Last week my Grandmother, Elizabeth, died. She was 97 and a half.
I made a trip back to Pittsburgh with my cousin Erin to say goodbye to her. It was only fitting that we went together since, as children, we said goodbye to her husband, Pap, as a team.
Gram had a hard life. She was born to immigrant parents in a coal mining town, only went to school for a few years, and lived in poverty for most of her young life. There was not much glamor or glory in her life and her existence was, for the most part, hardscrabble.
Losing Gram closes a door on a very special part of my childhood. My cousin and I spent much time with Gram and Pap as children. A week at her house, just the two of us, was our favorite vacation. She’d let us drink coffee (really it was milk, lots of sugar, and a touch of joe — delicious!). Gram would make donuts for us and always give us a piece of dough to shape into our own before frying them. She made the best homemade noodles. In her little town, we had the freedom to walk to the store and buy candy or slush puppies. Erin and I loved to go watering at the cemetery — the old graves with the strange names captivated us. We’d walk the tracks in the evening with Pap and go to church with him on Sundays. We felt special up in the choir loft, cozying up to him while he sang along with his deep voice. Gram would take us visiting — we’d walk down the street and visit her cousins or her sister and sit in strange houses. They’d sometimes speak Slavik which neither Erin or I understood. We’d while our time away, swinging our legs while sitting on hard chairs and nibbling cookies, until it was time to skip back down the street, back to Grams bright house and big yard. Avella, the town Gram lived in, was magical and fun to us.
Going back for her funeral and seeing Avella as an adult was so starkly different than how I viewed it as a child. Now, I see poverty and harshness where once I saw excitement and mystery and comfort. I realize how difficult life must have been for Gram but I also know there was love and joy there. Gram was happy when Erin and I were there. She smiled and made us feel loved and cared for. I know her life was not so happy at all times. Pap died almost thirty years ago and Gram missed him every single day — she bemoaned that she still lived — every single day. She was a harsh woman in many ways — it would be nearly impossible to not be given the struggles she had — but I knew nothing but soft and sweet kindness from her.
As I said goodbye to Gram, I vowed to look below the surface of places and people. A town that is depressing or run down is still a town that may harbor a heart of joy in a child. A person that is mean and spiteful contains a soft spot for someone special. I truly feel that Erin and I were that soft spot for Gram. She was greatly loved by us and will be greatly missed.