The End of the Day
My grandmother had an amazing voice.
Don’t mistake that to mean she was a talented singer. She did love to sing, but she had an old lady warbling church choir voice that would make kids snicker in the pews. Her voice was startling and definitely a little funny.
She was also a crooner — an old fashioned kind of singer who would copy the style of Gene Autry or Frank Sinatra. My older brother ruled our house radio with the Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones — the smooth tenor ballads of yesteryear were so unfamiliar to my childhood ears, I assumed she had written the bedtime lullabies herself.
I adored my grandmother. In a family where undivided attention was a rare commodity, the minutes spent snuggling in grandmother’s guest room bed while she gave me a “tickle” (a gentle scratching with her fingernails on my inner arm) and sang to me, are some of my sweetest childhood memories.
My grandmother was healthy and as strong as an ox until she wasn’t. She gave bear hugs that could break a rib and cracked an apple with her bare hands just to show off. She lived in an apartment below her sister’s (with an identical layout, furniture and all) in a small city in New Jersey. She and my great aunt Fran (though I was 25 before I realized her name wasn’t Ann Fran) even had matching Dodge Darts, one avocado green, one burnt caramel color.
They were living the dream.
In my early twenties, I moved to DC at the same time my mother moved my grandmother to an assisted living facility near to my parents’ house by the sea. Only recently did it register how heartbreaking that separation must have been for my grandmother and her sister. My grandmother’s memory was glitching, and she knew it. She was afraid of being a burden but more than that she was just afraid.
It may have been a year, but likely closer five that my grandmother lived in the memory unit of a local “old folks home.” (Family timelines are something that unfortunately died along with my mother). My mother carefully explained that my grandmother was easily disturbed by changes in her routine, and generally didn’t remember her visitors. My mother kept a daily devotion — twenty minutes in the car each way, and an hour visit. Every damn day.
“You should think about how you want to remember her,” my mother told me. “It’s not easy.”
I took that to mean I shouldn’t visit, so I didn’t. I have so much feeling about that choice now. If I had it to do over, I’d go. Regret is part of loss.
One spring trip home, my mother surprisingly suggested I come with her to see my grandmother and I immediately accepted. So atypical, I assumed it was significant.
My mother seemed nervous on the way over. She repeated the importance of low expectations and a soft tone of voice.
“She won’t remember you, Meg.”
I understood I was coming to say goodbye.
I followed my mother down a long, sterile hallway, toward the nurse’s station. An old woman in red matching sweats and slippers swayed and laughed at nothing in particular.
I heard my mother suck in a small gasp of air. “There she is,” she nearly whispered.
I glanced around several times, finally looking at my mom who nodded grimly at the swaying lady in red. I’d never seen my grandmother without her hair carefully roller set, or in anything other than church-going clothes.
But those were her eyes and that was her smile.
“Mom, this is Meghan. Do you know Meghan?”
My grandmother stood still and stared deeply at my face.
Almost as though she’d stung by a bee, she yelped.
“Meghan?! I’m YOUR GRANDMOTHER!” She brought me in for a tight hug. By the time she released me, her face had clouded.
“Do I know you?”
Too stunned to respond, I sought my mother’s eyes. Tears streamed down both our faces. It lasted all of twenty seconds.
My mother took my hand and her mother’s and walked us out to a bench in the garden. My grandmother sat easily, and silently, looking at her hands.
I hadn’t yet resumed breathing.
We sat in silence for minutes, until my mother asked:
“Do you want to sing something, mom?”
Without missing a beat my grandmother pulled a Perry Como song from the recesses of her brain..
“When you come to come to the end of the day/and the night calls your worries away/Do you ever watch the setting sun/ and dream of things that you might have done?
Do you turn from your work with a smile?/Do you feel it’s all worth the while?/As you dream the twilight hours away/When you come to the end of the day.”
When my grandmother died some years later, my mother asked me to give the eulogy. I said many of the things I’ve said here and reflected on her generosity, her faith, and like my mother after her, her love of her own church charity shop.
And I sang that song.
I sang it with a voice warbling with emotion, to and for my mother.
When my mother died suddenly this summer, my siblings and I divided out tasks, without the luxury of much thought or reason until a funeral was built.
In the Catholic faith, the funeral typically includes a mass card. A mass card typically includes a bible verse, a poem and or/a picture. My mother’s mass card was one of my tasks.
You will see the poem in the picture. You will see the first line. You won’t believe I never noticed how similar it is to my grandmother’s song lyrics, but I didn’t.
Each loss rips us apart and sews us back together, and mothers and daughters have been sewn together and torn from each other since the first musical note was ever sung.