(My grandmother with my mother and I last year)
I’ve been washing my hands obsessively for over two weeks and now they’re starting to dry out, the skin wrinkled, papery and cracked. Frequent exposure to hand sanitizer has left my knuckles scaly, almost calcified with patches of white. But last night when I looked down, I didn’t worry over my drying skin, because I saw my grandmother’s hands, the ones I’ve known since I was born.
Rachel Collard died on Friday, March 20, 2020, only eight days after her one-hundredth birthday. Blue-blooded New Englanders don’t much share what they think about each other, so my last conversation with her took me by surprise. It was the day after her birthday and her house was full of guests. I told her not to let them tire her out, to take a nap if she needed.
“You understand. I know you understand,” she replied to me, “You’re the caretaker, always telling people what’s what.”
Honestly, that statement was the nicest gift she could have given me. But the only way I can claim it is to recognize that she was the person who taught me compassion in the first place.
(My grandmother with my sister at her wedding)
When I remember Grammie, I realize I don’t know much about her life before she was the matron of our family. She was born in Belchertown, Massachusetts, living most of her life only a 100 meters from the house she was raised in. She was a nurse and had three children with two doctors, the first my biological grandfather, the second the grandfather I grew up with.
I know she used to like sailing, choir and bird watching. She went for long walks and often took us to Quabbin Reservoir, where the state intentionally flooded four towns to create a water source for the Boston area. I know it today as the setting for horror stories like H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, but Quabbin was constructed while she was just a teenager and must have left a strong impression when her neighbors' homes were drowned and destroyed under billions of gallons of water.
Here are some of my strongest memories of her:
When I was five years old my grandfather yelled at me for bending the spines on the copies of Highlights magazine in his doctor’s office waiting room. When Grammie found out, she stood up for me, reprimanding him for taking out his frustration on a child.
She took me to go see Return of the Jedi when I was six. 132 minutes of ewoks and sarlacc pits must have seemed like utter nonsense to her, but I was ecstatic to finally see a Star Wars film in the theatre. When we got home that afternoon she looked down in alarm. I’d accidentally stood in the center of a big yard snake’s coil. Very calmly she talked me down from terror and escorted me inside to safety.
She loved animals and had a border collie named Terry Blue when I was a child. When my grandfather passed away, she took in our miniature poodle Suki for company. After Suki passed, I took her to an animal shelter where she picked out an orange tabby cat named Manny. That cat’s going on seventeen years old now and was there the last time I saw her, perched on the love seat armrest right next to her.
I remember her sitting patiently with me in a hotel room as a preteenager, while my parents tried ironing out one of their many conflicts elsewhere. When she learned I became a vegetarian in my twenties, Grammie always tried to accommodate my diet by cooking odd meatless casserole recipes she found in magazines. She later helped me deal with the stress of my parents’ eventual divorce and the logistics of moving my mother back to New England afterward.
My grandmother was a consistent role model for me, a singular point of stability in a childhood filled with turmoil and traumatic experiences. I miss her. She was a bedrock for all of us, but I know that she deserves to rest now, to be at peace.
I also know that she’ll be with me for the rest of my life. She’s there in the way I purse my lips. I’ll forever hear the sound of her clicking the back of her teeth three times to show her disapproval. I’ll remember her whenever I drink cranberry juice or eat crackers and cottage cheese.
The skin on my hands will gradually become like hers more and more everyday. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll try to take care of people the way she taught me to, with empathy, confidence and steadfast dependability.
(A photo of me from my grandmother's house)