Last night, my grandmother passed away.
It was a quiet passing; my dad says that she’d slipped into a comatose state, and died about twenty-four hours later. She was exactly one month short of her ninety-ninth birthday.
We started losing her a while ago, though. Her memory became less and less sharp until she lost most of her short-term memory, and the most recent of the long-term stuff began to disintegrate as well. She ceased recognising people. She had to ask over and over who my dad was when he flew out to visit her.
When I was little, she kept two very special things in her handbag for me to play with if we had to wait somewhere. One was tiny crocheted blue doll with a silky printed Asian-style face, and the other was a tape measure. Oh, that tape measure. I don’t recall the colour, but it was one of the cased ones that would lock when you stopped pulling the tape, and had a button to press when you wanted to retract the tape again. It fascinated me, and scared me a little too, because the tape would snap back pretty sharply. My mother had regular cotton tape measures, so this one was extra-special. When I bought my first retractable tape measure last year, I was pretty excited to own one of my very own. I think of her every time I use it.
I can’t find the box with all my photo albums in it. When my parents went out to Vancouver to help her downsize in preparation for eventually moving into the care home, my dad couriered me a box full of photo albums and keepsakes. She’d kept a series of albums with pictures of me from birth onward. I found one to include below in a box of my own photos, so that will have to do for now.
She worked at the Valois library for a time (possibly when it was first opened?), right around the corner from where I now have my orchestra rehearsals, and around the corner from where friends now live. One of the houses my dad’s family lived in was right around the corner from the apartment blocks where I lived for several years in Dorval, too. She was always tickled to know I was living steps away from where she’d lived, decades and decades before.
She lived in West Vancouver for most of my life, though, with my granddad until he passed away when I was a teenager. We visited them about once a year, though. They lived in an apartment building that had an elevator and a pool, both very exciting to a small child. When we visited, I used to love paging through her huge hardcover Royal Doulton figurine collectible book, sitting next to her tea cart. You could look right out over the water from the windows of their apartment, and walk along the seawalk to the little beaches, where we’d sort through rocks and driftwood. Some days we’d go to Ambleside Park and feed the ducks, which was always terrific fun. Right at the base of the apartment building we could sit and wave at the Royal Hudson as it steamed by in the morning, and the engineers would wave back. (When I was older I finally got to ride the Royal Hudson on its excursion up to Squamish.) My first trip alone as an unaccompanied minor was flying out to see them when I was in high school.
My gran was always there for my graduations (and probably most of the plays I was in, too, although I don’t remember), right at the front, snapping photos with her camera. While I smile at it now, it was mortifying at the time. (Notably, she left the lens cap on at my high school grad ceremony, so it was all for naught.) She followed me around the dance floor at my high school grad dance and snapped photos, too. There’s a hilarious one of me with my head twisted away and my poor date caught looking open-mouthed at the camera. She thought it was just wonderful that I danced a box waltz for a while with one of my friends, too; fortunately that escaped photographic immortalization, because we were both staring at our feet and counting. This is Gran and I at my graduation from John Abbott College in the spring of 1990.
For my high school graduation, she took me on a cruise to Mexico. Somewhere (probably with that box of photo albums) is the souvenir album we put together, full of formal shipboard photos, maps, tour flyers, and various other memorabilia. The cruise experience was probably mostly wasted on a painfully shy and socially terrified barely-sixteen-year-old like myself, but it was my first time outside of Canada or the United States, and I did love the sun and the sea, and seeing the historic sites the tours took us to.
When I turned… sixteen? eighteen? Anyway, one of those, she gave me the ruby ring she’d had made after I was born (the ruby is my birthstone). I wore it for years and years, although now it lives in my jewellery box. A couple of years after Sparky was born, she sent me her sapphire ring, as well, which lives in my jewellery box because it’s absolutely enormous (the stones, not the band) and again, where would I wear it? (I’m rather minimalist when it comes to jewellery, in case you hadn’t figured it out.) When I graduated from university (the first time, so after my BA), she gave me her pearl necklace. I love their shade of aged ivory; I’ve never worn them, though, because I’m terrified I’d lose them. (Besides, where would I wear all these; the grocery store?)
Also in that box of albums and memorabilia were stacks of programmes from my various theatre performances. I can’t remember which she saw and which she didn’t — Dad used to send her copies of the ones she couldn’t fly down to see — but she kept absolutely everything. She had a slightly crazy-making habit of underlining our names in printed materials. I have her copy of a privately printed large family history book called The Book of Menzies (also known as the “Red and White Book of Menzies,” written in 1894 by D.P. Menzie, the original printing limited to 100 copies; it belonged to her grandfather, one of the original subscribers who funded the book) in which she’s underlined several names. (She also used awful, cheap, sticky tape to helpfully mend part of the spine. My antiquarian book-lover side cringes at both.) I sent a signed and inscribed copy of each of my books to her as they were published; I wonder if she underlined my name on those title pages? Gran passed her copies of Emily Carr’s series of books on to me when I was an early teenager, which introduced me to a very different idea of Canada and Canadian art (yes, before I discovered the Group of Seven).
About ten years ago, I tried to record a couple of orchestra concerts for her, but my poor minidisc recorder was just too overwhelmed by the amount of noise and it never worked properly. But on one trip out to see her, my parents took her to the local library and set her up at a computer terminal. She fussed, because she had no idea why they were doing it. But then Dad brought up the link to one of the videos someone had made of one of our concerts, and gave her the headphones. When he told her who it was and pointed me out on the screen, she beamed.
The last time I saw her in person was in the summer of 2007, when Sparky was two years old and we all went to visit my parents so she could meet him. When Dad last showed her a picture of us, some time after Owlet had been born, she said, “Oh, what lovely children!”, but she didn’t understand that they were her great-grandchildren. Whenever I’d suggest sending her a current photo, my parents would quietly say, “Don’t bother. She doesn’t know. She can’t remember.” Telling her who everyone in the photograph was would entail an awful lots of explaining and backstory, and it was challenging enough to explain who my mum and dad were when they went to see her.
The saying I will forever associate with her in various forms is “You can take your education everywhere; no one can take your education away from you.” She repeated this frequently, with various wordings. She thought it was just great that I kept on going to school and collecting diplomas. It alternately amused me and made me want to roll my eyes. I loved my gran, but she exasperated me a lot, too. The generational gap was just so large, and the way she saw the world was not the way I saw it. She also gushed a lot, and I am very bad at handling gushing, particularly when it is directed at me.
I know that she was very frustrated and angry with life when her memory started to erode, and who can blame her? I remember feeling relieved when my mother told me Gran had reached a point where she was living almost entirely in the moment, just admiring the same flowers in the park over and over as they encountered them while they walked around the park. This post has been hard, not because I’ve lost someone dear to me, but because I no longer know that person. Or rather, the person who I knew and loved was gone long ago, and I’ve been able to mourn that loss bit by bit as my parents return from visits and update me on her decline. I’m grateful for the time we were able to spend together throughout her life, and for the opportunities she enabled me to have.
I am so very glad that she is at peace now.