An open letter to Grandma C.

by Kristin on October 27, 2008

in Love, family & community

This is Part Two of my celebration of two amazing women and their roles in shaping who I am. The idea to write these posts about my grandmothers was inspired by Magpie Girl‘s remembrances of her own grandmother, and the approach of All Souls’ Day. I don’t want to wait until they are gone to remember them.

Dear Grandma,

You have always been someone I feel inexplicably close to, even though most of my life you lived far away in California.

I’m convinced that part of our closeness was actually the result of distance. I only got to see you every other year, but you were my first pen-pal. It was by reading your letters to me that I learned to write letters. Yours were expressive, with lots of exclamation points and underlining. I could hear your voice in them, as if we were talking on the phone. Your letters were descriptive, too—you used words to paint images of your interactions with people and the beauty of the physical world around you. Reading your letters made me feel like I was right there.

As I learned the art of letter writing by your example, I then tried my hand at it by regularly penning my thoughts West toward you. A few years ago, when my mom and her sister flew to California to move you out of your home, my mom found what must be every letter I had ever written to you. Just the thought of you treasuring each letter I sent fills me with your love. I’m not sure why exactly, but I haven’t yet gone through those letters I wrote so long ago. In part, I think it’s because I know how clear a window they will be into who I was then, and who you were to me: a true pen-pal, who I could safely open up to within the private space created by pen on paper. I need to somehow prepare myself before I’m ready to peer through that window.

I think there’s something else, though, that has made me feel close to you. I have always recognized in you a sizable portion of who I was and am, as well as a significant aspect of who I wanted (and still want) to be. I could relate to your love for words and music and clothes, and to your quirky sense of humor. I could also relate to your feisty response to anything that ruffled your feathers, and to how that feisty attitude sometimes got you in trouble. You were transparent and opinionated, and you took life head-on.

What I couldn’t always relate to, but was always drawn to, was your pure joyfulness in all circumstances, and your unwavering trust in God’s goodness. You were always a true light to those around you; somehow you managed to bring sunshine to people without ever downplaying life’s darkness and storms. You were a realist, without being cynical. I wanted—and still want—to be more like you.

Now you are 93, living in a nursing home in Michigan so my parents can spend time with you almost every day. Even as your body has weakened and your mind has become clouded with dementia, you have managed to be the light of the nursing home, spreading your infectious joy as you spent your days scooting around the halls in your wheelchair. Just recently, you’ve started napping most of the day, and requiring someone to feed you, which is hard for me to imagine.

While writing this letter to you now makes me incredibly happy as I think of all of the letters that have gone back and forth between us, it also makes me profoundly sad. The saddest thing is knowing that you can’t read what I’m trying to communicate to you, or even understand as my mom reads these words to you. And I can’t stop myself from wondering why I never directly said these things to you before, when you could absorb them. All I can do is trust that, just as our bond was was always deeper than words on a page, the underlying essence of everything that was felt, but not written or said, somehow makes its way through to your heart.



My Grandma C. (June), with my youngest daughter, S June.

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  • Heather

    What a sweet letter!

  • Nancy Pagaduan

    Honestly, I haven’t been able to get through your letters to your grandmothers. I have to stop for the occasional cry. But you should know that your letters are really inspiring and it was hard not to think of my own grandmother while I was reading them. Lola (grandma in Tagalog) was quite a special woman to me and my whole family. She moved in with us when I was 8, my sister was 5 and my brother was a few months old. She lived with us until I was a freshman in high school-taking care of us, cooking, helping us with our homework. She was the 3rd parent not just a grandma. As I look back, I realize we were so lucky to have her in our lives.

    Part of Analea’s name comes from my grandmother whose nickname was Ana (that’s another story) and John’s mom Lea (yet another story). I think Lola’s spirit must be living in Analea because I’ve never known a child to babble so much as if she’s telling us a story. And that was something that my grandmother could do ALL DAY LONG. It didn’t matter what she was doing, she always had a story to tell us. Something would reminder her of a person or an event in her past and she would start, “When I was a little girl…” or “Did I tell you about…” Some days, I would think, “Oh no, not again.” But most days, I thought she was the most magical woman I knew. How could she possibly have done so much, know so much? I keep telling myself that I need to write as many of these stories down so that I can pass them on to Miia and Analea. They’d make great bedtime stories. Lola’s not with us any more so I lost the opportunity to get them directly from her again – either by letters or by recording her. But by the time I was old enough to think to do this, Lola was becoming a different person-one that I didn’t care to recognize because I thought if this was the last memory I had of her, then I would somehow lose the stories. The woman I was hearing about didn’t match the woman who told me the stories, the girl and the woman who lived them.

    In my closet-cleaning frenzy of the past few days, I found something I had written about her 12 years ago.

    “It’s hard for me to acceopt my grandmother as someone who is “losing it.” I will forever see her as the woman who was always full of stories of life – of her as a tomboy, a tennis player, a widow, a single mother way before her time, a woman who lost her husband and toddler son in the war, a WWII activist, an immigrant, a woman who worked for her kids and her kids’ kids because she “got out,” a farmer, a schoolteacher turned vegetable seller, a remarkable person, a strong woman. Now the stories have changed a bit. They are no longer told by her but instead are told about her. I am trying so hard to ignore these new stories that want to wipe her out and turn her into someone she never was in her life – weak. I can no longer ask her to “tell me the story about the time you tried to steal fruits from the mango man” because she can no longer remember things on cue like that. Instead, she is always in story mode and no one can make sense of what she’s saying. Grandma is slipping away from our family into the world of “senility” or Alzheimer’s. No one will really say which it is. I want so bad to hold on to her stories as if that will somehow keep her with us, because someone has to remember for her, someone has to put the stories in a place other than her memory or mine. Otherwise, he WHOLE LIFE disapears in a fraction of the time that she lived. But what a daunting task…to remember and document someone else’s life.”

    My blog comment has gone on way too long! Thanks so much Kristen for helping me remember my grandmother. Maybe now I’ll start to remember and write down her stories.

  • http://TrackBack joi tennant

    To take the time to assess the value and beauty of someone whose life has touched ours, who we admire and love even more as we watch them struggling with end-of-life issues; and to share with others those thoughts, is a small portion of our own life well-spent and becomes a kind of prayer of thanks to God for this precious gift we have been given. You are blessed to have your grandmas live so long so that you can appreciate them now in a mature way. Thank you for reminding us about what really matters as we prioritize our time.

  • Mary Jessup

    Your writings are touching, well done and encouragement to try to write myself. Reading your “grandma letters” as a grandma (and a great-grandma since July) puts this stage of life in a new perspective for me.
    Thanks for the window into your life and family.
    With a hug, Mary