(Repost from August 24, 2013)
I got a phone call from my Mom this morning around 9:45 AM, letting me know that my grandmother, Eleene McCann, had died. Grammy had been getting steadily weaker the past couple years, ever since her eyesight really started to fail. Last week she fell and broke her hip and humerus. After that, her health declined very rapidly and we’ve all been taking turns visiting with her. She couldn’t swallow very well and could only take a little liquid. Then she stopped taking in anything a couple of days ago and fell asleep in a painless morphine haze.
Today was warm and the sky was perfect blue as I headed over to the nursing home where she’d been staying this year. I took the elevator up to the third floor and met the family at her room. Grandad and my Aunt were by her side. I went to the other side of the bed, kissed her cooling cheek and said as much of a goodbye as I could manage without breaking down. Then I had to go out in the hallway.
When loved ones die from an illness, it’s often best to remember them at their most vibrant rather than the last days, and Gram was extraordinarily vibrant.
I’m still learning about her early days in Ohio but I do know that she married young to a man named Joseph Coleman and gave birth to my mother just a few days after turning 19 years old. After divorcing Joe, Grammy was a single mother for awhile, raising my Mom on her own before meeting and marrying Edward McCann. For my entire life Grammy was the undisputed matriarch of our family. She was widely acknowledged to be the best cook and she loved hosting holiday dinners with Grandad at their house. My first decade was spent growing up in New Jersey and I have wonderful memories of their farmhouse in Mountainville, a small country town with immense charm. During the summer my brother and I would fish in the creek behind the house, swim in their pool and explore the rest of the property.
Grammy loved antiques and she ran a little shop out of one of the barns. My memories of those summers include visits from all kinds of cousins, aunts, and uncles. It seemed like the center of our family universe. Mom has told me about growing up with Grammy for a mother and I know that despite all the good times, it wasn’t always perfect. I won’t deny she could be a bit irascible at times but she always showed me and my brother surprising patience and I always felt loved. She took great delight in spoiling her grandchildren.
When I say Grammy was a great cook, I mean it. She would present these grand feasts for the family; dish after delicious dish, from vegetables to meats to desserts. Things I never got anywhere else like spaetzle and saurbraten. She had a passion for potato salad. She made fantastic corned beef and cabbage and soda bread. She made the greatest pies I’ve ever tasted. I learned a lot about food from her, things like: Never worrying about fattening ingredients, worry about taste. The only worthwhile pie crust is homemade and you need to fold it properly to get it flaky. If I live 1,000 years, I will never forget family holidays spent with my grandparents.
I think I loved her jams and jellies the best. Concord grape, apple jelly, red raspberry, peach, pear cinnamon, and sometimes my favorite, strawberry rhubarb. All you had to do was mention a flavor in passing and Gram would open up her jam cupboard to reveal dozens, if not hundreds, of delicious jars. “Go ahead,” she’d urge. “Take some home!” Yes, please.
With my grandfather retired, my grandparents looked around for a new home and found the ideal place here in New Hampshire in the 1980s. It was a very old home in the rural town of Sullivan, just right for all of Gram’s antiques and with plenty of room for Grandad to keep busy on the property. My Dad was leaving his previous job and my grandparents happened to find the perfect chemist job in the local newspaper, so we headed up to NH not long after they did. We’ve been here ever since. Both my Uncle and Aunt ended up here with their own families, and how many parents can say their kids loved them enough to “follow” them hundreds of miles just to live nearby? That tells you how great it was to be around them.
In addition to her passions for antiques and food, Grammy loved travel, especially to Europe. During the year she’d make extra money selling pies, preserves and other delectables at local flea markets and church events. Then she’d head overseas to sail down the Danube, explore Ireland, or find a little cafe in Paris to sit with a croissant, soaking up the atmosphere. I’d go off to Japan or Australia, and we would swap stories from our travels. “You got that from me, you know,” she’d say with a smile. “We both have that wanderlust.” I believe that’s true and I thank you for it, Grammy.
At age 38, I feel extremely lucky that I’ve had my grandparents around for so long. I wasn’t the most patient or thoughtful kid, so throughout the 2000s I had the pleasure of getting to know them both as people instead of a child’s view of older relatives. I would go up to the house and mow their lawn, pick blueberries in the summer, or just sit in the kitchen chatting. I’m very interested in history and people’s personal stories. They’d tell me tales from their life and inevitably, Grammy would send me home with a bunch of homemade food.
Of all the amazing memories I have of my grandparents — and Grammy in particular — I think my favorite one might be from the mid-late 1980s. I recall one December day when my Mom brought me over there for the afternoon and I spent the day in the kitchen with Grammy. There was Christmas music on the radio, Peanuts cartoons on TV, and snow falling outside. I stood next to her in that amazing kitchen, antiques literally hanging from the rafters, and we made cookies together. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect Christmastime memory.
A few years back, my grandparents knew they couldn’t handle the house on their own anymore. It was time to sell and move to a place in nearby Keene, the small city where most of the rest of us in the family live. They had to downsize drastically to fit into their new apartment. We helped them move and said goodbye to the house in which we’d all spent so many holidays celebrating. It felt like the end of an era.
Depending on my work schedule, I often had time during the week when I could pick them up and drive them around town. We’d stop for a bite at the diner and maybe do some grocery shopping if they needed anything. Sometimes, knowing that Grammy and I share a sweet tooth, I’d take her to some candy shop or bakery she hadn’t tried. She was slowing down but she still loved those adventures. Over the course of the next couple years they needed a bit more help and we moved them again, this time to a sort of assisted living apartment building called Bentley Commons. Finally Gram’s deteriorating eyesight meant she needed to go into a nursing home for more care. Now Grandad, 90, lives at Bentley in an apartment on his own.
Grammy, you gave me so many great memories that I can’t ever fully thank you, even though you probably remember me trying. You always shrugged it off. “That’s what grandparents are for!”
After we said goodbye at the nursing home today, I told Grandad how sorry I am and he was wise as always. “I’d take another 60 years with her if I could. But we were lucky to have that time. Nobody ever guaranteed us anything when we were born. You’ve got to enjoy the happy things while they last and make it through the rest. One thing’s for sure: meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Don’t worry Grammy, we’re going to watch out for Grandad now and make sure he’s not alone. You’ve more than earned your rest.
Goodbye. I love you.
Cora Eleene Flood
04 April, 1926 to 24 August, 2013