99. Almost 100, but not quite. I suppose though, that in this instance it’s close enough to pronounce it one-hundred. That’s how long she lived. She was less than a year from her one-hundredth birthday when she left us.
So, what exactly does one see in the passing of a century? Sure, it’s easy to make note of the obvious sights and sounds of a drastically changing world. You’ve got television and radio, wars, world wars, assassinations, the possibility of nuclear destruction, and (even more frightening) reality television. You know. All the typical stuff, but, when I look at her, think of her, miss her, those are not the images that fill my mind.
I remember the day that I sat beside her in the car. I was probably about seven-years old. I, for whatever reason, began running my fingers along her arm and down to her wrist. I was amazed at the velvet feel of her skin under my fingertips. Like any overtly verbal seven-year-old little girl, I looked up at her and vigorously declared “Wow, Grandma! You have really soft skin!” As far as I was concerned, that was the nicest compliment that I could have given her at that moment. There I sat, looking up at her, waiting for a sweet grandmotherly “Thank you.” Instead, she looked at me and just as vigorously declared “Well! I certainly hope my skin is soft. I am a woman, you know!” Cars didn’t have that really cool opening from the backseat to the trunk back then, so I had to just sit there until we reached our destination and wish that I could crawl into the trunk.
This was Grandma. Most of the grandkids didn’t get the opportunity to know her too closely, but she decided to move to our small town when I was about ten and I actually got well-acquainted with her. One could even say that we got kind of friendly. Before then, she was known to me only as “Grandmother Busch,” the grandmother who gives you awful dresses with eight petticoats that even your mother can’t stand and tells you to run try it on so she can see “how beautiful you look in it.”
I lost count of how many times I forced myself up those stairs, put on the dress, and stomped back down the stairs just to hear her say “That’s nice, honey. Now run along and let us talk.” To this day, I still wonder if she ever really liked those dresses or if she just bought them so that we could replay that scene for her merriment.
Stately. Tall. Immaculately groomed (her nails were always perfect). If you’ve ever watched the “Gilmore Girls” on television then you’ll know the character, Emily Gilmore. Add a several years to her and a somewhat tethered Texas accent and you’ve got Grandma. Maybe that seems harsh, but you have to understand that I’m wild about Emily Gilmore. She’s beautiful. She’s smart. She’s sharp-tongued. She does exactly what she wants to do. She’s in control. Just like my Grandma.
Grandma was an accomplished vocalist and poet and, from the time she was a young girl growing up in Houston, she studied voice and theater. If the weather is just right I can talk my mother into unearthing some handsome old scrapbooks brimming with photographs of Grandma in her elaborate costumes. She was quite the diva in her flowing white lace, feathered Indian headdresses, and bathing suits. We had to keep the whereabouts of the scrapbooks a secret because Grandma had actually thrown them out. “Things of the past. Nobody is interested in that nonsense anymore.” she would say. Those beautiful books were our family’s prized contraband, along with a few other things that she thought she’d thrown out, but my mom stealthily grabbed from the trash bin when Grandma wasn’t looking.
This was a woman who, when I was a little girl, could make me intensely angry, but as I matured and began to do more than just hear her voice it all changed. I began to hear what she was saying. She was smart and funny. Grandma used to cheat (playfully, not maliciously) when we played Trivial Pursuit. She would send me into the next room to get a glass of water for her and I’d come back to find her reading the backs of the cards. Our eyes would meet and she would smoothly ask “Was I not supposed to do that?”
It was a warm Sunday afternoon when I slid into the drive-thru at Dairy Queen and picked up a vanilla shake for her. She had been in the hospital and was due to go home the next day and that shake was the very thing to help to make the last part of her stay a bit sweeter. It seems so trivial now. The shake sat there melting and forming those glistening beads of condensation on its cup. Eventually, it ended up in the nearby wastebasket while I stood beside Grandma’s bed, touching her hair, stroking her cheeks and forehead, telling her how much I loved her, and thinking to myself “This isn’t right. She’s not supposed to go right now. They said she was going home tomorrow. My mother should be with her now. I have no right to be here. There were so many things I wanted to ask you, needed to ask you.” and then, after giving up, running my fingers along her arm and down to her wrist while softly telling her “Wow, Grandma. You have really soft skin.”
So, once again, I’ll offer the question. What exactly does one see in the passing of a century? Is it possible that the bigger question is what do we see when look at those who have lived it? The answer to the question is this. Not enough. No matter how much of her I had or how well I may have known her, it simply wasn’t enough. I want more. I want to ask the questions that I never asked. I want to hear the stories that I never heard. I want her to repeat it all to my sons. I want to hear her sing one more time. I want to sing with her once more. I want to run my fingers along her arm and down to her wrist. I want more.