Jessie McKinney, my grandmother and my children's great grandmother, died on the afternoon of Sunday, November 27th.
She was dearly loved and will be greatly missed. We are so grateful for her life, and especially for this past year that she lived close by so that we could see her as often as we did.
I have a hard time remembering what she was like exactly when I was younger. I will never forget the kind of woman she was as she left this world, though. Meek, gentle, patient, gracious, long-suffering, and strong in spirit.
When I would enter the main room of her nursing home, she was always there in her wheelchair participating in activities or having a meal. Her eyes would land on us, light up, and a smile would break out over her face. I would herd the kids over to her side, and hug her and and ask her how she was feeling. She always said, "Oh fine!". I know that that was only sometimes the truth, but she wasn't one to go on and on about her aches and pains, at least not to me.
I would first ask her if she'd like to hold Maddie, and the answer was always "Yes, please!" with eager arms outstretched. (The women nearby her would watch with envy!) We would stay for each visit as long as the kids were able, Maddie perched on her lap, Robbie telling Jessie about preschool or his trains, Ellie playing near her feet.
I would play referee, lend a supportive hand if Maddie was getting squirmy, and try to keep the kids entertained and relatively quiet. In between all of this, I kept my phone out and took as many pictures as I could. I'm so glad I have these sweet memories, even the washed-out, pea-soup looking ones, and the blurry ones because I'm wrangling a child with one hand while I capture tender moments with the other. (Motherhood is a balancing act, at all times.)
I want to record as much as I can remember here about my grandmother. I want my kids to know all they can about the family they come from, and the way we are all connected and a part of one another. I am the person that I am partially because of my own mother, and partially because of my grandmother. In the same way, everyone else I am related to has affected me and contributed to my vast bank of memories, helped form my character, displayed qualities I admire and aspire to, and played a large part in my life.
And so, the rest of this post is really for my family and I, my children and their children someday.
When I was little, my parents would take us to each of our grandparents' houses over the holidays. And not just the major ones! My childhood was filled with car trips to Indiana, seeing as how we were the only members of either side of my parents' families that moved away and lived in Chicago. Family has always been very important.
My grandma Jessie lived with my grandpa John (who is deceased) on a beautiful piece of land in Cicero, Indiana. From my perspective as a child, their home was beautiful and warm and familiar. My grandmother worked for many years as a realtor and my grandpa sold water softeners (and at one point something to do with the equipment used by dairy farmers, I believe). They loved to travel and so throughout their home were treasures from their trips - large conch shells in the bathroom, wicker baskets and trinkets on shelves from far away islands, maps behind glass on the walls. I knew where she kept the photo albums and as I got older I remember she would let me look through them and tell me about her adventures. The front living room looked out over the front yard, and across the way was the neighbor who kept horses. Once they let us ride them, and I secretly dug my heel into the horse's ribs trying to get it to go faster as we walked in a circle while the neighbor held the horse on a long rope. It was in that front yard that my grandpa John drove us in circles on his snowmobile, with each of us bundled up so that we could barely move or see. In the summer, on the side of this yard was a grapevine that they tended to, and I remember my first taste of a real (concord?) grape when they let us pick and eat some. The grape's thick skin, the sloppy slimy flesh and - surprise! - the huge seed that you had to spit out. Tricky. Although the process of eating them wasn't particularly pleasant to me, I remember popping them into my mouth repeatedly because of the sweet flavor. Even now when I have concord grapes, I go right back to my grandparent's front yard in my mind.
The garage of a home usually doesn't hold many memories, but my theirs did. When I was the only grandchild, they set up a swingset inside the garage - I think it might have been a Christmas present. One year they bought my brother one of those motorized kid's cars that looked like a roadster and we drove it around in the garage (again, wintertime). They had a dog named Brownie and a few cats at different times that made their home in there. Their long driveway stretched to the corner of a country road that bordered a corn field, and I know we set fireworks off many times in that driveway. Images of my dad, uncle Jim and grandpa John lighting things and then laughing and running like mad away from whatever was about to explode or shoot up into the sky always make their way to the forefront of my mind on the 4th of July, wherever I am. The women were usually huddled behind lawn chairs with protective arms around us kids.
The yard in the back of the house was where my fondest memories were made.
The family room and kitchen windows looked out over this part of their property, where the grass was always an impossible shade of kelly green and the land sloped down to the bed of a creek (pronounced "crick", please). Morse Reservoir is the actual body of water.
There was a small area off the creek where they kept a paddle boat and canoe, and a squared off "U" surrounded this little inlet of water. They had made a sort of wooden pier bordering this U-shape that always had snakes beneath it. I remember being petrified of going down by the creek without my grandparents or parents nearby because of the snakes that would always poke their heads up at us. My brother taught me how to jab long sticks at their heads to kill them, and as we got older it was more of a game. There was a bed of fairly large rocks between the grass and the water, and my grandparents had old elementary school chairs that they would drag out for us to sit on and we would fish off those rocks. (Mainly something my brother and grandpa would do.) In the evenings, a fire would be built down there and we had "Weenie Roasts" for dinner - hot dogs, sides my grandma had made, and of course roasted marshmallows for s'mores for dessert. I can't cook a hot dog over a campfire without thinking about those weenie roasts. We would haul everything back into my grandpa's barn/shed and use the golf cart they kept on the property to take everything else back up to the house. I grew up thinking that those black u-shape things on the back of golf carts were made to be kid's seats. *Apparently they are for golf bags.
Whenever we visited them, my grandmother would have the kitchen stocked with food especially for us. Macaroni and Cheese (always "Deluxe" or "Shells", a welcomed deviation from Kraft! ha)... chips and snacks that we liked, juice boxes, those mini individual sized cereal boxes (prompting fights over who got the Cocoa Krispies). And always, ALWAYS, a bright pink box tied up with white string from Roslyn's bakery, filled with whatever seasonal pastries and cookies they thought we would like. My grandmother always let me help her in the kitchen, and I remember really enjoying that. I also remember the way her butter (the real thing) tasted different than the kind we used at home (Country Crock). I much preferred hers, even back then, and now that I'm older I know why and often think of her when I taste that true, rich flavor on green beans or warm bread the way she served it. Her cooking and her butter live on in my kitchen.
The afternoons at grandma and grandpa's house were good for naps, and when we woke up we all would snack on something salty and drink something sweet to hold us over until dinnertime. Usually chips and coke, a snack I love to this day. We played a lot of cards, built a lot of forts, and watched the evening news under wool blankets. I was often allowed to explore my grandma's bathroom and loved pawing my way through her makeup bag, nailpolish drawer, and toiletries, trying things along the way. She often let me in on her cold cream ritual at bedtime, which I am realizing as I type is such a thing of the past!
Sleeping arrangements were always fun there - sometimes my brother and I got to push the pieces of their sectional together to make one huge bed for the two of us. Other times I got to sleep in my grandma's bed with her. Wherever our pillows would land for the night, there would be a 'pillow present' beneath to help us get excited for bedtime. When we were little they were dollar-trinkets. Once when I was visiting them without my parents, I scored big time and was given Debbie Gibson 'Electric Youth' perfume. *Seared into my memory! Grandma Jessie always knew what was cool or figured out what we were into. I would typically have trouble falling asleep and would lie there for a while in my grandma's bed, that lone streetlamp on the edge of the field by the driveway shining through the window just over our heads, the sound of my grandmother snoring as her stomach made funny gurgling noises. I hope that's not a terrible thing to say - I want to remember that detail because MY STOMACH DOES THE SAME THING... NOW! Rob is always like, 'Why is your stomach churning? It's keeping me awake!' and I have no idea, it's not like it's upset every night. I definitely get this from my grandma. Along with my slightly longer-than-usual ears and pointy nose. Things you would choose? Not necessarily. But because I can trace them back to my grandmother? I embrace these traits and quirky things about myself, honored in a funny way by them.
I had my first taste of coffee (with plenty of cream and sugar) in their house at breakfast once, I was given tickets to my first concert (Amy Grant!) when we celebrated my 8th (?) birthday on their back patio, and my legs stayed skinny as a kid for all the running up and down that massive, steep hill in the back yard. I learned how to blow a snot rocket on the frozen creek one winter (thanks to grandpa John) and can spot a Buckeye and Weeping Willow for all of the little trips down the creek we made in the canoe in the summertime. I have a deep appreciation for country roads and quiet rural settings, and some of my nighttime dreams to this day recollect not only the land my grandparents owned but the fun things we did together there. It is all a really big part of me.
I think that is part of the reason why my grandmother's death has been so sad for me. My grandparents and the place they lived and now the memories we continued to make (with her here in Wheaton) all stop and begin to fade. Yet another precious person out of the very small group that has known me since my birth is gone, taking with her knowledge and memories of me that few if any others have. A part of us dies when someone we know and love who has known and loved us passes away. We invested in each other's lives, my grandma Jessie and I... across the span of many years and in many different ways. Although we have finally lost her physically, all of this is not lost on me.
During what would be our final visit with her, unbeknownst to me at the time, the 5 of us (the kids, Jessie and I) played with balloons in a side room at the nursing home. It was one of our longest visits, and as the kids started to play under the table together and as Jessie fed Maddie a bottle, I began to remind her of all of the memories we had made - or rather that she had made for us - at her home in Cicero. *I am so glad that I had the opportunity to have this conversation with her... for this visit from beginning to end. With each "You used to do this-and-this for us!", she would get wide-eyed and say "Oh, really!? You know, I don't remember that at all." and I would say "That's ok! Yes, you did that for us and it was so fun and special.". At first I wondered if it would make her sad to pile up memory after memory that she wasn't familiar with anymore, but with each story I told to her of the way she loved and cared for us, I saw something fill her eyes. Not recognition or pride, but a sense of satisfaction maybe. That although she couldn't recall the life she had lived, I could. And it seemed to be enough - that I was the one who held the memories, not her... that I was telling her that everything she had done and who she had been to me was enough to make a child feel loved and a grown grandchild feel capable because of what I had been taught by both her and the daughter she had raised, my mother... that she had provided so much for us at one time, even though the roles had reversed somewhere along the way.
Although there is so much sadness in the loss of my grandmother - from simply losing someone you've known and loved all your life, to watching your mother have to say goodbye to her own mother, to knowing that your children will no longer make memories with her and might not actually remember her as they grow older - there is a sweetness that comes from the memories we do have with her. I am thankful that God granted her peace and the absence of pain in the final moments of her life. It was a quiet end to a full life, one that I am so thankful to have been a part of and witness to.