On Death and the Clarification of Ancestors

My grandmother died last week. January 3, 2013.

She was born in 1919. She made it from the teens all the way back around to the teens, saw 11 decades, had 9 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. She was a child during the roaring twenties, a teenager during the Great Depression, married a WWII solder letter carrier and had her first two children in the 1940s, gave birth to my father during the fifties, saw her first grandchildren in the seventies, and had great-grandchildren beginning in the nineties. Her youngest great-grandchild is six. She was mobile and healthy (relatively speaking, for a 93-year-old.) She was still walking on her own, only used a walker for long distances, and still had her mental capabilities until her last few days.

She called us on Christmas Eve to tell us she was going soon. It’s amazing that she knew. She asked to speak to my husband. She was so impressed with what he had written in his wedding thank-you note to her. He told her that she is the strong religious backbone in the family, and the matriarch, and that he sees her strength in me. She told him that she appreciated it, then told me that I’m a good wife, and that she’s ready to go.

I got a phone call on the morning of the January 2nd from my father, telling me that the doctors thought she had three to eight hours left to live. My sister and I booked a flight as soon as we could, and arrived in the city where she lived later that afternoon. She was sleeping in her hospital bed. I spent time with my cousins (who are fifteen to twenty-five years older than me–their parents are 10 and 12 years older than my dad, and they both had kids young) and my aunt and uncle, and we watched her sleep. 

She was still breathing by that night, and everyone went home besides my parents, my sister, and I. We told her that it was alright for her to go, that we hoped she saw her husband in heaven. We sang to her.

My mother asked me if this made me believe in God. I told her I didn’t want to talk about it right then.

I didn’t want to talk about it over the dying body of my grandmother, who prayed the Rosary every day. 

But the experience has deepened my faith. I saw how right it is to honor the ancestors. Not some vapor ancestors as a group of people who donated their DNA to us, but as our true and honest ancestors who lived long and short lives leading to us. My grandmother lived twice as long as my grandfather, all that time leading a family alone. It is right to remember them and their journeys.It is right that they should be with their departed family in death. It is right to tell them to go be with their parents and grandparents and sibling and spouses who have gone before them. And it is right for us to tell their stories, so that we may remember.

I learned a lot about my ancestors this past weekend from my grandmother’s photo albums, and from asking my family about the people pictured in them.

I came into possession of two photos from 1916–one of which features my great-grandfather and my great-great grandfather. I learned that my great-great grandfather was a plumber who did work on the St. Louis Fountain in Forest Park. The other photo shows two of my grandmother’s sisters, their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Which means the photo shows my great-grandmother, great-great grandmother, and great-great-great grandmother. It tells their names on the back. And this is what I learned about them:

My great-great-great grandmother was called “Big Grandmother” by the children. She liked to snack on rye bread and beer.

My great-great grandmother was called “Little Grandmother.” She raised my grandmother and her five siblings during the Great Depression after their parents died. She was born in Dublin, Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day and died in America on the Fourth of July. 

My great grandmother was the mother of five girls and then, finally, one little boy who died young from a stroke. Her husband worked in manual labor across state lines, and died in an accident on the job. She died just a couple of years later.

My grandmother, who just passed away, did not know what to expect on her wedding night. She believed that if two people loved each other, sex was unnecessary. She wore a gold cross around her neck from when her husband gave it to her in the 1940s until she died in 2013. She never went on a date again after my grandfather passed away, but some years later told a widowed friend of hers that dating again is the better way to go. She loved yellow roses-my grandfather used to give them to her when they were dating. She was an extremely faithful Catholic, and kept things that were sentimental to her. I have inherited her rosary. While we were cleaning out her apartment in the retirement home, I found the tiny bells from my wedding and the jars from my favors, and she wasn’t even able to come to the wedding. We found all of the cards we had ever sent her. And she loved us–she had a whole photo album dedicated to our portion of the family. 

My ancestors are real people. This is a truth that has eluded me up until this point. I had never known anything about my departed ancestors. My grandfathers all died before I was born, and my grandmothers have always lived as the family matriarchs. But now a 93-year-old Eleanora has made the transition from Family Matriarch to Beloved Dead, and in doing so, she told me my ancestors stories. I will put their pictures on my altar, and I will say the rosary in her name. I will give them offerings of rye bread and beer, and I will remember where I came from, and that their work built the world I am now living in. 

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One thought on “On Death and the Clarification of Ancestors

  1. Beautifully written. Remember everything you’ve learned about your family’ s history. Where and who we come from is so important, unfortunately when our loved ones leave this earth sometimes they take our story with them. Your grandmother was a beautiful woman, it sounds like inside as well as out. Carry her in your heart and she’ll never be far. Keeping you and your family in my prayers.

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