Many of my earliest summer moments were spent in my father’s hometown of Hazen, North Dakota. Those days my parent’s struggled with more than my little mind could wrap around, and life was unpredictable and chaotic. When things would get really messy, there was one person and place we would always seem to return to someway or another. My grandmother and her little home up north were our constants, our place to “start anew.” This particular trip back to our lighthouse was a little different, though, and the heaviness in the winds of change was felt even by me.
On this day, I was busy enjoying my grandma’s ultimate place of content- her garden. I darted freely from the kitchen’s back door, hopping high over mounds of dirt and discarded weeds, through the masses of dill plants whose scent had already filled the air. I ran under the clothes hung on the longest clothesline, touching the bottoms of the fabrics blowing in the breeze, then all the way to the back of the yard where huge bright pink peonies lined the sides of the little garden tool shed that was my playhouse.
The sun shone off it’s roof, making me squint as I talked to the sky. I ran in and out, carefully sorting out all the garden treasures I collected from the delicate plates and cups in the little porcelain tea set my grandmother saved especially for me and our visits.
I heard a van pull up out front and then some men talking. Through the heightened voices I heard the screen door snapping shut, then creaking back open again and again. I saw people I thought I faintly recognized coming and going. I somehow knew in my five year old heart that I was going to leave my playhouse in North Dakota, and I wasn’t going to be back for a very long time. I hurriedly found some paper and decided to write my grandmother a note, although, this wasn’t a note I had written before and I couldn’t write. I felt a sense that I was doing something final; somewhere inside I knew I was saying goodbye.
I picked some flowers and found some tape. I scribbled down some little words I was sure said how much I loved her. Then I sat down in the garden, right in front of the playhouse with her card in my hand, and I waited. What happened next must of been very hard because I can’t remember how it felt to hand the card over to her weathered hands and loving eyes. I only remember how it felt to remember her and the way her garden smelled days later and miles away from my little playhouse tucked away in her peonies.
My 93 year old grandmother has never died her jet black hair, and her eyes of layered blue live on in my youngest. When I think about her, I can still hear the kind but stoic way she hummed her favorite hymns as she mopped the floors of the Lutheran church she faithfully cleaned every week for 40 years. There was something about the intention behind my grandmother's choices to live simply, and with a disciplined diligence that sparked a fire in me.
Although I was growing up hundreds of miles away, both my father and adoptive family always made an effort to preserve the connections we all had, and made sure to bring me and my grandmother together as much as possible. Our reunions together over the years usually involved many conversations about “home life”. She would sit with me and bring out pictures of the little town her family had immigrated to. People joked she was the town historian; she could tell me about everyone- where that person came from, who they married, who their kids were and what they did for work. She could tell me how they knew one another, if they were relatives of ours, and where their loved ones passed away and were buried.
If there was any issue in her beloved community, most assuredly it could relate directly to their "home-life”. Witnessed a tantrum in the grocery store? Something must be off in that child's home-life. The couple across the street were getting a divorce? They neglected their home-life. National news reporting an increase in crime and terror? No home-life. As simple and as redundant as it sounded, over time, I guess it’s begun to make a lot of sense.
In August of 2015, I got a call from my father that my grandmother was in a rest home, her health was declining rapidly, and that they wanted me to come visit as soon as I could. My daughter had just turned 15 months, and it would be the first time I was separated from my baby since she had been born. I had a mixture of emotions and doubt surrounding the mission of my trip and I feared sacrificing a break in our mother-daughter bond for the unknown. In the end, I chose to go alone.
On the plane ride over, it was hard not to get nostalgic. I could remember the days I spent in my playhouse, and of all the moments that bonded me to my grandmother. I remembered vividly a time helping my grandmother wash and dry dishes with my great-grandmother. Somehow a saucer slipped away from me, and when it broke- the gentle patience and grace they showed me in picking up every tiny shard of glass as they lovingly held me close is a cherished memory of comfort I know I have looked back on in my loneliness moments.
When I landed, my father checked me into a small bed and breakfast. I sat in my room in a 15 month-awaited silence until my father called to let me know my grandma was awake and ready for visitors. The visit went well, grandma was in good spirits as her determined self plunged through physical therapy. I watched her and was proud of her strength, knowing I was witnessing something that was also biologically mine. That evening after we left, my father took me to see my old playhouse. I could barely see it, it was buried under the most gorgeous pile of peonies I had ever seen. My father assured me we should cut some to bring to grandma the next day, and I created the best bouquet I could for her.
The next day proved to be difficult. Grandma was having a hard morning and was clearly upset, confused and in pain. She sat rocking on her bed, simultaneously rubbing her temple and the bridge between her eyes while gazing down. I felt so sad for her, I wasn’t able to speak. I knew she was hurting, and couldn’t trust me to do a thing about it.
My father and the nursing staff made it a point to make sure we had time alone together. When that time came, I was sitting next to her in the strained silence thinking about all the things I wanted to say but was unsure of how to, out loud, and into the thickest air I’ve ever felt in a room. All I could do was just look at her. It was then I noticed how black her hair was even at this age. I also noticed how arthritis was taking over her curled fingers, and the fact that she was wearing clothes that she had humbly made herself.
A familiar need to tell her how much she meant to me washed over me, and I found myself thinking frantically about all the things I didn’t know I had been wanting to say. I wondered if she knew what a huge impact she made on my life even in just the short childhood moments we had together, and if she knew that she instilled in me the value of self-sustainment right when my little soul would depend on it the most.
I wanted to tell her I was sorry for waiting in front of the playhouse that day while precious moments I could of spent with her ticked away. That I felt guilty I didn't feel remorse our paths went the way they went, and that I always felt God must surely have a purpose for all this. That I felt rooted to her somehow even when time and distance continued to grow us apart over the years, and that I felt like she was always watching out for me.
I wondered if she felt appreciated for always remembering my birthday and for sending me a handwritten letter every other month for as long as I can remember, even when I could count the letters I’d sent to her on one hand. I wondered if she knew what a phenomenal mother and grandmother she was, and that she shouldn’t blame herself for the struggles and separation our family has. That despite our family's challenges- she provided a better home-life than any one of us deserved, and a template worth honoring for a thousand lifetimes.
As I looked at her wondering how to explain the overflow of emotions happening in my heart, using up our moments together to explain away everything that was lost in translation over the years felt simultaneously intimidating and wasteful. I watched the old tv above her bed mindlessly while I detached a little and worried about how my baby was doing back home without me. Does she miss me? Does she still love me the same? Did I think she would come visit me in a rest home some day?
I didn’t like the uncertainty in the answers. I picked up my grandmother’s bible sitting next to her bed. I was sure it had to be double the size it was when she obtained it, probably due to all the bookmarks. The big book was old, beautifully soft and very used, and I was terrified of ripping the pages. I carefully opened it up to places that had been held, and I read her familiar cursive penmanship in German and English that lined the seemingly hundreds of aging index cards filled with recipes and prayers. My eyes were drawn to the underlined bible verses and all her notes around the sides, and I could feel that I was holding onto something sacred; something that contained all the answers and all the precious peace my grandmother had ever needed.
My fingers thumbed through the delicate pages and I could smell the way her house smelled. As I let my memories of my time with her race through my mind, a little folded dingy-beige piece of scratch paper fell out onto the floor. As I opened it, I could feel something attached to the flimsy note. Worried it was snagging on something and it would tear, I let the rest drop open slowly on its own.
There, in my lap, on the tiny metal folding chair in my grandmother’s rest home, was the card I made for her the day I left her.
The flowers I had picked thirty years ago were still taped to it. A scribbled heart and the words “love you grandma” were done in an obvious haste. The creases in the paper were close to splitting as it had clearly been unfolded and read over and over again. As I held the paper open, I couldn’t believe how intact my tiny gift to her still was. She had taken care of it the way she did everything in her life.
In an instant, the gravity of my grandmother’s faithfulness to me and the magnitude of her devotion pushed me to a place of sorrow and understanding I wasn’t prepared to go. In a moment, I was overwhelmed by the realization of what she has always known. None of this was my fault. None of it was hers. It just…was.
I could barely swallow or catch my tears fast enough. I carefully placed my note to her back in her bible, then put it where it had been lying next to my grandmother. I silently retrieved water for an empty vase from the nursing staff, and arranged the bouquet of peonies I had picked for her the night before. I narrated my gestures awkwardly, hoping some of it she would hear. Taking one last glance around the room, I could see she was still covering her face with her hand, but that her rigid posture had relaxed and she was finally sleeping. I leaned over her and very softly rubbed her shoulder, then let my hand rest for a second. I knew that these moments would last a lifetime, just like all the others, yet there I stood in a picture worth a thousand words struggling to discern the ones that would really matter. I quietly told her that I loved her, and then, I thanked her.
Settling down in the chair close to her, I leaned my head on the bedrail next to her as she slept. My eyes drifted over the handmade quilt that covered her and landed on the playhouse peonies sitting across from us. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep with her as I waited, like that day in her garden all those years ago, until I had the courage she practiced every day I had been gone- to let go of all that was, and to start anew.
Publicly chronicling my design grind, mamahood madness + mini narratives of how I make sense of it all was never something I thought I would do; but when your passion in life for creating + relating are also your personal gateways to peace + sanity, you've got to go somewhere with all of the things!
My name is Jená + this is the blog
Rö & Westing