When I noticed the Weekly Writing Challenge this morning, I was grateful, because when I thought of all the people I would like to write about at this time, it was my Grandmother. Gertrude Grzybowski, daughter of Dziadek and Babcia Perkowski- I don’t really know their first names- just grandma and grandpa in Polish. They were potato farmers from Poland with a farm on Long Island, New York. They had a legendary flower pot on their front lawn made from an old toilet- a piece of cultural history.
My Grandmother has been very sick, in her late 80s living at a nursing home and trying to find ways to enjoy the last moments of her life, as she felt sad and lost trying to adjust to a strange place she was forced to call home due to her ailing health. One of her last enjoyable activities was buying necklaces made by other ladies in the nursing home and wearing them all at one time. It wasn’t NY high-fashion and it drove my aunt crazy, but it made her happy. As I pondered about how I would write about her quirky character that she played in this life, I received a phone call this afternoon that I had been waiting for without any knowledge of when it would come exactly.
In my heart, I wanted her to be free of this body that was weighing her spirit down, and causing her the inability to live as independently as she has enjoyed for so many years. My only living grandparent, Gertie, died this afternoon peacefully after suffering a stroke almost a week ago. As people’s bodies start to break down, you find yourself as an outsider trusting the natural process of passing from one reality to another, but it is hard to stay in the present moment with them at times because you are constantly wondering- will this be the day? I feel in her own mind, she was wondering the same thing.
You never knew what was about to come out of Gertie’s mouth. She might shout the funniest thing, like her phrase that came to be her own, “That guy’s a bumb!” Or she might just talk about how tired she was, and how she felt really alone, as all of her friends passed away with each year. Life seemed more and more like a foreign country to her with each passing moment. She was not always the nicest person, but I always thought of her as this funny character in a film, navigating through this life as if it were one thing after another. She loved Poland, and as a kid we always gathered our outgrown clothes for my Grandmother to send to our family there that had nothing because of the “communists.” We were told, “They didn’t even have real ice cream.” “Their” ice cream was more like half frozen sweet milk, barely recognizable by us spoiled Americans.
She prayed her rosaries every morning over her stacks of prayer cards, and every Friday she cleaned the altar and pews at St. Hedwigs Catholic Church. I remember going to the masses growing up when visiting New York where the legendary priest would talk so quickly that it was like listening to someone pretend they were saying a mass and forgot the words. Even though I didn’t understand anything because he was saying it so quickly, and with a New York accent, I was more than happy to spend 15 minutes less in a mass on a Saturday night. Her collection of ceramic nuns in her living room and plates of the Polish Pope John Paul hanging on her walls would dance to the sound of her attempt to whistle while she swept the floors every morning in her house coat.
My Grandmother didn’t make it easy for anyone as they grew up in her house. I was fortunate to be a granddaughter in her life that was told on her 16th birthday, “sweet sixteen, and never been kissed” with a giggle following her attempt to tease me. She grew up in a time that lacked emotional education, a time where there was war and great financial uncertainty, and even though there were dark times in the house where she brought up 6 kids, there was a certain light around her that I enjoyed, and I will be grateful for every day. During her last lucid days in the hospital my mother said she overheard a conversation with a male orderly who struck up a conversation with her. He asked her about being a nurse, as she was, and how many kids she had in this life. She said 8, which was correct- 6 living and 2 stillborns. You never know what experiences people have had in this life. Underneath the surface, there is always something lingering in someone that may be causing them pain and cause their personality to become distorted. But the one thing we can always be sure of, as I was with my grandmother, our Gertie, is that inside their heart there is a place that just wants to be loved.
And so, as I come together with those that knew Gertie in many different ways- from sister, to aunt, to mother and grandmother- I shall remember that all you wanted was to be loved, and I shall send you that love with the hope that you are joyful in your freedom from the human body and in a place of peace in your heart. Thank you for saying “I love you, Jess,” and reminding me that life does go fast, and every now and then we just need to remember that we are all human and subject to the foibles of our mind- but it is not our true nature. I am grateful for all I have in my life, including you, and will remember to try and see beyond personalities into the human desire to be loved when we do not know how to love ourselves.
In one of our last conversations you said to me, “We used to have fun, right Jess?” Yes Grandma, we did have fun.