I gingerly approached my grandmother’s casket, not wanting to see her so old and frail, not at all the strong woman that I remembered from my youth. Her snow white hair was styled just as she liked it, the loving work of a cousin that had done so for many years of Gram’s life. The hands were clearly hers, gnarled as they clutched a crisp cotton handkerchief. Those hands had prepared man wondrous meals for her family, quilted countless blankets, both played and taught the piano to unknown numbers of students, but would be most remembered (at least by me) for her obsession with picking every speck of lint off of the carpet.
The similarities ended there – the eyes closed in repose were sunken and hollow, the skin around them smoothed and softened. Gram’s eyes had always been framed with soft folds and deep set wrinkles, the lids tucking into themselves around her bright eyes. I remember her eyes as a steel grey color, although to be honest, I’m not sure what color they actually were. Those eyes were both piercing and gentle, depending what you had done to earn her gaze.
This woman, the one that they had placed in my grandmother’s casket, had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks with a wide smile. I knew that it couldn’t be Gram, because my grandma didn’t smile!
Oh, she did. In her own way, but certainly not like this. Gram had thin lips that I had always felt sympathy for, lipstick addict that I am. Her smile was short and tight lipped, with full cheeks even when she had lost the girth of her middle age and shriveled to an elderly woman.
I understand the ravages of time. The vibrant young woman pictured at the guest table as we entered the funeral home was gone long before I was born. Her eyes smoldered, her smooth skin milky and radiant. Gone, too, was the young mother who sat regally in family photos, coifed and made up, surrounded by her 7 children, ranging in age from young adults to mere babies.
My Gram, the one that existed when I was young, had a healthy midsection. Years of her own delicious meals had contributed heavily, as had her demand that nothing to go waste – even if she had to eat it herself. She wore lipstick, on those thin little lips, and perhaps mascara and some “rouge”. Groomed, but not overly so, her one indulgence was the regular visit to our cousin that kept her hair up for her. She regularly wore dresses, long after it was the expectation to do so.
Through the years, I saw the damage that time and gravity can inflect on a body. Her high cheeks became more jowly, and her skin thinned out and began to develop lines around the eyes and along her hairline. Her hair faded and thinned, eventually becoming cottony floss. Her body thinned out as well, as her appetite shrank and she no longer cooked for a family. As I grew taller, she seemed to shrink, her bones succumbing to the pressure of living on planet earth.
This, I understood, and yet, I was aghast at how she appeared in death. Unable to accept this representation of my Gram, I left without saying goodbye.
In later discussion with the family, I learned of the mortician’s signature style of presentation – preparing the body for burial with a peaceful smile. To me, it was reminiscent of the old adage, “never speak ill of the dead.” He was painting a lovely picture of the departed, without regard to the life that they had lived.
My grandmother was a saint, but she was not saintly. She was valiant in her faith and almost fanatic in her desire to follow the commandments. Her strict adherence to rules made her sometimes harsh with her family and occasionally judgmental with others. Not in the least shy, the nickname “Marge in Charge” didn’t begin to describe the way that she managed those around her.
Lest you think that I am being disrespectful, these are the facts of her life, at least as I saw them. She was also a wonderful cook that welcomed anyone into her home and fed them well when they were there. She lovingly cared for a son with muscular dystrophy, giving him every opportunity to live life to the fullest, even before t hose with disabilities were invited to do so.
It is all of these things that I want to remember. Good and bad, joy and tears. To gloss over the imperfections is to lose sight of the full dimensional being that she was. The angelic looking woman broadly smiling from the casket with smooth skin in no way resembled the woman that I had come to honor.
It wasn’t until they had closed the casket and we had arrived at her burial place that I felt the desire to approach and tell her goodbye. The dedication was given and the funeral director had invited the family to a luncheon back at the church. The crowd was thinning; young children bouncing down the hill, dodging headstones, the elderly being lead gingerly by friends and family.
The pink casket glimmering in the sun, adorned with a lovely spray of rosy flowers interspersed with brilliant white blooms was, for the first time, alone. A few feet away, the ground opened up, ready to envelope her. Her headstone, shared with my grandfather, had been engraved years before with her name and birth date. She had been anxious to join her sweetheart of 60+ years. Now, his vault was clearly visible in the rectangular hole. Hers would be beside his, and obscured from our view in a matter of minutes.
“Goodbye, my grandma,” I whispered, my hand placed lightly next to the flowers, my head as near the lid as I could lean.
A tiny hand touched me, my five year old standing beside me. “What are you doing?” He asked, no doubt aware of the tears that had finally come. I knelt beside him to explain that we were saying our farewells to Gigi. Giving him a moment to do the same, I gave Gram a final pat and made my way down the hall to follow the rest of the family.
I left with reticence, wanting to go back to the funeral director to assure myself that he would stay with her until she was properly buried. I knew that this was procedure, but I wanted to be sure that my sweet little grandma wasn’t alone there while the family partook of the feast of salads and goodies prepared by the ward Relief Society. It seemed cruel to leave her behind alone.
My baby must have been thinking the same thing, as he paused after walking just a few feet. Running back to her side, he blinked a few times, and then burst into tears. His little heart was filled with sorrow that spilled out in great heaving sobs as he stood near the casket, suddenly understanding that Gigi was gone and that he hadn’t even said goodbye.
This was his first experience with death. He knew that there were times that people left us and went back to Jesus. But he’d never seen a body before, and I wanted to be sure that he wasn’t freaked when he saw her.
I explained about her body and her spirit and how she would leave one behind, while the other would go on. “She might look like she is sleeping,” I explained, “But it’s really only her body. Her spirit, the part of her that makes her who she is – that part moved on.”
He seemed to understand that. But it’s hard not to think of her in terms of the physical body that she wore here on earth. He found a display room of caskets at the funeral home and had asked if he could lie in the ‘beds’. After all, Gigi was sleeping in one!
It makes me wonder if we’ll even recognize one another in the hereafter. Are we going to look much the same as we did here – mother’s eyes and dad’s short legs? What does ME perfected look like? The physical is what we ponder, often wondering if a celestial body will have brown hair, or if society’s idea of perfect will be instituted. Wand which society? Wouldn’t we all, then, look alike?
No, my grandmother didn’t smile. Her teeth were crooked and her lips too thin. But she was MY grandma. And that’s how I’ll remember her, with gratitude for the small things that make us unique. The things that make us…unforgettable.
So spare me the angelic smile, save your smooth skin and perfect posture. Let me remember my Gram in all her glory, perfectly imperfect as she was. That is enough for me!