A death in the family

Josephine Obeidzinski Andrews Credit:

My grandmother, Josephine Obeidzinski Andrews, died up north in mid-December. She was 97. When I told my Pilates instructor that my grandmother had died, she looked at me hard and said, “How old was she?” I’m going to miss shocking people in this way.

And how old can you feel, even if you are 58 like I am, if a grandparent is still on the planet? She was a buffer, and with her death I got closer to facing what the singer Iris Dement, in her song “Let the Mystery Be,” calls “the way the whole thing ends.”

At first I thought this would not be a hard loss for me. Jo had had a long life, and a peaceful old age. I told people it was sweetly sad that my grandmother was in decline, but she and I were on good terms. I had no regrets.

When she did die, I felt relief. She was done with that final struggle that had had her mostly sleeping and wasting away for months. I wonder why she had to suffer like that, when she had enjoyed life so much. Even her frame, her very bones, seemed to get smaller, but I suppose that is not possible. With her passing we were at last done with the vigil, with nervously minding email and phone messages, with bracing for the grim news.

The call came 11 days before Christmas. I immediately put my grieving on hold so I could make sure we had a good holiday at our house, but I was in a bit of a fog. I left a pan on the burner with the heat turned on high, and the pan got ruined. I let our dog out into the backyard and then forgot her. And so on.

It was as if the bad thing — her dying — had run head on into the good thing —the holidays — and the convergence of the two had left my head spinning. It took me awhile to recognize that these were reactions to my grandmother’s death, and it took longer still to realize that I was struggling with confused, conflicting, feelings about her.

On Christmas day, after festivities were done, my mood took a dip. Ah, now I could grieve. But I felt blocked instead. When people tried to comfort me, I said blunt, honest things that stopped them. One woman said, “Sorry about your loss. That grandmother/grandchild relationship can be less loaded, and warmer, than the parent/child relationship.” My reply: “Actually, my grandmother wasn’t all that maternal.” Her reaction: “Huh?”

It took me awhile to realize that my confusion of feelings was due in part to the complexity of them. They included anger and frustration. She and I had lived in the same town while I was growing up (she lived there her whole life), and I saw her frequently, but we didn’t behave the way you might expect a grandmother and granddaughter would. I don’t remember her ever babysitting me, or in any way watching out for me. She was my maternal grandmother. My mother married when she was very young, and when I was growing up Jo was still raising her own kids.

My mother cooked everything from scratch, but Jo was not the apron-wearing, cookie-baking type. She served us cookies from the grocery store she owned, Oreos and the like, which we thought were a great treat. She played penny ante poker with us children, but no matter how young we were, she played to win.

She was often nervous and crabby, and her private life gave her reason to be. After my grandfather died, she relaxed. People asked her what on earth she was going to do, a woman in her 70s who had lost her spouse, and she said, emphatically, “I am going to live.”

For starters she would visit her son in Texas. She had never flown before, and she would be changing planes in the Dallas airport. Some brave soul in the family dared ask her if she thought it was a good idea to take such a trip alone. Her reply? “Do you think I don’t have a mouth? Do you think I can’t ask questions?” She went, and had a lovely time.

I have been working my way out from under the fog, but am still a bit stunned. As my husband says, my family is a matriarchy, and the queen has just died. It isn’t clear where the center of power is now.

We last visited her on Thanksgiving. She was so tired. Just before we left I said, “I love you.” All she could get out was a hoarse whisper, but I am grateful that the last words I heard her say were, “I love you.”


Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.