The tears came unexpectedly, a wave of grief so sudden and searing that it burned me like a branding iron. It was all I could do to choke back the sobs until I hung up the phone. I wiped away the tears with clenched fists, like a child, trying to grind them from my eyes. I felt guilty, crying so hard for the great-grandmother I hadn’t even known for eight years. When I finally emerged from the office, my eyes were red and puffy.
“Hey babe, who were you talk—” Steven asked, stopping short as he turned to look at me.
“It was Momma Dawn,” I choked. “Grandma Taylor died today.”
“Oh Lori, I’m sorry. Oh, I am so sorry,” Steven said, catching me as I collapsed into his arms.
“I didn’t…I…it feels like I barely even got to know her!” I sobbed.
By the time my tears were spent, I was numb.
The drive from Arizona was long, twenty-two hours each way. Momma Dawn did most of the driving. If she was anything like me (if perhaps this was another trait I had inherited), she needed to drive, needed something to do with her hands, something to help occupy her mind and distract her from the stinging sorrow.
Kolt, Kassie, Uncle BB, and Momma Dawn shared stories about Grandma as the miles passed—stories of her gingersnap cookies, her chicken fried chicken dinners, how she used to stay up all night gambling in the Las Vegas casinos while Grandpa Taylor slept soundly in their travel trailer. I listened to the stories greedily, devouring them the way a starving man would devour a steaming plate of food set before him on a table.
Though I knew in my heart that my life had played out exactly as it was supposed to, I couldn’t help feeling like I had been cheated.
The day I first met Grandma Taylor is burned into my brain. As much as I’ve thought and written about it, I made certain that it is a memory I will never lose. I can close my eyes and relive that first moment when I saw Grandma, standing just inside the front door, her face half-hidden in the shadows of the single lamp that burned in the living room. Even in the darkness, I knew that, for the second time in less than eight hours, I was looking into my own eyes, staring in dumbstruck amazement at a face I had never seen, yet seemed hauntingly familiar.
“Oh honey, I’ve been waiting so long for you,” Grandma said, gathering me into her arms. I was surprised at how tightly she squeezed me, holding me for several moments, like she didn’t ever want to let me go. And I got the feeling that, here I was, holding in my arms another part of me that had been missing.
We spent hours talking, and looking at photographs. Grandma led me through the house, pausing next to each photo long enough for her to explain who it was, when it was taken, and the story of any events that had transpired before the snap of the shutter. After the tour, we settled in on the couch to look at the photo albums. Grandma nestled in close to narrate, her hands folded neatly in her lap, except when she reached out to point at a photo or take my hand in hers and squeeze it gently, whispering each time, “Oh, honey. I’m just so happy you’re here! How I wish Billy was here to see you!”
Grandma had the hands of a farmer’s wife, the soft, but weathered hands of a grandmother. They almost seemed too large and strong in comparison to her dainty body. They were the hands of a woman that worked hard throughout her life, the hands of a woman who saw her fair share of both joy and heartache, the hands of a woman who earned a very special place in Heaven for the way she has lived and loved and done her part to make the world just a little bit better for the rest of us.
Driving up from Arizona, we watched the external temperature gauge dropping steadily with the passing of the miles, as we pushed north through New Mexico, Colorado, and the Nebraska panhandle. Even after arriving in Ainsworth and driving to the funeral home to meet the family in private before the public viewing, the mercury in the thermometers continued to fall as the overcast sky let the first of the snowflakes drift to the ground where they hung on and eventually began to stick.
Hard as it is for me to believe that there are still relatives I haven’t met, I found myself once again trying to overcome my shy awkwardness, as I was introduced to more aunts, uncles, and cousins. In their faces, I found warmth and familiarity. And in mine, they saw something that made their eyes water as they tilted their heads and smiled and said, “My God, you look just like your mother! Don’t she look just like Dawn?”
For the first time in my life, I am able to smile and reply, “Thanks, I get that a lot.”
There are times, even now, that I find myself having a hard time believing that this whole reunion hasn’t been just one long dream, perhaps because I’m finding everything I prayed so hard for is finally coming true. Sitting in the lounge at the funeral home, I studied the faces of my relatives the way an artist might study a model before making the first few sweeping strokes on the blank, white canvas. In the faces of those around me, I saw pieces of myself. In their stories, I saw glimpses of my own childhood. It was as if I had been sucked into some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, where I was swept into an alternate dimension to be raised in an environment and with a family that was almost an exact replica of the one I had left behind.
Somehow, it was as if I had been there before, able to recognize everyone, even as I met them for the first time.
Though everyone agreed that Grandma looked better now than she had in months, I couldn’t bring myself to go in the viewing room right away. I hung back in the hallway, studying the photoboards and chatting with my new cousins as Momma Dawn, Mark, and Uncle BB took their turns.
Even now, over ten years later, I still sometimes have trouble getting past the image of Grandpa Luethje lying in his casket at the funeral home, as if that snapshot in time is the gruff gatekeeper to the memories that I have of him when he was still alive. I couldn’t allow that to happen to Grandma Taylor, not when I had so few memories of her to begin with. I would do anything to preserve those precious moments that we had together. I would keep them safe, whatever it might take.
I waited until later in the evening, after much of the public traffic had dwindled and most of the family was occupied eating Pizza Hut in Grandma’s honor and sharing memories of her in the lounge. I slipped into the viewing room behind Kassie and Kolter, staying in my place about ten paces behind them.
As they stood between me and Grandma, shielding her from my view, I took myself back to that December day when we met for the first time. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear her sweet voice, ushering me in out of the cold. Behind my eyelids, I played the movie for the thousandth time, watching Grandma dart through the front doors of the Rosebud Casino, dismissing one of her sisters with a quick hello and wave of her hand as she made a beeline to her favorite penny slot machines, returning to give a proper introduction only after she tipped four chairs against four machines to reserve them for her, Momma Dawn, Louree, and me.
I could see her, hopping up from her kitchen chair to refill my coffee cup, bustling to gather extra quilts for my bed and retrieve the steaming corn bag from the microwave to help keep my feet warm in the night. I could feel her strong arms, catching me in an embrace, and her warm hands clutching mine, as if she needed to touch me in order to convince herself that I was really sitting there beside her after the twenty-two long years we’d spent apart.
When I opened my eyes, Kassie and Kolt had stepped aside and were studying the flowers. I watched Kassie step in close to hug Kolt, whispering in his ear, as he broke and began to cry.
Grandma looked so peaceful that she might have been sleeping. Just like Grandpa Luethje’s viewing, I took a tentative step forward, as if expecting Grandma Taylor to suddenly sit up or open her eyes. I stared, without blinking, trying to decide if I could see her chest rise, ever so slightly with the intake of a breath. When I had stood there long enough to convince myself that she was, in fact, gone, the grief, like a knife that had been stuck deep into my abdomen, twisted.
It’s not fair. No. It’s not fair! I thought, over and over, in the whining voice of a petulant child, the way I had once whined while being spanked, or being hold I couldn’t read just one more story before bed. The tears built and my vision blurred. I took a deep breath and bit hard on my lip to hold them in, and slowly backed away.
Suddenly, I needed to be out of there. I needed fresh air, even though the temperature outside had dipped well below freezing. I’d always hated crying, and I absolutely refused to cry in front of other people if I could help it. The hallway was crowded, and I had to weave my way to the coat rack, avoiding the questioning glance of my relatives as I passed.
The icy wind slapped my cheeks as I hit the door. Behind me, I heard Kassie calling.
“Hey sissy! Where are you headed?
“I just need some air.”
“Hold on, I’ll come with you.”
I held the door open so she could follow.
I strode onto the sidewalk, where the snow had finally begun to stick and cover the ground in a thin layer of white. I closed my eyes and breathed deep to slow my pounding heart. I stood, head tilted back. Snowflakes landed on my cheeks, where they melted and ran like tears.
“You okay, sissy?” Kassie asked, breaking the silence.
I opened my eyes and turned. She stood behind me on the snowy sidewalk, her misery a mirror of my own.
“Yeah,” I said softly. “This just really, really sucks.”
Kassie nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “It really does.”
We looked at each other, not moving, not speaking, frozen by the cold and the pain.
“Come on, let’s go back in,” Kassie said finally.
I hadn’t realized how hard I was shivering until she spoke, my teeth chattering so hard I thought they might break. Threading my arm through hers, we retreated to the warmth of the lobby to say our goodbyes until the morning.
While the grownups retired to their beds, or to tie up the loose ends of the arrangements, Kassie, Kolt, and I headed to the bowling alley to spend time with our cousins. The bowling lanes were packed when we arrived, reserved by the Thursday night leagues, so we retreated to the back room. The boys played pool while we girls pulled chairs close to the gas stove to drive away the winter chill and talk. Outside, the temperature had dropped to the single digits, and the snow continued to fall.
By the time we arrived back at Grandma and Grandpa Beguin’s, several inches had accumulated on the ground. We trudged through the powder carefully to avoid any patches of ice on the sidewalk beneath. Inside, the house was dark and silent.
In the room that Kassie and I shared that weekend, Grandma Beguin had turned on the electric blanket and left the lamp burning, to welcome us home.
Lying in the darkness, snuggled beneath the warm blankets, I heard Kassie’s breathing become slow with sleep’s regularity. I closed my eyes and tried to turn off my racing thoughts, but my mind wouldn’t cooperate. Instead, it replayed moments over and over, like a video montage on an unending loop—Momma Dawn’s voice on the phone announcing Grandma’s death, Aunt Carolyn smiling through her tears as she pulled me into a warm embrace, Kolt hanging his head and weeping beside Grandma Taylor’s copper-plated casket.
I didn’t realize I was crying, until the tears slid down my cheekbones and dripped onto my pillow.