My grandma Jean died Monday, age 96. She was the only grandparent I ever knew, and a true matriarch in many ways. She raised her two kids alone, after her husband died in 1945 in a tragic accident, by putting herself through cosmetology school, setting up her own beauty shop, and staying focused on her kids, being frugal, and nurturing friendships.
In some ways, she was my Choice Mom model. Although her path was definitely not by choice, she actively decided not to bring a stepfather into her kids' life, and did not remarry until both kids were off on their own. She dedicated herself to doing what she needed in order to survive. She developed fun friendships that kept her balanced and lasted more than 50 years. Her one surviving friend Arline came to the cemetery, age 93, and joked to me that Jean, Harriet and Mary were waiting in heaven for her to join them as the fourth in their card games.
We were proud of the fact that we had opportunities for four-generation photos with the matriarchal line. From my mother down to my daughter, we share the middle name Jean, a strong-minded bent, and a love of travel and experiencing city entertainment. My daughter, at age 8, showed a great deal of patience with Grandma Jean's late-year crankiness -- kindred spirits in many ways as they were -- both loving pink, butterflies, nail polish, pretty jewelry and clothes, knick-knacks, just the right hairstyle. I consider it a gift, in fact, to have seen my daughter's tenderness with my grandmother in the last few months of her life.
My grandmother is the one whose ancient typewriter many years ago, when I was my daughter's age, launched my writing career. I used to write poems at grandma's house, when my mother was busy with concurrent college and nursing work. One I remember distinctly writing in the kitchen area of grandma's apartment was about "My mother the whirler." Not long thereafter grandma gave my parents the typewriter for me as a Christmas gift. They'd kept it hidden somewhere in the house, and I burst into tears when they brought it to me, I was so overjoyed with this first communication tool of my very own.
Grandma didn't understand computers, the Internet, websites. But her friend Arline loyally sent me a check in order to buy my "Choosing Single Motherhood" book when it came out. And my staunch Catholic grandmother, whose viewpoint was the only one I worried about when I announced my decision to become a Choice Mom in 1999, quickly reassured me that she thought it was perfectly fine for women to have kids on their own. That she knew I was always very independent and capable.
Much like she was. She lived on her own until she was 90, and even then moved into an independent-living facility until she fell at 94 and needed to go to a nursing home for care.
She was tired of living by then -- having lost three husbands, four sisters, and countless cousins and friends she kept faithful contact with over the years. But I saw the resolute twinkle in her eye on one of my last visits with her, when I teased her about yet another male admirer who apparently had taken a fancy to her in the home.
She was a grand lady -- quite able, as the priest pointed out, to remind people of what she needed. She was always meticulously dressed and made up. And more than anything, she was proud of family -- and is undoubtedly happier now that she is rejoined with so many people she has missed for so long.