A tribute to Mah

I wanted to write something about her — not filled with platitudes, and not pretending she is suddenly a saint because she is no longer with us — but simply with a whole lot of love and sadness for what we’ve lost. People use many words to describe her — feisty, spunky, witty, independent, stubborn, strong-willed, interesting, forthright, bright. All those things are true, but she was so much more than the woman we saw these past few years.

She loved to play games. When I was younger, we would sit at her dining room table, kitchen lights off, dishes washed, with Jeopardy or the news on TV. We’d probably had catfish and macaroni and cheese, or cheese soufflé and chipped beef gravy (Kerry’s and my favorite) for dinner. Dutch apple pie for dessert. And after bowls of grapefruit and orange sections, meticulously peeled the night before, we would have homemade mush and bacon for breakfast, or maybe cowboy coffee cake, baked in metal ice cube trays. Lunch might be hunky noodle soup, or maybe grilled Havarti sandwiches on thinly-sliced Pepperidge Farms bread. With cut-glass trays of celery and carrot sticks, and big glasses of milk. The chairs we sat on had flowered needlepoint cushions she’d made herself. Moose and Jet, two sweet-tempered, loving black labs who slept under the dining room table, occasionally woke and snuffled our bare ankles. She played Solitaire after she’d worn us out playing Kings in the Corners or Yahtzee. Always frugal, she hated to roll a Yahtzee with sixes. She thought it was much better to get the 50 points from 5 ones, or to roll a large straight in a single roll, but if we happened to get lucky and roll one she wouldn’t hesitate to call us, emphatically, a fink!

The whole time I was growing up, when she lived in her house in Decatur, she was always hot, probably because she worked so hard. All the time. She wore lightweight cotton sleeveless dresses in colorful patterns – flowers and vegetables – that she made herself. She wore many of the same dresses my whole life — they still held together, they still fit, and they still suited her.  Mah hated my long hair being in my face – the very sight of it made her too hot. She fanned herself and pulled her dress away from her body to cool off, but she rarely slowed down. Mom says she used to dread her mother’s visits because she knew how much work they would do — cleaning windows with ammonia, conditioning her antiques with linseed oil, scrubbing and planting and cooking.

Unlike my mother growing up, we didn’t have to wear homemade clothes, but instead got to shop for school clothes with her every summer. We would have to squat, showing the corduroy pants weren’t too tight to sit in, and button the scratchy wool coats, stretching out our arms to show we wouldn’t outgrow the sleeves anytime soon. Dot would sit in his wheelchair outside the entrance to the dressing room and give us a thumbs up or thumbs down, and when we got back to their house we’d put on a fashion show for him.

Mah had pantyhose that were older than I was. She had a penchant for costume jewelry that featured fruit and vegetables (when she wasn’t wearing beautiful “real” jewelry, custom-designed as a gift from her husband or bought in some far-off, exotic locale), and she gravitated towards sky blues and colorful patterns to fill her home. She loved to garden and hated the animals that nibbled on her plants and burrowed under her grass, and went to great lengths to try to foil them. In spite of the animals, the plants would survive, and she would slice bowls full of thin cucumber slivers fresh from the garden, soaked in vinegar with onions, and fill antique pitchers with red, orange, pink and yellow zinnias.

She taught me the difference between the words lay and lie and didn’t hesitate to correct my grammar. (The writer in me thanks her today.) She taught me the Lord’s Prayer one summer when I stayed with her and told me to pray it every night before I went to sleep. I still do, because she’s a force to be reckoned with. She made sure I washed my hands before dinner. She sent me care packages at college, boxes packed tightly with homemade lemon bars and lace cookies and wonderful peanut butter buckeyes. She wrote me long letters on legal pads and encouraged me to do my best (and in Dot’s later years, he signed them after her with a big, scribbled, laborious, emphatic “dot” in place of his name). There were no limits to what I could do, as far as she and Dot were concerned. They managed to make me believe that. And they were so proud of their grandkids and great-grandchildren.

They served as a real-life example of living the American Dream. They grew up in the Depression and had to borrow $50 to start my grandfather’s medical practice. But they were smart, and frugal, and they worked hard to save and invest. She did her nurses’ training at IU, and she defined herself by that, in spite of working very little in that role professionally. But she showed her abilities when she nursed her son Mike throughout his long battle with brain cancer, and again during the 13 years her husband suffered from ALS. Her determination could be seen in the way she got him in and out of bed several times a day, sat him at the table to read the paper (and turned pages for him), cooked for him, fed him, took him places, turned him, bathed him, deciphered his words, and showed her love for him in a selfless, committed way. And she did it all on her own, by choice, because nobody else could do it like she did. Her force of will probably added years to his life. He was strong and loving and wonderful, but she contributed a fierce determination that very few could top.

Which brings me to her marriage. As a granddaughter, I confess to being oblivious to the state of their marriage. As an adult looking back, though, I’m awed by the depths of love that were there. All I truly know, though, is that the force of their relationship was so strong, that to this day, whenever I talk about “her,” I find myself instead talking about “them.” I’ve been doing that here. My grandfather has been gone for 21 years, yet – partly because of her – he still remains somehow present. Just as she will remain present in our thoughts, opinions, and actions.

She taught me a lot about family, about the importance of building a life for them – about loving them, yes, but even more so about giving them the tools they need to succeed. She valued hard work above all else. She was content only when she knew that her family was all safely where they were supposed to be. She could relax when she knew what we were fixing them for dinner. She was one of the most patriotic people I’ve ever known, always mentioning at the top of the list of things for which she is thankful that we get to live in this country. Her husband served as a surgeon in WWII and her son served in Vietnam. She was fascinated by American Indians and I think felt a personal responsibility for the injustices they received. She fretted about politics because she wants there to be something left for her great-grandkids, a country to be proud of, a country that is not in debt, a place to live safely and with the freedom to be educated and to work hard to achieve success. She knew education made a difference in the quality of their lives, so she and Dot helped send people to school (we got a letter last week from another doctor we didn’t know they’d helped), sponsor students overseas, and donate generously to educational institutions. They established college funds for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and she set up a scholarship at Southmont High School to benefit students entering a medical field.

She lived through many hard times, but also good times. I’ve heard stories of tent parties in their yard, scrapple breakfasts, good friends, dancing, dining, entertaining, organizing the medical auxiliary, visiting the nuns at St. Mary’s, and going to the country club. They traveled extensively themselves — to Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, Hong Kong and the Far East, among others — and she traveled to the Holy Land. Her life had been lived, and she was ready to go. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people try to inspire her with stories of Aunt So-and-So or a father-in-law who lived to be 96 or 103 — and I watched her shudder and say how sorry she was. So even though we’re sad today, we rejoice that she finally got her wish. She’s with One who adores her, One who will keep her free from pain, and she is probably dancing with her beloved Willie right now. And I’m so glad for her.

Her daughter and other granddaughter became nurses, I’m sure in part because of the example she showed them. I didn’t get the nursing gene, but I’m realizing I did get something – a dubious honor, maybe, but one I won’t deny. When my friends are frustrated by my independence, my stubbornness, my strong opinions, or my political leanings, well, maybe, just maybe at that point Mah is living on in me. Because she taught me to use my mind. I do have opinions, and they are usually strong ones, and I reserve the right to tell you what I think. On the other hand, I also want to be informed. I may not be the cook she was, and I’m not a gardener or a canner, but I can appreciate a good meal as much as she did. She helped plant in me a love of giving and a desire to help people change their lives. I have a good education and want that opportunity for others. I understand the value of family, and I’ve seen how a strong, determined woman can make a huge difference in many people’s lives. So, although she may not have been perfect, she was an amazing woman, and I’m proud to say I’m her granddaughter.


dina said...

What an incredible woman. What wonderful memories and a beautiful tribute.

Anonymous said...

As usual, what you wrote made me cry. I am sorry I never met her, but I am grateful to have her legacy in my life - that, of course, being the wonderful and fantabulous YOU.

xoxoxo thanks for sharing