Oh, Grandma Feis. I look at her face, and my heart just melts. Her picture exudes all that she was: kind, caring, compassionate, loving, generous, classy, filled with gratitude and faith, life-loving, sweet, fun. Ella Mae was the quintessential grandmother; I could always count on her for encouragement, a hug and a kiss, a cookie, complete and absolute acceptance of who I was, unconditional love. If you think of the most sentimental, Victorian poem about the virtues of mother, it wouldn’t be sentimental or a reach with Grandma, she was all that and more. I’ve heard the story from family members that there was someone (I think hired help of some sort but I’m not sure) who said about her family: “Nobody’s perfect but the Karrs, and the Karrs are perfect.” Yes, Grandma was one of the perfect Karrs. Okay, nobody is perfect, and Grandma did have her flaws—although I had to think for a moment to find them—so I’ll say this, Grandma was practically perfect in every way. Not in a stuffy British, Mary Poppins way, but honesty practically perfect.
Grandma loved life and loved people. I don’t remember her ever not liking someone. I don’t remember seeing her express any ugly emotions like jealousy or anger. She never whined or complained around me. Grandma truly did like every person because she was able to see the good in everyone. I think that must have come from her deep Christian faith. She could look beyond the pretense in everyone and see the God in them. She seemed to be able to tap into the ocean of universal love because she poured out love and understanding, wisdom and acceptance. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for her family or friends. And everyone who met her seemed to love her as much. All that I’ve ever heard anyone say about Grandma is absolutely glowing and gushing.
Grandma was a phenomenal cook. My cousin recently commented that all of Grandma’s recipes had cream of mushroom soup in them, and they really did. I’m not a huge fan of cream of mushroom soup, but I think her food tasted so good because we could taste the love in it.
Before she was married, Grandma was a school teacher in a one-room school house in Nebraska. She had pictures of these classes in her photo album, and sixty years later, she still remembered these students. Grandma just loved children. When I think back to how bratty I could be, she always responded calmly and sweetly and with a sense of humor. The Christmas that I was six, I received a stuffed E.T. doll. Grandma agreed to crochet a sleeping bag for E.T. I guess I called her all the time and would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d respond, “Making dinner” or something, and I would say, “Get crocheting.” She just laughed. She did get crocheting, and not long afterward, my E.T. got his sleeping bag. I remember in fourth grade telling her how I got in trouble at school. My friends and I filled our mouths with water from the drinking fountain, didn’t swallow it, and then spit it down the back of the shirt of a girl we didn’t like. Now as a teacher, if I had heard about this, I would have been furious. Grandma laughed and said, “You girls have so much fun.” Another time when Grandma was probably in her eighties, a little girl visiting them with her parents or grandparents (I don’t remember who) asked Grandma while looking at her stomach, “Is there a baby in there?” Grandma laughed and said, “Well, if there is, it’s been in there for a long time.” I’ve had kids ask me that before, and I usually feel nothing but indignation. Hi, I’m a long ways from being perfect.
Grandma used to be popular with the boys when she was young. But she settled down when she married her true love, my grandpa. He matched her spirit. They were the perfect, loving couple. Grandma and Grandpa were married for over sixty years. They raised four kids together, had eight grandchildren and now have countless great-grandchildren (I think around 15?), and now one great-great grandchild.
Okay, I promised that Grandma wasn’t perfect. She did have a tendency to worry, but it wasn’t extreme. She was a mother after all. She was also a bit too keen on turning her children into teachers. I heard that my dad once told her that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. She told him, “No, you’ll be a teacher.” Dad never became a teacher—it just wasn’t him. But sometimes I think he wishes he had been because all his teacher friends were able to retire much earlier than him. The ironic thing is that being a school teacher is what I became, and that’s not really who I am either. So I’m living my Dad’s unlived life based on my Grandma’s expectations of him. Or I’m trying to be my Grandma when I’m really not. But that’s again just showing how unperfect I am. Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Grandma was human, of course, but truly as close to being perfect as you can be.
Grandma had lymphoma on and off during the last ten or so years of her life. She fought it bravely, never giving up, never complaining. She had courage and trust in her doctor to try new treatments. At Christmas of 2000, Grandma hadn’t been feeling well. She was weak from her lymphoma, she seemed sad, worried, anxious. She needed a new calendar for 2001, so my brother and I got her one for Christmas. I remember her looking through it and looking forward to what the new year would hold. On December 30, she seemed really anxious. The doctor had tried her on a new medication, and I guess it had some bad side effects. I had recently had a similar experience. I tried a medication that made me extremely paranoid and anxious. I took myself off that medication, and I thought that’s what Grandma was going through. I advised her to see if the doctor could switch medicines or take her off it. I thought I was being wise and speaking from experience. Grandma looked freaked out, and I took her hand and told her, “I promise it will be okay.” I have regretted those words ever since because it wasn’t okay. Or maybe it was because twenty-four hours later she was no longer suffering. But I have had guilt for years because I promised Grandma something that I had no business promising. She had never deceived me, and now I had deceived her on her last day. I’m much more stingy with my promises these days.
The next day on New Year’s Eve, Dad called me in the morning to tell me that Grandma had collapsed and been taken to the emergency room. In the past few years, Grandma had spent a lot of time in the hospital, including three years before when she spent over six weeks there, when she was so close to death that everyone proclaimed it a miracle that she survived. After sitting in the waiting room for hours, it became clear that this time would be different. Along with me and Dad, Grandpa, two of my aunts, one uncle, and one cousin were all at the hospital that day, and we took turns going back two at a time to see Grandma. When Dad and I went to the room to see her, her organs were failing, she rambled on, talking about being in Hastings (the town in Nebraska where they used to live, where my dad was born). She wasn’t in her mind anymore, but Grandma looked at me, looked past me as if she were looking at my aura, and smiled in an otherworldly way. Dad noticed that she smiled at me and told me this to help me feel better, telling me that Grandma always had a special place in her heart for the babies of the family (him and me). Later that evening, I heard word that Grandma spoke of being in Blue Hill, Nebraska, that town where she was born and grew up, and we figured her life was passing before her eyes.
We spent the day at the hospital, a blur of hours passing at glacial pace, of hopes that grew fainter and fainter as time, hope, food, and drink felt inconsequential. Our visit in the emergency room was the last time I saw Grandma. Later, she would be hooked up to a breathing machine in the ICU. I didn’t want my last memories of Grandma to be of her hooked up to a machine, so I waited in the hall while the rest of the family stayed in the room with her. I’ve sometimes regretted this decision, wondering if fear and weakness kept me outside, away from the family, but I still think in my heart of hearts that I made the right decision at the time. While I don’t think I could pinpoint the exact second that Grandma passed from this life to the next, I slowly felt an emerging strength in that hallway and knew that some of Grandma’s spirit and energy passed into me (not feeling selfish about it—I knew some of her energy passed into all of us), and I knew that Grandma would still always be with me, looking out for me, helping me through dark times and celebrating in happiness, just as she had always done.
Feeling empty and lost, we had nothing else to do, so everyone went home to try and get some sleep, only two hours before the ball would drop on a Happy New Year. I went home with Dad that night because I didn’t want him to be alone and didn’t particularly want to be alone myself. As soon as we walked in the door, Dad pulled out an old Joan Baez record and played the song “Blessed Are”:
No other song would have been more appropriate to express the emotions of our day. Joan Baez’s golden voice struck at my heart and the reality that Grandma was gone. I’d never see her again, never feel her soft, comforting hug, never have her angelic smile melt away my sad moods. Now I can’t hear “Blessed Are” without crying, but that night and for years afterward no tears would come.
I miss Grandma every day, but I feel honored to have had her in my life for the first formative years. I strive to be like her, to show others her sense of patience, compassion, love, and acceptance, no matter what, for who they are. But also her sense of humor, sense of fun, and absolute love of life. Grandma did love her life. Grandma was love.
It seemed cruel to lose my beloved grandma on New Years Eve. How could I ever look forward to the new year again? But then two years later, New Years became happy again. . . (to be continued)