It’s my Grandma Pat’s birthday. She was one of (if not the) most special people in my life. Maybe it’s because I loved her so deeply that it’s difficult for me to write about her. I want to do her justice, and there’s just no easy way to describe her. She made you feel like you were the most important person in the room, and she made everyone feel that way. She could weave a story about going to the grocery store with about a dozen asides and turn it into a twenty-minute adventure tale. She laughed with abandon, throwing back her head and filling the room with joy.
I miss her.
As the oldest grandchild, I am the keeper of her tales. The one where she and her baby brother spent the afternoon picking beautiful white flowers, proudly giving them to their mama, only to learn they’d plucked most of the potato blossoms. Or when she sent off for a free doll in the back of the magazine, only to learn later that she had to sell magazine subscriptions to pay for the free doll. (Her big sister did that for her, as a generous big sister would.) She and some of her Army-wife friends stationed in Germany took the train to Paris for a weekend, and she wore her chic white Paris sandals until they fell apart and could be patched no more.
The woman loved her shoes.
She was born into poverty, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants struggling to make it in the new country during the Depression. She was vivacious and pretty and popular. She was also stylish and thrifty. As a teenager, she saw a picture of a winter coat she wanted, so she went to the five-and-dime, bought a wool blanket, cut the blanket into a pattern she fashioned in her head, and made the exact replica of the designer coat.
Though she was born poor, she married a handsome boy from the country-club side of the tracks, and her good taste and outgoing personality suited their life raising a family across the world on Army bases. It also built her incredible library of stories.
Not only could she sew, she was an excellent needlewoman, knitting anything from argyle socks to sweaters, and she loved to needlepoint. I begged her to teach me to knit, and when I turned ten, she gave me knitting needles and taught me the basics. It was harder than it looked!
The teller of stories and seamstress extraordinaire was silenced and halted suddenly in her mid fifties. An aneurysm in her brain and the surgery to correct it left her without speech and paralyzed on her right side. What crueler fate could have befallen her? The remarkable thing about Pat was her absolute resilience and sunny disposition in the face of adversity. She could have turned sullen and bitter, angered by her inability to talk and sew and knit. She did find ways to communicate, an odd combination of signs we made up and her singsong inflection. Often when frustrated with trying to tell us something, she’d stop cold, blink, and then toss her head back and laugh. I wish that I could be so positive.
As she got older, it was hard for her to get around, but that didn’t stop her. I remember taking her shopping at a local mall, pushing her in a wheelchair. She had some mad money stashed, and we looked at pretty things—perfume, scarves, necklaces, red lipstick that was her signature. Nothing suited her. After a couple hours, I wheeled her to the entrance and took the wheelchair back to the center of the mall. When I went to meet her, she was nowhere to be found. “Someone has stolen my grandma,” I thought. I retraced my steps, and saw her standing at the Cinnabon counter, pointing at a dozen cinnamon rolls. She’d walked halfway back the mall, enticed by the sweet perfume of the pastry. We laughed and indulged in sticky cinnamon rolls. Mad money well spent.
Another time, I read to her a section of a cookbook about Norwegian immigrants, how a particular Norwegian grandma made milk pudding as she sipped straight scotch. The more the grandma swilled and stirred, the more the tears rolled into the pot. We howled with laughter at this. The author could never get the pudding to taste as good as in his memory, saying he thought it needed the tears of a grandma. I smile at that, knowing that it takes the echoes of laughter to make everything better.
Grandma Pat never lost the essence of who she was, despite any disability. She was always my dear Gram to me. When I get blue, I often think of her cheery outlook on life. I bake her gingersnaps at Christmas. I taught my nieces to knit. I like to throw my head back and laugh at life. She lives on.
Happy birthday, Gram.