My grandma was wrinkled elbows, open-faced cheese sandwiches on plastic plates from the ’70s, and white orthopedic New Balance sneakers. She was 111 Pear Avenue, hidden stashes of chocolate Tootsie Pops, and the smell of indoor tennis courts. She was thousands of moments un-photographed, and a handful that live on in my social media feed.
In the six months before she died, before her head imploded, with what the doctor described as a “catastrophic stroke rarely seen in people without preexisting conditions,” she would roll her eyes and say, “Jenna, why do you want so many pictures with me? I’m an old lady.” My response was always the same. Macabre humor, “Grams, when you die, you’ll want these pictures. Well, maybe you won’t, but the people at your funeral will,” I’d pause and continue, “Just like at Kyle’s grandpa’s funeral. The last few pictures of his life were ones I took.”
Laughing at my absurd bluntness, she’d always comply. As her granddaughter, it was my role, to cajole, and shame her into these newfangled selfies. I’d hold out my arm, hold the phone, and say, “cheese!”
I first felt the taste of photographic freedom when I saved up my allowance to buy a Kodak 110 camera in 7th grade. On the last day of school, I proudly brought it to document the end of the friendships with all the girls I had grown up with. My family was moving, and in pre-internet days, all I would have is memories, addresses, and a few photos taken in the sunshine outside beige portables. I was both careful and bold behind the camera. The burden balanced on getting a good shot or running the risk of wasting my babysitting money on a sleeve of blurry, grainy, unfocused photos.
“We got the call from the agency and had only twenty four hours to prepare. Of course we said yes,” my mom would recount my adoption story growing up. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, while we were driving in the car to the store, when she added, “but your dad had an important business trip in Whistler. We couldn’t cancel on such short notice. We hadn’t know we were getting the call.”
Many women, at 3 days postpartum, are bleeding heavily with milk-engorged breasts. Three days after I was born, it was my grams who held me. She was the bridge of love, heart expanding beyond biology, as I spent my first weekend snuggled on her chest, laid to sleep on the plump yellow chair with the satin buttons, while my new parents were away.
In high school, or home-from-college-summertime lunch breaks from lifeguarding, I’d let myself in her front door with shout, “hey grams!” My best friend over sixty-seven. There she’d sit in the recliner, watching afternoon Mariners games, chewing Double Bubble gum. I trusted her with all of my angsty teenage feelings.
After college graduation, we took a five-year break from selfies together. I didn’t offer. She didn’t ask. At family get-togethers, we circled each other cordially, warily. Wounded, we made small talk, gave side hugs reserved for those on the outer edges of acquaintance. Our unease lingered, until one unusually sunny Seattle day. We spent six hours alone together, save my rambunctious toddler. With nothing but time and vulnerability to fill the space, she turned to me and said, “I know something hasn’t been right between us for a long time. And I don’t know why. But I’m sorry for anything I ever did.”
There had been a long ago argument, between my uncle and I, where I felt betrayed by her loyalty to her son. My grudge melted away. I had a son of my own, now, knew that bond firsthand. Forgiveness was a tall glass of lemonade, while she watched her great-grandson play ball in the grass. She still loved me. And we snapped photos in my backyard, to which she laughed, “I hardly recognize myself!”
A champagne bottle sat unopened on my best friend’s counter, when I got the group
text that Grams was in the hospital. I paced around her kitchen, biting my lower lip. The kids upstairs had just settled into a raucous game of superhero chase. Turning to her, I asked, “What do you think I should do? Should I wait? My mom said I could wait, until they know more.” “I think, if it were me, I’d regret not going,” she replied.
Clothes on my back. Trunk full of recently purchased Costco snacks: apple sauce packets, chocolate chip granola bars, Annie’s Bunny Crackers. My son, still in his jammies, carried football style under my arm, wailing. Backseat protests, “Mommy my fwends. I wanna play! I wanna play!” Ninety minutes to make it to Snoqualmie Pass before it closed for avalanche control, so I’d have to speed. “Buddy I know. You want to play. I hear you. But Great Grammy is in the hospital.” Tears in my eyes, as I said the words aloud. I had to get there. Before she went into surgery. Backing out of the driveway, I sent the text to my mom: tell Grams I’m on my way.
In quiet moments, with the lull of nurses, visitors, and family from further out of town, I listened to the click clack whir lurch, of the breathing machine. Watched the jolting rise and fall of her chest. My smartphone quietly played her favorite Elvis gospel in the background, as I held her warm, salt swollen hand. Ten hours. Eleven hours. The days blurred together. I sang to her, and told her that I loved her, and that if this was her time to go, we would all be okay. I smoothed her gray hair over her forehead, careful to avoid the blood stained bandage. I took a photo, of the two of us, together, for the last time.
Three weeks before she died, as the twinkle lights of the holidays had given way to the darkness, my grams threw on a camel wool coat over her thin shoulders and sat in the pews of a rural Methodist church. It was the funeral of my dad’s 96-year-old mother, never grandma, always Grandma Vi. This fiercely introverted early-widow, who dressed in neatly pressed matching polyester pantsuits in all colors of the Easter egg rainbow, was last photographed at my high-school graduation, more than a decade before. Her absence in pictures weighed heavily on my dad, a reminder during the memorial slideshow, of how he had hoped it would be different. Despite our lack of closeness, I rose at the chance to be a pallbearer, if only to support my dad. For family honor, and respect of the dead.
After Grandma Vi’s services, while guest nibbled on cookies and carrot sticks, I exited the bathroom to find Grams standing in the flowered hallway. I lumbered over like a gangly teenager, and gave her and engulfing hug, saying into her wrinkled neck, “I don’t want you to die Grandma.” She squeezed me tightly and said, “I just want to let you know, because people wait too long to say what they should say. If anything were to happen to me, I want you to know, that you are a really good mom.”
In the standing room only memorial hall, upstairs in the church I had been baptized in, my cousin spoke first, saying, “Grandma wrote me a letter that I found from when I was a baby. In it, she said that she wasn’t sure, until she held me, her first grandkid, that she could love me like her own daughter.” But I knew the truth: her love was much bigger, deeper than bloodlines.
It’s been months since she’s died, and I’ve spent hours at the kitchen table with scrapbook and smartphone in hand. Flipping and scrolling; searching for our photos. I hold these memories when I can’t hold her anymore.