I loved her a lot. She was the very definition of “Steel Magnolia” as well – tough and tender all at the same time.
She was feisty. She had no problem telling a fool he was actin’ a fool, and had no problem gossiping during all her weekly bridge games. She (probably) cheated at playing cards but no one said anything because she was so damn charming about it. But she was at church every Sunday.
She loved and lost two men who adored her. When she was 18 she was approached at a dance by a young man named Mike A’losio (sp) who told her he liked her legs and asked her for a date. They were married very shortly thereafter. He worked for her parents for a while and then became a cop. Sadly, he died in a motorcycle accident only 4-5 years after they got married. However, a few years later she met the man who would later become my grandfather. She met him on a boat that traveled from Norfolk, VA to Baltimore, MD. She had ridden an entertainment boat (similar to the gambling ferries in the Mississippi and New Orleans) to spend the day with another man she knew who lived in Maryland. When she arrived at the dock to ride the boat back to Norfolk, my grandfather was standing on the dock waiting for her to spend the ride back to Norfolk with her. They began dating and his ex-wife was not happy that he had moved on, and would harass him. He finally took GGma over to the woman’s house and said (pointing to my grandmother), “This woman’s little finger was worth more than your whole body,” and she got the point and stopped stalking him. They eventually married and spent many, many happy years together until he passed away on my birthday when I was a child. They raised three kids together and after he passed away she swore she’d never marry again, and she didn’t.
She was adventurous. I’ve mentioned this before, but GGma taught me – by example – how to waterski when she was 73 years old. Her friend owned a boat and during my summers visiting we’d go out on the boat and spend the whole day zooming up and down, waterskiing as long as our arms and legs could stand it. She also went parasailing in Mexico at age 83 and clog danced until she was in her mid-90s. She loved to travel and went to too many places to list, but the ones that stand out are her trips to Alaska and Israel, as well as through most (if not all) 50 states.
She hated cats. And I’m not using too strong a word. When I say “hate,” I mean it. She thought they were loathesome evil creatures who deserved one thing: death. I remember when I was in elementary school we walked out of my house to go for a walk somewhere and she began screaming and threw herself onto the hood of our car. She had seen a cat about four houses away and was petrified it would come near us. Four. houses. away. I loved her cat phobia because while I couldn’t understand it (kittens are adorable), I could totally understand it (due to my extreme phobia of spiders).
She was a teacher. She was a teacher for many years back in the days when teachers had paddles hanging on the wall and weren’t afraid to use them on ornery kids who didn’t follow the rules. She loved teaching and was frequently given the gifted students. However, one year she was given the kids who were typically passed over. She ended up teaching them Shakespeare and had them put on a production of “Midsummer’s Night Dream” for the entire school just to show them that NO KIDS should be considered worthless just because of lack of money or lack of opportunity. She sewed all their costumes herself and spend her own money on props. Unfortunately, the trees she had a local gardener bring for the stage decor had bugs in them and they came into the gymnasium one morning to find the place swarming. Despite the mishap, the play went on and they gave several repeat performance as a result of the hard work of those kids and my grandmother.
She was one of a kind. She told stories all the time of how her father didn’t care much for her because she was so spirited and independent. They would battle all the time because she didn’t put up with the misbehavior of her father (he was the notorious rapscallion of Norfolk, VA) as well as her father’s favoritism showed to a couple of her siblings (she was one of 7 children).
She was kind-hearted, too. Many, many years ago (about 20?) she saw a young teenaged boy being neglected by a family in her town and took it upon herself to give him a better life. He had been adopted from Russia and put to work as a farmhand on his “parents'” farm. He was basically slave labor. They didn’t let him attend school, and so she took it upon herself to teach him how to read and speak English, do math and learn other basic skills. When he turned 18, he asked if he could move in with her, and she said yes without hesitation. One night he had gone out with some friends and came back after she had gone to bed. He woke her up and before she could ask him what was wrong, he very simply asked, “May I call you ‘Grandma?'” She said yes, and from that day on he was part of our family as well, celebrating holidays with us until he went out on his own to become successful in the airline industry. She still kept a room for him at her Virginia house until she moved away a couple years ago. And to my knowledge, he still calls her a couple times a month to check in on her and let her know how he is doing.
She was fun. I hung out with her a lot when I was in high school, going to visit her during my summer vacations for hijinks with her old biddie friends. The summer I got my driver’s license she let me do most of the driving from central Virginia to Nashville, TN so she could participate in the Hee Haw Clogging Championship with her fellow senior citizen dancemates. It was one of the most fun times we ever had. OTher summers we’d spend time lounging at the town pool, or going to drive-in movies, working on our tans in her friend’s boat, and eating every meal at her favorite restaurant (she didn’t cook and was a faithful daily customer there for about 40 years).
I could go on and on with so many stories – her life could easily be made into a movie and I told her as much many, many times. She’s like Rose in “Titanic,” only without need a sinking ship to teach her to live each day to the fullest.
The past year has been amazing, providing care for her even when she drove me crazy. I enjoyed having her only 10-15 minutes away from me, and hearing all the folks in the community where she lived say how much they loved having “Miss Florence” in their building. From day one, everyone there knew who she was because she was one of the oldest residents.
I will miss her forever, but am so grateful to have had this much time with her. I just wish I had a little bit more.