I was lucky enough, growing up, to have a bunch of wonderful grandparents. Both sets of grandparents, all four of my great-grandmothers, and two of my great-grandfathers were still alive when I was born. All four great-grandmothers lived until I was at least in my teens (one lived until I was in my 30s).
Part of the luck was simply having them. I didn’t realize that until sometime during grade school, as I learned that very few of my classmates knew any of their great-grandparents. I remember one particular friend in sixth grade who practically accused me of lying when I told him about seeing one set of great-grandparents at Christmas, and two other great-grandmothers a few weeks earlier at Thanksgiving. Not only had all of his great-grandparents died before he was born, but at least a couple of his grandparents had, as well.
My parents married quite young, and theirs had before them. Consequently, one of my great-grandfathers didn’t reach retirement age until I was in kindergarten.
And they were quite a collection of characters. One great-grandfather had been a horse wrangler (actual job title), moonshine runner, and repairman. One grandfather had repaired tanks during WWII, the other had repaired bombers. One great-grandmother spent many years working as a waitress. Another, when she was 70, rescued a horse from her son’s ranch when it was going to be put down because it was “untameable.” Within a year, it would come running when she whistled, and if it misbehaved, would stand obediently and let her spank it with her cane (and afterward he sulked around her looking like a dog with its tail between its legs until she told him he was forgiven). One grandmother was a nurse. One was a City Treasurer.
I learned different things from each of them—skills I still use today. I can see bits of each one’s personality in myself.
And until tonight, I didn’t have to use the past tense for all of them.
My Grandma B. died earlier this evening. She was the last of my grandparents still alive.
In many ways the loss is more abstract than personal. I haven’t seen her in person in decades, as she lived in a remote town that literally is not on the way to anywhere. For various reasons—some mine, some theirs—I haven’t been close to most of the relatives on that side of the family for a long time. Because of the dementia, it’s been a few years since Grandma and I had a phone conversation where I was certain she knew who I was. So, for me, she’s been gone for some time.
I don’t feel as if I deserve condolences. Not like my aunt who has been living with and caring for her, and has now lost her mother. Or any of the other relatives who live nearby and watched her decline up close. So I feel almost like an emotional carpetbagger just writing this.
We can’t control death. We can postpone it a bit. We can certainly hasten it. But that is merely an illusion of control. We can’t change the past, and the future is slippery at best. The only thing we have control over is now. How we live, now. How we treat our neighbors, friends, and family, now.