To Say Hello

My grandma (Phoofsy to Ella and Annie and many others) – always said that life was worth living so long as you were having fun. A little less than two weeks ago, unexpectedly and suddenly and to our stunned shock and heartbreak, Phoofsy stopped having fun.

You guys. I just… It’s simply not okay.

Living so near her these past eight years was one of the reasons that moving to Rochester was such a fantastic decision. My grandma was our guidepost, our touchstone, our sounding board and cheerleader, our adventure buddy, and our constant partner for dinner, games, and talking. We have never lived here without her and, honestly, I feel as though we’ve been cut adrift; Nick and I hadn’t realized how much she grounded us and made us whole.

I miss her so much, I cannot begin to put it into words.
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We have spent every Easter with Phoofsy since we moved here.
This year was no different.

Losing Phoofsy has been difficult for Ella and Annie as well. Sadly, they are quite familiar with loss (most importantly, their Grandpa Bill, and to a much lesser extent – although fresh on their minds – our Madison), but never before have they had to say goodbye to someone who was an integral part of our daily lives, someone whose presence would be noticeably absent at soccer games, swim meets, birthdays, evenings beside the fireplace, Sunday brunch, Wednesday nights, and every day in between.

This is an active, different kind of grieving, for all of us.
Not better. Not worse. Not harder or easier. Just different.

My mom and stepdad drove up to the lake the day after my grandma passed away and immediately got to the business of sorting through Phoofsy’s affairs (and providing lots of hugs and memories and laughs); we loved getting the chance to see them, even under these circumstances. As our little family foursome was driving back from the lake last weekend – the first-ever we’d spent there without my grandma – the conversation naturally turned toward Phoofsy.
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Playing The Lake Game on Memorial Day, my grandma was absolutely tickled that she managed to successfully flip her cup. We were absolutely tickled, too.

Things began simply enough, sharing stories and memories, but soon moved onto more metaphysical, abstract thinking. It started with Nick telling them that he was comforted by the idea that, one minute, Phoofsy was here and healthy, the next there was some brief confusion, and the very next, she was seeing Great‘s face as he said to her, “What took you so long?”

Annie and Ella were intrigued by this and wanted to hash things out, so we kept talking. “Where do you think Phoofsy is right now?” “If there’s heaven, do you stay the same age as you are when you die?” “Can people who have already died leave ‘messages’ for those of us who are still here?” 

As they discussed their conceptions of heaven, Nick and I grew more and more entranced. The girls’ ideas were absolutely fascinating and far more interesting and nuanced than anything I’ve imagined in my nearly-forty years. In fact, their thoughts were so lovely, so simultaneously comforting and thought-provoking, I asked if I could share them with you.
They graciously agreed.
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Chuckling that her poker hand was better than Ella’s.
Even when you’re 84 years older than your great-granddaughter, victory is sweet. 

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“In heaven, you can be any age you want, and you can change that age whenever you like. So, if you had a really great time when you were twelve, you get to be twelve. Then, if you want to feel what it was like to be fifty again, you can be fifty for a while. Oh! And the person you’re with – like, if Phoofsy is with Great – can be another age, too. ‘Cause you know how Great was 86 when he died but Phoofsy was almost 95? That might not be fair, for her to be older, just ’cause she got to live longer. They might want to be the same age again – so they can be, together.”

(I don’t know what age I want to be yet, but that sounds pretty much like the best idea ever.)

“I think, in heaven, you can live out a dream while you’re awake. Like, you know how when you wake up after you’ve had an awesome dream and you suddenly realize it was just a dream and you’re so sad? Well, in heaven, you actually get to do the dream while you’re awake – you never have to miss anything! So Phoofsy and Great and Grandpa Bill can live out all of their dreams, for real – not just dreaming – every single day.”

(OMG THAT IS AWESOME.)

“But it’s okay to sometimes miss things. I think people in heaven might sometimes be sad. I mean, they’re mostly happy – it’s heaven after all, and they can see their friends and they can travel all around the world and have those dreams – but I think there’s a little sadness… Because life has sadness. We have to have some sadness to appreciate the happiness. Without a little, tiny bit of sadness, heaven wouldn’t be real.”

(Appreciation and perspective, even in heaven. Very cool.)

“When you’re in heaven, if you get to travel all around the world and be any age you want, I want to be a baby for a little while.” 

(Interject our incredulity. A baby?? But wouldn’t that be… boring?)

“Well, that’s the thing. We think it would be boring right now because we can’t see inside a baby’s mind and we don’t remember what it was like to be a baby. But if I could be a baby, but have my regular mind, I could see what life was like when I was a baby and actually remember it.”

(Scratch what I said before. THAT may be the best idea ever.)

“And I know that, once people are dead, they’re gone and all that. But I think they’re still with us, too — not just in our hearts, though, like people say. I think – and I know this is kind of weird – but I think that people can come and visit for a while. You can’t see them, you can’t feel them, you don’t even know they’re there… But they are. Maybe they walk with you to school. Maybe they sit next to you at dinner. Maybe they ride beside you in the car. Then, suddenly, you have a good memory of that person and it makes you feel better… and it’s because they were right there with you for just a little bit, visiting. Not all creepy like a ghost! Just a good feeling, because they came to say hello.”

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Mother’s Day 2015

Ella and Annie don’t talk too much about being sad, but I know that Phoofsy is on their minds. Every day since she died, both girls, of their own accord, have made absolutely certain to keep something of hers with them; Ella now carries her books in one of Phoofsy’s old purses; Annie wears her hats around the house. Hardly a day has gone by when they haven’t worn one of her necklaces to school even though, normally, necklaces aren’t their thing.

Every time I see them toting her bags, donning her jewelry, adorned in her hats… a fleeting, glowing smile crosses my heart.

And I have no doubt Phoofsy has come to say hello.
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Throwback Thursday – Grandpa’s Hats

For a good many years now, at the urging/request of my grandmother, my mom’s side of the family has created personalized calendars that are given out at Christmas. In addition to the usual calendar fare, Shutterfly allows us to place photos on any dates we’d like, meaning that each family member’s face triumphantly appears on his or her birthday.

While I’ve always enjoyed the calendar, Ella and Annie took a particular shine to it this year, delighting in each person’s photo and commenting on which months receive the heaviest birthday traffic. (I printed off photos for the members of Nick’s family, too, and stuck them on the corresponding squares; June, December, and January are particularly heavily-birthdayed months.)

They were particularly smitten with the weeks when several people have birthdays in a row (and the coincidental dates when people actually share birthdays, something you’d think wouldn’t happen all that often in a relatively small family because there are 365 days on which to have been born), with these last two weeks in January being the first of the clusters.

“Mom – Alex’s (their cousin) birthday was Tuesday, Grandma’s birthday was yesterday, and Lisa’s (my aunt) and Adam’s (my cousin) birthdays are next week! That’s crazy!”

It is! But it’s actually even crazier.

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My grandfather loved hats. He would have laughed mischievously at the thought of me calling him a connoisseur of hats – that’s a bit of a stretch – but he certainly enjoyed them. Baseball caps, cowboy hats, visors, woven ones with wide floppy brims, straw hats, light-up headpieces with glowing lettering across the front… you name it, he had one.

Ever true to his creative, do-it-yourself-but-kind-of-on-the-cheap nature, he had nailed flat pieces of wood to the dining room walls at the lake, on top of which he’d attached clothespins – each of which held a member of the hat collection. Although this newfangled storage system appeared in the later years of his life, the hats themselves were around for much longer. I remember playing with them as a little girl, fascinated with their feel on my head and the way they smelled like him. (Not an Old Spice kind of smell – more musty and fisherman-y and turpentine-y — but grandpa through and through.)

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Summer 1977; one of my all-time favorite photos of anything, ever.
Would that every child could be looked at by their grandparent like this.

In the summers before the old lake house was razed and the new one was constructed – the last two summers of my grandfather’s life – Ella and Annie, too, became unofficial members of Great‘s Hat Club. It gave me such a kick to see them wearing his caps and seeing them all enjoy one another’s company so much. I only wish that they remembered it – remembered him – as clearly as I do.

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 Ella, at the same age I was in the above photo, wearing one of Great’s hats.
His avant-garde hat holder is clearly visible in the background…
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Annie – seven months – with my aunt Lisa, joining in on the hat convention.

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While sorting through things in the basement (let us all share a moment of silence for this miraculous occasion, shall we….?), I came across the hat my grandfather had worn when he was in the Navy. He didn’t talk with me much about his days in the service – then again, I hadn’t really asked (something I regret deeply now) – so I don’t really have much of a frame of reference for this regal topper, but it makes me smile each time I see it, imagining bygone days when my grandfather piloted planes that scanned the ocean for German U-boats, when he and my grandmother exchanged letters and television hadn’t been invented. Plus, all these years and miles later, that hat still smells like my grandpa.

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See, it wasn’t just Grandma and her sister who have birthdays in January – Great did, too.

“He did? I can’t believe it!”

Yep. HIs birthday was today, actually. January 22nd, 1921.

“So how old would he be?”

I see that you don’t get along so well with The Math either.

“What?”

Never mind. He would have turned 94 today.

“We should put his picture on the calendar!”

Long before Photoshop became popular, my grandfather loved toying with photos on his computer, swapping family faces and chuckling at his exploits. As soon as I get the chance, I’m definitely going to print out his photo and put it on the calendar. It’s kind of creepy… but Great would totally have approved.

Throwback Thursday: Grandpa’s voice

I don’t believe in reincarnation. I’ve never seen a ghost. I’m not so sure about angels. But I absolutely believe that people who have left us can communicate with those of us who are still here – not necessarily because it’s true, but because it makes me feel better to think so.

(Kind of like how I believe that Starbucks is a panacea for any number of ills. Can this be proven true in a science lab or a court of law? Doubtful. But it makes me feel awfully damn good, so does it really matter? I THINK NOT.)

My grandfather passed away seven years ago this September. We’d just moved to the Rochester area, and I’m pretty sure that I spent more time with him (and my grandmother) in those few months before he died than I had during my previous 31 years. It was delightful.

This is not to say that my grandfather was “delightful.” I’m not saying he was the opposite of delightful, but “delightful” really isn’t a word that anyone would have used to describe him. He wasn’t exactly the pull-you-on-his-lap, tussle-your-hair, call-you-“Squirt” kind of grandpa. (My extended family, and everyone who knew my grandpa well, have all spit out their beverages at the mere thought of this.)

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My grandfather with Ella, who has “borrowed” one of his many hats.

He was a good many other things, though – wickedly clever, music-loving, handy, creative, gruff and grumpy, witty, smart, difficult, funny – and that 2007 summer was delightful. He loved technology and kept abreast of any number of “modern” conventions that eluded so many other octogenarians; after becoming an early American Idol devotee and watching Ryan Seacrest close each show with a hip, “Seacrest out!”, Grandpa began signing emails to me with “Taylor out!” Likewise, the very last communication he had with all of us – a brief email – ended with “TTYL”.

I can’t begin to summarize him here; he and his personality and my relationship with him don’t fit into tiny, tidy boxes. I will say that, when Ella was born, we originally started off referring to him as “Great Gramp,” but after only a few months, he requested that it be shortened to simply “Great… because that’s appropriate, don’t you think?” Simply put, I miss him.

We routinely take the back route to the lake, a road that brings us past a well-stocked, open-air fruit and vegetable store. Last weekend, I’d been asked to stop by the store on our way down to see if there were fresh peaches. As I sorted through the quarts and pints, an elderly gentleman — easily in his eighties or nineties – approached and began talking to me. At first, I thought he was just making conversation (“Have you got everything you need?”) but when he began talking to me as though he knew me (“Will we be paying for the peaches up front? Did you get them all? How many do we need for dessert?”), I realized that something wasn’t quite right.

I’m still not sure what exactly was going on – whether he had some form of dementia, whether he was just confused, or whether he merely had mistaken me for the girl working behind the register (she was a gorgeous young brunette, so it’s entirely possible) – and I didn’t want to be rude, so I cheerily answered his questions as kindly but vaguely as I could (so as not to further confuse him)… but it was so freakin’ hard because he sounded just like my grandpa.

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Great with Annie, summer 2007.

Yes, he looked vaguely like him too – the square-ish face, the familiar jowls, the wrinkles around his eyes – but it was his voice that nearly did me in. It wasn’t bad, really – it was just completely unexpected, because, aside from videos, the last time I’d heard my grandfather speak was when Annie was nine months old.

And it wasn’t just a close facsimile; this gentleman sounded exactly like him. The nuances, the cadence… For the first time in forever, I was hearing my grandfather’s voice. It was strange and startling and completely overwhelming. I paid for the peaches, bid the man goodbye, got back into the car, and promptly burst into tears (which my children totally appreciated).

Nick was wonderfully supportive of my little breakdown, telling me he’d be weirded out, too, and that I wasn’t an utter nutball. There was a pause before he added, “That was totally your grandpa saying hi, you know.” I looked at him as though he’d lost his mind – um, I don’t know how to break it to you, but grandpa’s been gone for, like, a long time now – but he simply smiled and continued. “We’re on the way to the lake. He and Phoofsy stopped by here a lot. So it’s the perfect place for him to just pop by – not literally, of course – and let you know that he’s still thinking about you. “

This cannot be proven, but I have no doubt that Nick is right. Of all the traits my grandfather possessed, being complimentary wasn’t one of them; not to your face, anyway. Instead, he would regale his friends with tales of your accomplishments and they, in turn, would come to you and say, “Wow – your art opening was really something incredible. Your grandfather told me all about it.” (Okay, so I never had an art opening – don’t be absurd – but if I did, I’m sure he wouldn’t have told me that he liked it. Everyone else would have on his behalf.)

So it makes perfect sense that my grandpa would be checking in through someone else, even if it was just to say hi. Or to talk about peaches.

And if it wasn’t him reaching out from the great beyond? Well, that’s okay, too. I grinned from ear to ear for the rest of the ride (after I’d stopped crying and assured the girls that I wasn’t insane) at the mere thought that it could be, and that’s all that really matters.

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One of my favorite photos of Great and Ella – he’s “threatening” to take a drink out of her sippy cup. The look on his face pretty much sums him up.