In all those 10 years I never heard my grandmother complain about the work, even though the strain and pain the physical labor caused her (she has severe arthritis in her hands and shoulders) was substantial, and the exhaustion was profound.
I suspect that she thought her husband would live forever that way – and that she would be forever nursing him – and so on one occasion when he was checked into a nursing home for what the doctors prescribed as a prolonged convalescence, my grandmother got a wild hair and decided she would go to Norway.
Within the next few days.
It caused the family some consternation, of course, but I thought it was wonderful -- in large part because I think the impulse to travel is an important one and, when it crops up, must be obeyed – but also because I’d never seen her act out like that, and thought it should be encouraged.
But that’s not to say that I didn’t have some doubts about a 75 year old woman -- who had only traveled once internationally, and then to Japan (as part of a Shriner entourage in the 60s – but that’s a whole different story for a different time) – traveling all alone to a far away place. Fortunately she spoke the language: she was raised by a Norwegian born grandmother and by a mother who, although Chicago-born, preferred Norwegian even when I knew her in her final years.
Grama was leaving in a hurry, so I suggested that I could meet up with her one week into her trip, which would give me time to wrap up some work commitments. That, she said, would be just fine.
So I met her in Stavanger.
It was an extraordinary trip for many reasons, the most remarkable of which was the way that the foreign and yet familiar place triggered stories and songs and memories that she shared with me over the two weeks we looped the country by boat, plane, hydrofoil, car, and train – stories that I had never heard before and haven’t heard since. Stories that were born of her grandmother’s Norway and, surprisingly, stayed behind us when we left it.
There were two moments during the trip that stand in especially high relief. One is of a meal we shared in Oslo. We were early birders, sitting down to dinner at 7 in a city that doesn’t sit down to dinner until 10 during the summer months when the sun carves a huge elliptic out of the sky. It had been a great day and it continued to spill into stories over dinner, and we laughed and lingered long over coffee. (Coffee in Norway is one of those things I could never get enough of. The body of the brew is remarkable – I quizzed dozens of people about the coffee beans they were using – they all looked at me like I was nuts – until a new friend explained to me no, it wasn’t the coffee, it was the water. He had tried with Norwegian coffee and failed to recreate it anywhere else. It was “farské”. Fresh.) (And I'm pretty sure I spelled that wrong.)
She told me stories about her boyfriends (Grama was a beauty: she had many stories to tell.), about meeting my bompa, about the “change” that happened to him when he went away to work one summer in Alaska, with his father, and saw things he shouldn’t have seen. About growing up so poor that when the hot iron scorched her only dress in grade school -- with a big iron mark in the middle -- early in the school year, she was forced to wear it the rest of the school year just like that.
We spent a lot of our time in graveyards over the course of the trip, looking for family plots. She had a few clues to go on, but not much: the only cousin she knew of had passed away some time before. The week she spent in Stavanger without me she used to canvas the phone book – calling all the Ragës within a 50 mile radius, and asking if they were related to so-and-so who passed away who-knew-when.
One afternoon we stopped at an especially beautiful cemetery that was built into a steep hillside. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and the gravestones were decorated, as so many were in Norway, with fresh plantings of blooming flowers. (Frequently we would meet people in these graveyards, who were tending the flowers and shrubbery planted around the stones, the way they would their garden plot at home.)
We had packed a picnic lunch, so we sited a spot on the hilltop as our lunch spot, and headed that way.
Hiking up that hillside, walking through the headstones, scanning for Ragës, I was overcome with the feeling that this dear woman, who raised me in more ways than my own mother did, would die.
At first I tried to escape the feeling. It seemed inappropriate: it was a beautiful day and my grandmother, for all her infirmities, was remarkably strong and hale. It was my grandfather who was dying and, really, I should be thinking of him.
But I couldn’t do any of those things; the knowledge of my grandmother’s mortality was too overwhelming. And I suppose it was accompanied by the knowledge of all that is impermanent, and knowing that I would die too.
So I did what any good Norwegian would do: I said nothing. My grandmother – a tremendously garrulous woman – also said nothing. We hiked the hill in silence, and said only our “pleases” and “thank yous” when it came time to break out the picnic.
We sat largely in silence, eating our lunch, looking out over the sublime Norwegian countryside, and I did my best to hide the fact that I wanted to cry, listening to the refrain that circled through my head: “Remember this. Remember every detail.” It was so apparent, right then, that before too long she would be gone.
It turned out my grandmother was doing the very same thing.
We spoke of it later, in the hotel room, when the emotions had ebbed a bit and we could look back in detachment. She too had been overwhelmed by the very same thoughts at that very moment.
And then a couple years after that picnic lunch a friend of mine asked if my grandmother was available to appear in a regional commercial that she was shooting for a senior care facility; she asked me to appear along with her. (Of course we said yes: Grama was born for the silver screen and had missed her shot when she was younger - the closest she ever came was to work as an usherette in Seattle’s Musicbox Theatre, where she met my grandfather – who yes, was on a date with another woman).
It was a great little ad – I’ve only captured a small clip of it here – but it was edited by a fellow who produces for the Daily Show now, and he cut together a great story. The filming was interview style: The director asked her subjects about getting older. I watched from off-camera as my grama, when asked to share her experience, told the story of the hike up the hill in Norway, and wondering then: where had the time gone? It seemed like just yesterday she was 40, and now -- it’s almost all run out. Unfortunately (for me) my grandmother only appears briefly a few times in the ad. But it’s enough, knowing the story, to bring it all back.
My grandmother turns 87 on Monday. Time is having its way with her. She’s still stunningly beautiful and well preserved, but her memory is slipping, and she frequently finds herself in the kind of mental loops that the elderly slide into: her anxiety is more pronounced, the grievances she holds against those who have wronged her are amplified; the world is a smaller place.
Knowing that I would miss her last few years was the hardest part about deciding to leave Seattle for Chicago; our phone calls, in which I shout and she pretends to hear and then she tells me what she can about what she understands is happening in her life – are small comfort across great distance.
I miss her fiercely, and as more and more of her memory slips away, it becomes more and more difficult to connect with her. And although I know this is the way we die, the way age takes us by increments, it doesn’t make it any easier.
Here’s that clip. And yeah: I have no business posting it, but I stripped out all the brand elements, so let’s see how long it takes YouTube to crack down on me. Grama’s the gal with the silver hair talking about being 75.
During the interview, right after she said “I’m 75” she said “that’s OLD” -- but they cut out that part.
Video: Grama's Debut »