Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Miss Jo

My grandmother passed away on Monday morning. She died at home, peacefully, surrounded by her children. She was two months shy of her 88th birthday.

My grandmother was a very content woman. She was a devout Catholic. (I learned not too long ago that my grandfather converted so that he could marry her.) She lived in the same house for over four decades. She liked to eat at Denny's, and particularly liked to claim her senior citizen's discount. (I think that amused her. "I get a cheaper meal just because I'm old? Well, okay.") You probably couldn't say she lived life to the fullest, but she lived it as fully as she wanted to.

She traveled frequently. (Very frequently. We often joked that if you the worst place to try and call her was at home.) I don't think she necessarily enjoyed the traveling part. She wasn't an adventurer. But she liked to be in a new place, and see what there was to see. And she liked to visit people. The past couple years weren't much fun for her, I don't think. She liked her home, but she liked the freedom to come and go as she pleased.

She was one of three sisters, and you could tell that she was the strongest. Her sister Eleanor was a friendly woman, but a little meek. And her sister Gert was kind of a homebody. But Josephine was quiet and determined, and did whatever she wanted to do.

You would have gotten the best sense of my grandmother from seeing how she dealt with her family. She must have wondered how she got stuck with a batch of progeny like us. We have some screw-ups, we're not an especially religious bunch, we often do what feels good instead of making a bit of a sacrifice and doing what's best for us. In short, we really don't live life the way she did. But she would talk about her family with a sense of pride anyway. That way you do when you're talking about family, because they may not be perfect, but they're yours, and that's what you've got, and you'll stick with it to the end. Many a tale of my Uncle Steve's self-destructive exploits (and there are many such tales) would end with a kind of shrug, as if to say, "What're you gonna do?" She loved us in spite of ourselves.

What we unquestionably carried on from her is the funny. My grandmother had strong opinions about things, but she was brought up to keep those opinions to herself. Nevertheless, sometimes she just couldn't help herself, and she would let her feelings slip out in a quiet but wickedly funny comment. We're a family who jokes and laughs, and that came from the top. So much so that my aunt had to explain to my grandmother's nurses that no one was being irreverent when they laughed around her hospital bed. "We're a laughing family," she said. That's a pretty good legacy.

One of my favorite story about my grandmother involves my father's introduction to Catholic school. My dad was the second-born, and was preceded in school by my Uncle Steve, who was evidently something of a hellion. The nuns at the school decided that bad behavior must run in the family, and though my father could not have been of a more different disposition, they were merciless. My grandmother, learning that my dad was getting a hard time at school from the teachers, for crying out loud, she went down and gave them what for. "Joe is not Steve," she said, "and if you want to rap my son on the knuckles, I'll just give you a rap on the knuckles."

I like that image of my grandmother. Standing up to nuns.

My grandmother had a backyard pool, which is great for a visiting 9-year old. Swimming in that pool one night, she and my Aunt El taught me the song "Harvest Moon." I find that I tend to associate certain songs with people, and this is hers. I don't think we quite got the lyrics right, but for once, I don't care, because this is how we sang it. So I'm proud to offer another chorus. For her.

Shine on, shine on harvest moon
Up in the sky,
I ain't had no luck
Since January, February, June or July
Snow time ain't no time to stay
Outside and swoon,
So shine on, shine on harvest moon,
For me and my gal.

Josephine S. "Miss Jo" Wilson