Our Guardian Angel

grandma2

I always thought my mother’s mother was the closest thing I’d know to a saint.  Of course, kids have a limited perspective of adults, and there are many types of grandmothers — loving, adventurous, remote –and even the shrewdest of women can melt into a maternal dumpling when presented with a first grandchild.  But I was not alone in this opinion: everyone who knew Betty Burnett thought she was preternaturally patient, non-judgmental, and kind.

When my grandfather died from a stroke at age 73, we moved in with my grandmother.  It made sense all around: we’d just moved back East from Indianapolis, my father was starting a business, my mother was in graduate school, I was an only child in 8th grade, and my grandmother didn’t like living alone. Plus, none of us had much money.  A year later, when my aunt Natalie came down with cancer and decided to fight it the Christian Science way, my grandmother invited her to move in, too.  When one of my mother’s other sisters died, my cousin Sue moved in as well.  The household consisted of 5 women, a female dog, and my father.  He jokingly threatened to get an old male tomcat.

We cherished our grandmother.  She smelled like talcum powder, baked the best brownies, sewed our rising hemlines, and truly cared about all our victories and tribulations.  When we came home from school, she’d sit in the living room, overturned library book on her lap, legs crossed at the ankle, listening to Sue and me recount our days.  My cousin Sue, who wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of gal, would roll up her sleeve and have Grandma  run her fingers gently up and down the inside of her arm, stroking it in a way that Sue – who’d lost her mother at age 15 — found incredibly soothing.  We’d three sit in the late afternoon sun, talking, content as cats.  Grandma wore wool hounds tooth suits in the winter and cotton dresses cinched at the waist in the summer, pearls from Filene’s around her neck.   She hailed from stock that arrived from England in 1634 (her ancestor Nicholas Easton governed the Rhode Island Colony in 1672 after being banished as a rogue minister from Massachusetts Bay) but,  like many swamp Yankees, she was long on heritage and short on cash.  When she died, she left a few antiques, first edition books that you’d expect from someone who had graduated from college in 1913, and a moral compass that guided the ship of her six children, ten grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren who remain close to this day.

I still marvel that my father, grandmother, and I played Scrabble at least 3 nights a week.  My father loved her, and would joke that if he and my mother ever got divorced, they’d have to fight over custody of her.  In many ways my grandmother was the opposite of my mother, who while loving, smart, and attentive, never baked a dessert, couldn’t sew a stitch (she stapled the badges onto my Girl Scout sash), and liked to tell the story how, during World War II, after knitting socks for soldiers as part of the war effort, she was asked whose side she was on when she turned them in.

Unlike many in our family, Grandma didn’t have a nautical bone in her body.  She mistakenly referred to my father’s Herreshoff  Beverly Dinghy as his Beverly Dinghus, and he hooted with laughter when – after she overheard us discussing an upcoming sailing trip and making the tricky passage through Quick’s Hole to the Vineyard –later asked how our trip to Martha’s Hole turned out.

The only time I ever saw her perturbed –it was a subtle but angry pursing of lips – was right before her husband’s funeral.  My grandfather (an interior decorator who during the Depression resorted to selling Fuller Brushes door to door) had a business partner in his interior decorating business: Flora Porter, a coiffed older woman with brocade suits, rouged cheeks and heavy perfume.  When my grandmother said in a hushed tone that she didn’t want “that woman” at the funeral, her five daughters crowded around her like bees and shut us grandchildren out.  When years later I asked my mother – a direct straight-shooter who always answered my questions honestly – about it, she said, “Jenny, it’s just too painful for me to talk about.”

That was that.  We moved (she came with us), and just as we took care of her, she took care of us. She asked my father to take her canoeing on the Nemasket River (which he did forevermore every spring, she in the bow in her wool suit and stockings, our dog midship, he in the stern).  She was always being visited by her children and grandchildren, and, like a silent winking star, was the center of the constellation around which we spun.  With her deeds and traditions – Christmas together, summer family parties, making grape jelly in the fall – she had subtly stitched the fabric of our big multi-generational family.

When she died, I think it’s fair to say that we all thought a saint had died.  It wasn’t veneer; she had such nurturing kindness and love in her heart.  I adored my other grandmother, but she was so different – irreverent, proper, scotch & soda in hand, bracelets jingling at her wrist, travelling and making room for you when she could.  When I became a mother and tried to model Grandma Burnett’s behavior (falling short of course), I didn’t regret that I’d never see my grandmother again; rather, I considered myself lucky to have been blessed by her presence and example.

Years later, when my mother died one June after a lengthy illness from cancer, within six weeks my father was dating one of my mother’s good friends.  My mother had suggested it –my father had a frail ticker and she wanted him to be happy – and, as he said to me, at his age he had a shortened timeline.  I really liked Peg – she was kind, sensitive, and loving — but she wasn’t my mother, and both Sue and I had difficulty with the relationship at first, and we felt guilty about that, too – we could see my father was so happy, and there was absolutely nothing to dislike about Peg.  When he told me in October that he wanted to marry Peg, and asked what I thought (I so appreciated his doing so), I told him I just didn’t want him to marry in the year of mom’s death.  So he waited until January 2.

Peg is a marvelous baker.  My father would rave about her desserts, and though my brain knew my father had loved my mother, silently I’d grouse that he never raved about my mother’s cooking like that. They clearly were in love.  They kept both their houses (3 miles apart) and Sue’s daughter Lee and her young son moved into his house, continuing a bond our family has of taking care of one’s own.  I became so close to Lee that it felt as if she too were a sister- cousin.  The three of us – Lee, Sue, and I – wrapped ourselves around my father’s failing heart and Peg’s love like strands of a braid, intertwined with caring and concern.  They were the sisters I never had.  We hovered over my father as he got frailer and frailer from congestive heart failure and came to deeply appreciate how Peg took care of him, loved him, was loved by him, and kept him happy until the end.  I hated calling her my “step-mother” because the Cinderella connotation didn’t do justice to this warm, intelligent woman.  The mother of three sons, Peg joked she married my father and acquired three daughters.

Last month Sue learned she had kidney cancer.  Silently our minds zeroed in on the fact that Sue’s mother had died at age 43 of pancreatic cancer.  Two nights before Sue’s surgery, Peg, Lee, and I had dinner with her and reassured her and ourselves that she had caught it early, and the prognosis was good.  And it was.  Back in the Berkshires this week, I waited for the call, knowing that Lee and Peg were at the hospital during the 2 hours of prep, the 6 hours of surgery, the minor complications that resulted in them not seeing Sue until 9 pm.  I got the call from Lee that all was well – Sue is now cancer-free – at 10:30 pm.

In conversation, Lee told me that when Sue came out of surgery, Peg – age 90 – sat by her bedside, stroking her forehead gently, pushing the hair away from her brow.  When the heart monitor clip fell off her middle finger, Peg gently held Sue’s hand, reached over, and put it back on her middle finger. Peg’s hand lingered on Sue’s arm.  I felt so comforted by that.  I knew she’d be OK.

This morning it dawned on me that Peg is Grandma Burnett reincarnated.  We’ve been blessed with two saints in our lives. Two guardian angels.  How did we get so lucky?

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3 Comments to “Our Guardian Angel”

  1. Kidney Dialysis might be a thing of the past: this video will astonish you https://www.facebook.com/peter.fawler/posts/1634272283468938

  2. You write beautifully.

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