On Life: Saying Goodbye
Last month, my brother and I drove to Cleveland to visit my grandmother. At 98, she has been living with my aunt and uncle since March so as not to be alone during quarantine. She has spent her time reading, knitting hats to donate to hospitals for newborn infants, and baking. Before that time, she lived in the house where my mother grew up. Fiercely independent, she has lived on her own since my grandfather passed away in the early 1980s, never remarrying or even dating. She worked well past retirement age and refused to call her boss anything but Mr. Schneider, even though they had known each other since the 1940s. Her passion for cooking and, especially, baking has never waned. A trip to Cleveland isn't complete unless we come home with a package of baked goods. She deems many of her culinary creations unworthy of guests, so they are stored in Tupperware labeled "Not Fit For Company." Only her family gets to enjoy these discarded pastries and cakes that taste as good as any dessert sold at a bakery. She still owns her car, and while she doesn't drive on the highway, she makes frequent trips to her local grocery store and runs other nearby errands. She refused to have a ramp built to help her enter her home, and stubbornly rejected her walker until the past few years. She never complains and rarely asks for help, and above all, she puts her family before herself.
I have been coming to Cleveland my whole life. I've loved every trip, and as a child, our visits were as exciting to me as a trip to Disney World. I was deeply offended when, in elementary school, a schoolmate responded to my announcement that I was going to Cleveland by sticking out his tongue and saying, "Ew. The Mistake on the Lake." He obviously did not share my appreciation for the tree-lined suburbs of Beachwood, the beautiful houses of Shaker Heights, the winding roads that lead to picturesque Chagrin Falls. He had never driven down Brainard Rd. in the summer when baskets overflowing with vibrant petunias hang from the lampposts. The diversity and culture of Cleveland remind me of a larger city like Chicago. But my favorite place in all of Cleveland is my grandmother's home. I've lived many places in my 46 years of life, but her home has been the one constant, the one place that has never changed.
Homes have always been important to me. The feeling you get when you enter a dwelling, that first impression, leaves a lasting impact. The first time my husband and I saw the house where we now live, I knew immediately it was where I wanted to raise my family. Walking into my grandmother’s home is like walking into a warm hug. Stepping through her front door fills me with a sense of nostalgia. The way the sunlight filters through the large front windows, the ornate antique furniture that occupies her rooms, the walls that display family photos through the years, the porcelain figurines and old books that line her shelves, the hazy light in the back bedrooms where my brother, cousins and I once played, the lingering aroma of years and years of baking. . . all of these sensations and memories hit me when I step over the threshold.
As a child, one of my favorite stories was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. It tells the story of a well-loved country home that remains the same through the passing seasons, even as the city is built up around it. Driving into my grandmother's neighborhood reminds me of this cherished childhood book. Most of the mid-century ranches that were once new have been replaced by mini mansions. And there, nestled on a corner lot, is my grandmother's home, the same as it was when my family first moved in.
Every corner of my grandmother’s home holds memories. I remember the little hill that separated her house from her neighbor's; my cousins and I would roll down that hill when we were younger, grass staining our clothes. Her vast back yard used to be surrounded by large trees that have since died and been taken down. We used to climb their branches and lean against their trunks. Within their border, on summer evenings, we played Kick-the-Can and chased fireflies. Within the walls of my grandmother's home, we played Hide-and-Seek. Her halls still echo with our shouts of “olly olly oxen free!” I always sought my favorite hiding spots . . . in the foyer closet behind the musty coats and my grandfather's old army uniform. Or in the corner of her living room, behind the table I used to pretend was a Moroccan castle for my Barbies.
Over the years, I brought friends with me to Cleveland. My middle-school best friend and I lay awake in the bed we shared, talking about boys and our first periods. In college, I came with one of my best friends to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We shared a love of music, and in my grandmother's home, we listened to CDs of the Beatles and U2 and Pink Floyd and the Eagles. Years later, when my youngest daughter was a baby, one of my oldest friends was interviewing for a fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic. Naturally, I drove to see her, to introduce her to my daughter, and together we stayed up reminiscing in the bedrooms I once slept in as a child.
So many traditions were created in my grandmother's home. On the weekends my family came to visit, my grandmother made spaghetti and meat sauce for Friday night dinner. The family sat around the large dining room table long after the sun had set. When I was little, I liked to crawl under the table and pretend I was sitting in an elaborate tent, the lace of my grandmother's tablecloth transformed into the tent's roof and the ornate lion-footed legs the tent's pillars. When I outgrew that, I'd sit on the floor in front of her old TV while the adults talked politics and business, watching episodes of Full House while snacking on the canister of Planter’s Cheese Ballz my grandmother kept in her liquor cabinet. Saturday nights were a special time for my grandmother to spend with her grandchildren. My parents usually went out with friends, so my grandmother babysat my brother, cousins and me. We would either go to eat at Yours Truly, an old-fashioned diner where you could get breakfast all day, or order big juicy burgers and the best milkshakes and malts. We would then go to the movies, where we filled up on popcorn and sweets. I saw the original Muppet Movie, The Last Unicorn, and A Christmas Story with my grandmother. Other times we would stay at home and bake. My grandmother was always patient with us no matter how much of a mess we made in her kitchen, and she let us lick batter from the bowls and mixing spoons. Our weekends ended with a Sunday brunch for the whole family. Waking up in the morning, I was greeted with the smell of oil and the sizzle of butter as she prepared her famous challah French toast. Each weekend was magical, and I never wanted to leave.
When I became a mother, I introduced this magic to my own daughters. Every summer, my mother and I brought them to Cleveland to spend a "girls" week with my grandmother and aunt. My memories of this summer respite are filled with lazy mornings around my grandmother's kitchen table, sipping coffee while my daughters watched cartoons, and quiet evenings on my grandmother's deck watching my girls run through the sprinkler in her large yard. My girls thought the Beachwood community pool was better than any waterpark. They delighted in the lazy river and splashing fountains, eventually braving the larger water slides and jumping off the diving boards. We picnicked on Corky and Lenny's corned beef, potato latkes, and pickles in the adjacent park. This tradition lasted until my oldest was a sophomore in high school. By that time, she was busy with her own summer plans, and my youngest had begun to spend a month each summer at sleepaway camp. But they carry with them the memories of their Cleveland summers and the precious time they spent with their great-grandmother.
Perhaps my most cherished memories are of the Thanksgivings we spent in Cleveland. This has always been my favorite time of year, one I looked forward to with much excitement and anticipation. When my brother and I were children, my parents broke up the drive by leaving Cincinnati on Tuesday and stopping overnight in Columbus. My brother and I always felt like we were on vacation, staying at first at the Columbus Holidome, then later at the Marriott, swimming in their indoor pools while it snowed outside and delighting in the fact that our friends were still in school. We stayed in our pajamas for most of Thanksgiving Day, watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade and sampling the food my grandmother had started preparing before daylight. Family arrived around 4:00, and we ate hors d’oeuvres (pigs in a blanket and my grandmother’s famous baked cheese puffs) while football played on the TV. By the time dinner was served, we were usually full, but there was always room for the noodle kugel, stuffing, and ribbon Jell-o that accompanied the turkey. And of course, the desserts . . . Oh, the desserts! Between courses, we played games of Pictionary, Taboo, and other board games. My brother and cousin wove through the family with their camcorder, interviewing everyone and asking what they were grateful for that year. At the end of the night, they ranked that year’s Thanksgiving to others that had come before, bursting into giggles and hamming for the camera. No other holiday meant as much to me. I know now how grateful I am for those 40+ years of amazing memories, of the time spent in her bustling home filled with extended family, laughter echoing through the rooms, table laden with food, rich aromas drifting through the air, and above all, love.
Last summer, while my daughter spent a week at Kent State, I stayed at my grandmother's house. It was just the two of us. It hadn't been that way since I spent the summers with her when I was younger. I took long walks through her neighborhood in the mornings. We drank tea in the afternoon and played many games of Spinner. At the time, I was working with my publisher on the final edits of my novel, and during those quiet afternoons I spread out my manuscript on my grandmother’s table, working on my draft while my grandmother baked or read or sat knitting. I told her of my dreams for myself and my writing. I told her of my husband’s hard work at his job, of my hopes and worries for my daughters. We talked for hours. In the silence, we shared long peaceful moments together just being. The quiet in my grandmother’s home makes me feel like I’ve stepped back in time. She doesn’t have Wi-Fi and her televisions had to be specially adapted for cable. The décor is still very much what it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the peace I feel here, the way I can reconnect with myself, is something I can’t quit explain. Summers are sweeter here, the windows open to let in the breeze off Lake Erie. Winters, though cold, are serene landscapes of snow and tranquility. Her rooms have seen cribs and sleeping beds and inflatable mattresses. Her closets still hold the dolls and toys from my youth. The little wooden rocker I once sat in is now covered in stickers and marked up by crayons, but my own daughters and nephews rocked in it when they were toddlers. Her old wallpaper has been stripped and her paint color has changed, but the bones of the house remain the same, as does the feeling I have whenever I am here.
Last weekend, my brother and I drove to Cleveland again. This time, we had received word that my grandmother’s health had deteriorated and she was in hospice. She was back in her own home for her final days. My parents drove up immediately when we received the news, and now we were joining them. Most of our car ride was quiet. I spent the time looking out the window, reminiscing. I recalled so many special moments and little details. They flooded my mind and wrenched at my heart.
I remembered the cakes my grandmother used to bake for my birthday. Each one had a doll in the center that I could keep as a prize. The detailed piping of the frosted skirt and bodice were evidence of my grandmother's deft hand at icing. Later, she made these special cakes for my own daughters.
I remembered playing with my grandmother’s makeup, and the many times she saved her samples for me when I was a teenager. I loved to rummage through the drawers of her antique vanity, exclaiming over new lipsticks and blushes and eye shadows as though finding buried treasures. I still have a collection of her free make-up cases.
I remembered the summers I spent with my grandmother when I was in middle school, enjoying long afternoons sitting in the hammock outside reading Sweet Valley High and V.C. Andrews novels. On my first solo visit, I was supposed to fly home, but I locked myself in the airport bathroom, too afraid to step onto the plane. I felt guilty at all the trouble I caused my grandmother that long-ago day, and chuckled when I remembered how, the following summer, I took a door-to-door van service home.
I remembered the time my parents went on a cruise and my grandmother stayed with my brother and me. At night, we heard a rustling and banging in our garage. I hid behind my grandmother's tiny frame as she opened the door with a baseball bat in her hand. Any burglar would have laughed at the sight. To our surprise and relief, the perpetrator was a stray raccoon that my grandmother shooed away from our trash cans.
I remembered one visit to Cleveland when we saw a rainbow arch across the sky, and my grandmother packed my brother, cousins, and I into the car to try and find the elusive rainbow’s end.
I remembered when my grandmother joined us on a trip to California, sitting between me and my brother as my family drove along the winding coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego, stopping at Hearst castle and visiting relatives along the way.
I remembered the weekend my mother and I flew to meet my aunt and grandmother in Toronto for a "Girls' Only" weekend. We toured the city, ate at the finest restaurants, and stayed up late into the night talking and laughing in our hotel room. Years later, we spent a similar weekend in Columbus to celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday.
I remembered the butterflies in my stomach when my husband proposed. He held up a small velvet case that held a delicate engagement ring. The small diamond was set in a platinum band and surrounded by beveled stones. As I threw my arms around him, he told me that my grandmother had sent the stone from her own engagement ring for him to give to me. Her diamond still sits on my finger.
I remembered how my grandmother and aunt immediately jumped into the car when they heard I was in labor, arriving in Cincinnati in time to be there for the birth of my first daughter. And how, seven months later, my grandmother flew to Palm Dessert where we were attending a wedding, just so she could babysit her great-granddaughter.
I remembered all the spring breaks when we took my daughters to Naples, Florida to spend days by the pool and on the beach with our Cleveland family. My grandmother sat in her wide brimmed hat and sunglasses, watching the activity around her and soaking up the sun.
I remembered the recent 4th of Julys when the Cleveland family came to visit. We spent the afternoon around my parents' pool, swimming and grilling out, then ended the night on their deck watching the fireworks over Landen Lake.
So many memories came to mind, and I’m sure many more will surface, rising like bubbles to pop in bursts of bittersweet nostalgia.
Pulling into my grandmother’s driveway, I am saddened to see the nameplate hanging from her lamppost. The Kahn Family. It has been 62-years that my grandmother has lived in that house. She and my grandfather moved in when my mother was just in elementary school. Now it is just her. Soon it will be empty.
I cherish these last days with my grandmother, these moments to sit by her bed and hold her hand. I know that, in the near future, we will have to say goodbye, but that doesn’t mean we have to say goodbye to all the wonderful memories. These memories will live on in our photos and our family gatherings, in the memories my own children carry with them of their great-grandmother. These memories will be shared and passed down to future generations. This little plot of land in Beachwood Ohio will always have a special place in my heart. And my grandmother, our family matriarch, a woman who means so much to so many people, will live on forever in our minds and hearts. As we reach the end of an era, I want to thank my grandmother for the love and unconditional support she has always given us, and hope she knows how loved she is in return.