Last week family and friends celebrated the life of my grandmother, Sara Jobes Atkinson. After a long battle with Alzheimer’s (she was diagnosed 20 years ago), she died on February 1, 2018. She was 80 years old.
I have many memories with Grandma. As a child, I was lucky enough to spend several summers with her when she lived in Texas. We swam in the neighbors’ pool, played with Barbies, read stories, and ate ice cream every night before bed. We took weekend trips, shopped at H.E.B., and watched Larry Bird play basketball. We did a lot.One year, I even traveled to Oregon with her to attend her sister’s 50th wedding anniversary–the first and only time I’ve ever eaten an oyster. Those were special times, and I will be forever grateful for them, as well as many others.
At the funeral, I was asked to share a eulogy. It took me several days to figure out how to honor the woman whom I loved. I finally settled on an idea and began writing. Once I finished, I sent it to my mother, who sent it on to other family members. They all approved, but I kept working, trying to make it perfect. I think–I hope–I came close.
As each of us will remember Grandma, we will see different images. Some of us will recall her as a friend who welcomed us into her home. Some might think of her as a collector of beanie babies, baskets, and quilts. Some may call to mind helping her move several times over many years. Though we will all remember her in our own special way, I imagine there is one thing that we will share: the memory of her laugh.
Grandma loved to laugh. Boy, did she have a great laugh–a distinct laugh–and once she got started, it wasn’t long before everyone in the room joined in. It was infectious. It was irresistible.
Some of my fondest memories are of Grandma and Uncle Lee together. They would tell stories of their youth, each of them embellishing details to make the other look more rotten than the other. They would razz the other, pushing just the right button to inspire indignation that would then result in knowing laughter. It was even more riotous if the other siblings were around. When all of them were together, there was no telling how long the laughs would last. Even when the tales veered to their childhoods, in days after the Depression, the Jobes brothers and sisters somehow focused their memories on the joy and the fun they shared, not on the hardships. It was a great lesson for me, watching my grandma with her siblings–a lesson in appreciating and celebrating who and what you have when you have them.
There are other memories of Grandma’s laughter. I can hear it as she played Bridge at the kitchen table. Maybe you recall it from the times you played tennis or golf with her. I hear it in the neighbor’s pool, where we splashed and dove for rings. Perhaps you remember it from bike rides in the park. I hear it under the trees as we shuck corn and snap beans. You might recollect it during dinner parties. I hear it as she marvels at her great-grandchildren toddle to her for the first time.
And then there are the quiet smiles. Do you remember them? I see flashes. They often came right before the big laugh. These came softly, in awe or with pride, after a concert, performance, or game. She would smile, offer congratulations, and then make a joke that we, of course, got that particular talent from her. Then the laugh escaped and we all joined her, knowing that sometimes she was right, and sometimes she wasn’t.
Other times, let’s be honest, we laughed at Grandma. There were jokes or stories we told that went over her head, and we would giggle at her lack of her “street smarts.” One year, a round of White Elephant ended, and she was stuck the gift she had brought–a dancing Santa Claus. She couldn’t believe her bad luck, and we couldn’t not laugh.
There was her aversion to others’ chewing gum. Her friends, Patty and Barbara, once popped in bubble gum right before picking Grandma up for a bridge game. That lasted about as long as it took them to step inside the door.
She had an ingenious method of in-house communication, aka “Stomp 3 times”–stomping on the upstairs floor to get Mom or Saundra’s attention downstairs. The first round of stomps were to tell Dad or Uncle Grant to go home. If they didn’t move fast enough, another round of stomps told them she meant now, not soon.
We all have these kinds of stories about Grandma. Most of the time, we told them in her presence. At first, there would be a brief expression of incredulity or short exclamation of surprise, but eventually, Grandma–who didn’t take herself too seriously–would eventually join in the laughter, creating more fun-loving memories with her nearest and dearest.
There are many cruel things about Alzheimer’s. Names are forgotten. Memories are ripped away. Independence is relinquished. These losses are devastating to be sure, but I would argue that the worst is the end of the laughter. Once the laughter is gone, so is much of the light that gives us life. I am sad that Grandma’s spark went out so long before her body finally succumbed.
So while I mourn, I can’t help to be thankful that Grandma is free from the grip of of this disease. And as I celebrate her freedom from dementia, I celebrate the life that she lived.
I celebrate and I remember. I remember the love. I remember the hugs and kisses. Most of all, I remember the laughter.
Oh, how I loved my grandma. Oh, how I will miss her.