What a way to start the holiday season. My grandma (mother’s mom) has been slowly declining in health for some time now. She was getting tired often, had very little appetite, lived alone, and had congestive heart failure. She was on a number of medications for high blood pressure, a diuretic for water retention, cumidin to thin her blood. Common medications for people with blood pressure problems, and very common among older people. But, she was hanging in there despite the fact that my Granddad (her husband of 50 years) had passed away in 1985; also in November. In fact, it was November 5th, 1985. I was 14 so even though I understood I would never see him in physical form again, I think I was too young to process his rather sudden death. I did not cry for his passing until I was 18, and it really hit me one day that this headstrong, opinionated, bull-headed man who had helped my parents take care of my sister and myself was really gone.
Due to a medication (Oxycodone) that my grandma had to take for pain due to a fracture in one of her vertebrae, my grandma could no longer be left alone, especially at night. So, the decision was made to move her into a hospice where someone would be available around the clock. She was moved out of the house where she had lived for as far back as I can remember (and I have a memory like an elephant), the house where she had raised two of her four children, where she and my Granddad would baby sit me and my sister if my parents wanted to take a vacation sans children, where I remember big Thanksgiving dinners, and many Christmases. I remember that she and my granddad were married on the 4th of July, and every year the whole family would get together for food and fireworks. She kept a lunchbox with toys in it in the hall closet, and even though I knew perfectly well where to find it, I would always ask, and she’d tell me it was off yonder. If it weren’t for her, I would have no idea where yonder is. Not that it is a specific place, but I will always know where yonder is thanks to her. She was a very strong woman, said very little but when she did speak, you listened. Believe me you listened. She was keenly observant of everything going on around her. It was really hard to slip under her radar. She never thought of herself as a smart person like my father’s mother who had a Bachelor’s In Mathematics from USC and was a brilliant oil painter. She felt that her life had been wasted because she wasn’t as educated as my other grandmother. She also wasn’t nuts like my other grandmother (she had untreated Manic Depression, thanks for the genes.) What she failed to realize was that she had the hardest, most rewarding and painful, most important job on the planet. She was a mother. And, judging by the way my aunt and mom and one uncle turned out, she did a damn fine job of raising her children. but, she couldn’t see that being a parent, especially a mother is the most important thing that someone can do with their lives. She may not have smiled as often as she should have, and I do not think I ever heard her laugh. Maybe, I did and I do not remember.
When I had my first car accident and could not find my parents (I was about 15), I called her, and she and my Uncle Steve came to get me. I remember being about 18, and living in my very first apartment. I had a kitten named Faustus. One day, I came home from work and I couldn’t find my kitten. She had somehow slipped out when I left that day. I finally located my kitten and she was covered in oil, holding one hind leg up, missing the fur on her ears and eyelids. She had either been in someone’s engine or she narrowly missed getting squashed by a car. It didn’t really matter. She was alive, but hurt badly. I had no money to take her to the pet ER, and I tried my parents (once again), but my Dad was out of town and my mother was working or something. I couldn’t find them so once again I called my grandma. I needed $80 to take my kitten to the vet. Now, my grandma never liked pets; they were messy, but she just happened to have the money that I needed to take my kitten in. I drove to her house holding my injured Faustus, and tried to operate a standard transmission with one hand. That’s a trick. So, she gave me the money and told me to come back for dinner when they were done with my kitten. The vets had sedated my cat and put her in a box. Even though I can’t remember there ever being an animal in her house, she let me bring my very groggy little kitten in to her house in the box. It turned out that my cat’s hind leg was completely severed at the joint. But, even though she had no use for pets, she still let me bring my cat in the house because it was winter time, it was night, and it was cold. I can still see her in her house that night. She always had this way of making everything warm and alright, even if every thing was wrong. She was probably one of the people on this planet that I respected and loved unconditionally. I always knew I could count on her for help, and if it was within her power to do so, she would help. She used to make me gifts of canned and dry goods because she knew that I was struggling financially and she had grown up during the Depression so she knew what being dirt poor was like. She was funny like that. She gave of herself and never expected anything in return.
She was such a strong, dignified, dedicated, and loving person. I feel like I was privileged to be born to her daughter. She taught me so much about inner strength, and just dealing with the situation as it was. There was not any thing else to do, and in her own, very quiet way, she passed that value along to her children, and her grand children, and her great grand children even though they won’t be able to remember much about her. They are all very young; about the same age as my cousins were when granddad died. If I was 14, then my oldest cousin would have been about 9. The great-grandchildren (except my sister’s) are all much younger than that. They will never really know how this woman in her quiet but thoughtful way taught her children and grandchildren how to live life.
Life was never easy for her and my granddad. They had four children and he worked construction jobs, and she took in people’s ironing and laundry to help make the ends meet. The family would move to where ever there was work for my granddad. It could not have been easy, but she went through life never complaining. She just accepted what was, and had faith that it would get better, and she got through it. I think people born in the early part of the 20th century had more strength to live life on life’s terms than those of us born later in the century. We all want it fixed or done now. We are a generation of people who want instant gratification, but there is so much more character and dignity and grace in learning how to live life no matter what gets thrown at you.
My family lost some one very special today. It does not matter one bit if she did not go to college, or was a brilliant painter or writer. She was a role model for how to live life on life’s terms. You do what you need to do in order to live no matter how menial it may seem. You raise your children to respect their elders, you raise them to respect people from all walks of life, to have compassion when someone is struggling, and to love and give without expecting anything in return. This is what she left my parents and her other children with. And, in their own ways they passed on what my grandma and my granddad taught them. Work hard, love and appreciate your family and friends, have thanks for what you do have instead of constantly yearning for what you do not have. Sometimes, no matter how hard it may seem, life may be all that you have. I know how important life is. Even as a treated Bipolar, I have tried several times to take my life, but I always clung to life in the end and would call 911. Apparently, I am not ready to die yet.
This was a woman who accepted me for who I am, the things I have been, and loved me anyway. She weathered the drug abuse, the drinking, the mental illness that makes me so moody, all the things that my own mother had to cope with as well. I wish now (20/20 hindsight) that I had taken more time to find out about her. I always meant to, but somehow never got around to it. I guess I thought she would still be here when I finally had grown up enough to see how amazing she was. I thought she would live forever, I guess. Magical thinking on my part, but when you are in your 20s and 30s, you still have this notion that you’ll never get old and neither will the people around you. But, that isn’t the way it works.
You hit 40, and you realize that time does not stop because you want it to. You age, and so does everyone around you. You come to realize that time will continue and you will age and so will those you love. You are born, you live your life to the best of your ability, and then you become old and eventually everyone dies. It is a cycle that never ends. Life will always lead to death. It is what you do and how you treat others in between that matters. My grandma understood that with her heart, and as a result, was an incredible person. I will miss her dearly. She was like my other mom. I only hope that I can continue to improve myself so that I am like her when I am old, and I can die with no regrets. Why she loved me so dearly, I will never know. But, I am glad she did. Even though I am the odd one out in the family. When life becomes really stressful, just paint your nails, dye your hair that color you always wanted, try a different color of eye shadow, soak in the tub, but above all, be nice to yourself and others. Good night, Grandma.
Velma Pauline Hatfield Varley: born 9/6/1915 and died 11/17/2012.