Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Life Well Lived

My grandmother, Charlotte Maxine Allison McMurtry, lived 89 years, two months and 9 days.

She was married to my grandfather for 67 years, three months and 13 days.

She had four children (one of whom is my mother), eleven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Those are the facts; remarkable, but still just facts.  Those words don’t have her life breathed into them.

Isn’t she a classic beauty?

The thing about my grandma is that she was very comfortable occupying two sides of the same coin.  She was relentlessly well-presented, but equally down-to-earth.  She didn’t like a lot of fuss, would actually scoff if one complimented her, but she also never missed her weekly salon appointment to have her hair professionally styled.  Even at 89.

This is a woman who, in the last weeks of her life, still insisted that her nails be filed and polished to a perfect rose red.  You just don’t find women of her caliber every day; she inhabited a personal standard that felt like it belonged to a bygone era, which is probably why it enchanted me so completely.

1985 with Grandpa holding my cousin Allie

I don’t mean to singularly emphasize external poise, but she was such an icon for me in my 27 years that it’s hard to gloss over her timeless style.  Of course she was everything a good grandmother should be: warm, funny, loving, generous.  But I am afraid if I highlight only those attributes — the virtuous, Godly, kind woman that she was — then the sparkling, unique part of her may be lost, and I couldn’t bear that.

We were very close, closer than many of the grandmother-grandchild relationships I see around me.  I think our relationship was so easily built because I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t in my life.  When I was little, both of my parents worked, and my grandparents lived just a few miles away, so they would watch us during the day until my mom and dad got home.  It was only a couple of years, since eventually we started school, but through that precious time we came to know them intimately.

2010 seven of the grandkids celebrating Grandpa's 88th birthday

We had inside jokes, special traditions, and a bond that felt as reliable as the rising of the sun.  We had these things until the day she passed, and with my grandpa, we still have them.

That’s the other thing about my grandma: you can hardly begin a sentence about her without including my grandfather in the thought.  After an epic 67 year marriage, it’s easy to see why we all view them as one entity, one soul with two bodies.  They have always been the pillars of our family, quietly exhibiting their selfless love for one another and for us.  When I think about it now, I realize I’ve been a student in the greatest marriage class ever taught.

No one talks about the end of a marriage, do they?  The end is much quieter, much more private.  There aren’t invitations sent, locations booked, and dresses purchased like there is at the beginning.  There isn’t loud music and public proclamations of love.  Toasts aren’t given, presents are not sent.

Watching my grandfather care for my grandmother for the last couple of months, I learned that devotion isn’t proved on the wedding day, not at all.  Devotion is proved when the husband is staying up all night with his wife as she battles her weakening body.  It’s proved when he attends to her every need, sacrificing to make her as comfortable as possible.  It’s moving toward her, not away, when her mobility shrinks from just quick car trips, to just inside the house, to just the living room, to just this chair.  Devotion and love are being present, every day and every night, until the moment comes when the Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant, I’ll take it from here.”

That’s exactly what my grandfather did: he cared for my grandmother every day for 67 years, and he was holding her hand when she passed.  It’s something untouchable, something so remarkable that everyone in my family is still standing in awe.  Because what more can you ask for, really?  What more can there be in life than to share another person’s entire existence, and then usher them into heaven?

2009 at my cousin Amy's wedding

The magnitude of her life and their love is what makes writing about it so complex.  No words can ever do it justice, no essay can capture all her days and the relationships she shared.  I feel especially inadequate when I consider that I’m only able to record one of her relationships, because it’s the only one I was a part of — her relationship with me.  Sitting down to write about that is like trying to write about what it feels like to have sight — how can you describe something if you’ve never not had it?  Since I’ve had my grandma from the beginning of my life, how can I explain what my life with her was like? 

I suppose the best I can do is explain how it feels not to have her now, which is like not having sight, I suppose, because everything is a little darker.  She’s only been gone a month, so I think of things I need to call and tell her, and then I remember that I can’t.  Her absence is incredibly surreal, and it pains me to think of the things I won’t get to experience with her: having kids, visiting her, and creating future memories.  Missing her creates a visceral ache that rises quickly to the surface at the slightest provocation, but it’s an ache that is always welcome because I’d rather miss her intensely than not think of her at all.

2010 all four of their children together: Deb, Beth, Alyson and Jimmy

So I will.  I will think of her, I will talk to her, and I will wait for the day when I’ll see her again.  I know for her it will pass in the blink of an eye, and that comforts me more than I can say.  For the rest of us, time will move much more slowly.  But that’s okay, because I know she wants me to live my life, and love my husband, and laugh out loud, and hug my future children, and wear pretty things, and spend time with my parents, and serve others, and drink a glass of rose, and travel the world and thank the Lord I get to do it at all.  She, along with my grandfather and parents, is the reason I have life in the first place, so the best way to honor her is to live it, and live it well. 

Meema, here’s to living a life that would make you proud.

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