My Grandmother

Mona Fern Clements
April 6, 1923 – November 29, 2011

I am unable to do anything with that box of text above, which I copied instead of writing down the date. In a way that is very appropriate, since this is the obituary for my grandmother, who was also very stubborn, to the point of her own detriment. I looked at her obituary in the San Diego paper today and that was all that was there, basically just the dates and her name. No one had signed her visitor’s book. I hadn’t thought to look for it. Everything was done so quickly we didn’t know about the interment until it had already been done.

I didn’t know my grandmother very well. My sisters and I were her only grandchildren. She did have a great-grandchild before she died, but was unable to see her–logistics and all that. I know she often disapproved of the way my parents chose to live–a sort of hippy-ish lifestyle, joining VISTA and Peace Corps. I think she thought my middle sister and I were going to be little monsters or something along those lines. I particularly remember two incidents when I was younger (very young, under or around 10) that I know shocked her. One, stating that I needed to “take a leak,” and two, saying that I wanted to be a pig. She was extremely upset by that one, which I didn’t understand at all. She said, drawing herself up to her full height, “We do NOT talk about police officers that way.” (this was in the mid 1970’s). I don’t think she realized I meant an actual pig, or which would have worried her more.

I stayed with her for a week about five years ago when she had just come out of the hospital. I subjected her to marathons of Law & Order (which, in retrospect, was pretty bossy of me, which my middle sister will say I’m very capable of being). She still remembered it, though, because one of the last times I talked to her, she mentioned it. I almost think she enjoyed it, sort of. I hope.

She was very traditional in many ways. Most ways. She came to my wedding. Then wanted to know when I was going to have children, when I had already told everyone I wasn’t planning on having children. She was disappointed when I got divorced, but still held out hope. If I was with someone for longer than around seven months or so she’d start asking if I was going to get married again. I would just tell her I didn’t know.

I know some things about her earlier life. She worked at Sears Roebuck as a telephone operator, one of the ones that actually had to take out the little connectors and move them to another little place to plug them in. I can see her doing that. My grandfather retired before her, so we (he, my middle sister and I would meet her after work and go do Long John Silver’s for dinner). I don’t know how she met my grandfather. I don’t know much about her growing up with all of her sisters. I told her when I was there five years ago that she should write it down. She said no one would be interested. I told her I would be. She wouldn’t answer my question about whether or not we had any Jewish ancestry since her maiden name was Fink. She was Baptist. I’m not anything, so I don’t know if that’s a big deal or not, if I committed some grave faux pas. I know it was a generalized question to ask, but I was genuinely curious. What interesting things happened a few generations before I was born?

We had a hard time coming to an agreement on what being vegetarian was. Our conversation went something along these lines:
Her: So you’re a vegetarian now?
Me: I have been for a while, it’s just easier now that I’m not living with someone who isn’t.
Her: So no red meat.
Me: No.
Her: No pork?
Me: No pork. No meat at all. Maybe occasionally some fish. Maybe.
Her: Chicken?
Me: No chicken either, it’s still meat.
Her: What about chicken noodle soup? I make some really good chicken noodle soup.
Me: Well, does it have chicken broth in it?
Her: Does that count as meat?
Me: Yes. It does sound good, though.

Anyway, we pretty much ate our own things when I was there. We went shopping. She drove. I was a little afraid to drive in San Diego, so I let her. I didn’t realize she couldn’t see anything and was simply moving with the traffic around her. It’s not entirely true she couldn’t see things, because she got us where we needed to go and found things on the shelf, so she could obviously see that much. But when I was told after I got home that she had very bad cataracts in both her eyes, I did give a silent blessing we both survived. She did have surgery for that, and could probably see better than me afterward.

One thing, though, that normally doesn’t come up when talking about grandmothers is man, she was one foxy young woman! She was definitely the height of fashion, everything just right. I’ve often wondered why, in obituaries, the pictures that are put in are ones where the person is much, much younger, especially if the person is older, in their 80’s or 90’s. For one thing, They just looked classier when they were younger, and if that’s how they want to be remembered, that’s their choice. If I looked that good in any of my pictures when I was younger, I’d want that one to be the one published as well. Alas, I was never that fashion conscious and was always a very obvious nerd. I had no idea how to be feminine. My grandma though, wow.

I think it’s hard to remember that people who are older now used to be young. They were in their twenties once, full of hopes and dreams for the future. For people of my grandma’s era, it was still possible to achieve a semblance of the “American Dream” that is impossible for the rest of us now. They lived through a true war, a war with a real cause behind it (I’m sure there were other reasons as well, but at least there were some large moral issues as well), not one of these nebulous wars where soldiers are still killed and return with PTSD, etc., to find there are no jobs, and things are a mess. Hopefully a more peaceful mess, at least. WWII veterans are the last veterans to really be recognized as heroes. I should have asked her what she thought of that, since my grandfather, who passed away years earlier than she did, was in the military.

When we were living out in the middle of nowhere when my parents were in VISTA, my grandpa and grandma would always visit, once a year. Comments they made were based on ignorance, I know now, not out of being mean spirited. (e.g. Grandfather commenting on a small Navajo boy playing with some rocks, “Is he making an arrowhead?” That sort of thing.)

My grandma, bless her heart, knew I like cats, so on my birthday she would always send me a card with cats, even if it was meant for a little kid. I actually kind of liked it. She always remembered that about me. Wendy=Cats. She knew I wrote but didn’t really understand what I wrote about. That was OK. She sort of understood my job. My job is hard to explain. Once people do start to understand what I do, they start looking at me like I’m a little crazy for going back every day. They don’t understand that I feel at home there, and like a fish out of water in other settings. It’s like the bumper sticker says, “I’m in my own little world. They like me there.”

In the end, everything was quick, which was good, but it took four months or so to get there, with her in and out of the hospital multiple plus times until she was settled in with Hospice at her home, which is where she wanted to be. Even though she was pretty awful about the way she got there. She was 88, though, and doctors messed up her meds.

I talked to her less than a week before she died, and she sounded happy and perky, glad to be home. One time I called, she was getting a haircut in bed, which she thought was one of the craziest things she’d heard of.

The week I stayed with her, one morning her alarm clock went off, very loudly, since I was in the bedroom across the hallway and my door was shut. She didn’t have her hearing aids in and couldn’t hear a thing. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, and said “Grandma!” fairly loudly several times. Finally I just unplugged it. She didn’t wake up through the whole thing. I had to figure out how to reset it, because she wasn’t sure how to. She did think it was pretty funny. I asked her what she’d do if there was a fire and she couldn’t hear the fire alarm. She didn’t really have an answer.

The truth of it is, I think she’d been wanting to go on for awhile. Her not taking care of herself was her way of hastening the process. I’m sure she believed she’d go to Heaven, however that works in the Baptist tradition. She had faith in that. I don’t know who she wanted to see there. My grandfather, some other relative/s she missed. Others we might not have even known about. If there were any secrets or interesting things about the family, she took them with her.

My mom sent me a bunch of pictures my aunt sent up with a little bit of jewelry and some scarves (she loved to wear scarves). My inheritance from my grandma. I realized today that I hadn’t thought to look and see if there was an obituary in the paper down in San Diego. Only one came up, and it’s exactly what’s listed above. I wish she had written down some of the details of her life. I know there was more to her than just a name and dates. I know some things. My parents and aunt know some things, but what about before they were born, before she was married? Did she have hopes other than to get married and have kids and live in the suburbs? Did she ever want to go to college? What would she have studied? I suppose a lot of women in her generation went to college to meet men (although there were serious students as well). Was she independent and feisty or did she just sort of fall into the traditional role model when she married without protest?

I’ll never know. I do know, though, that I felt something should be written about her somewhere, even if it is just here, where hardly anyone will see it. She was cantankerous, ornery, and just about every other word you can think of in that category near the end until she was home with Hospice. She was horrible at the hospital. She was working against herself and didn’t realize it. She did complain about her mattress being too hard and had a new one the same day. I hope someone there saw past the soup she threw at them and felt a little empathy for her. Nurses are often overlooked, I think, as the ones who really keep things running, and deal with the everyday things like this.

I keep meaning to end and then keep going on. My mom called me earlier today about the pictures, which is, I suppose, what prompted this, and to tell me that was the extent of what I’d be getting. There was money but my parents needed it. I don’t really care, I suppose. It would have been very nice, who couldn’t say that. It’s just so odd to think that someone’s life has been distilled down to pictures, some scarves, and some jewelry. There are my memories, but those are scattered, snatches of things like talking about the red banana tree in the backyard of their house. The ones I wrote about are my favorite ones.

I hope she’s happy and where she wanted to be, not disappointed and demanding a ride back down the escalator. She was stubborn enough. I have it from both sides of my family. And from my mom’s a love of arguing, even if it’s something you don’t believe in, just for the sake of arguing (my great-grandfather, specifically). My great-grandparents knew my grandma, and were also Baptist, so maybe they can argue over things wherever they are, and neither my great-grandfather (who would turn his hearing aids off on purpose so he couldn’t hear us) or my grandma will have to worry about hearing each other.


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