an imperfect goodbye

my grandmother painting my nursery before I was born

my grandmother painting my nursery before I was born

She didn’t like the cold, she didn’t like the heat, and she didn’t like rain.

My grandmother, or “Nana” as I called her, was very weather-affected.

One story in particular stands out. I remember my dad planning to take her to Walmart-but when it started to rain, she refused to go. He told her she should stick to the plan because, “Walmart has a roof.”

Over the last year my grandmother and I talked on the phone every week, usually on Tuesday afternoons. Our calls always started with swapping weather details. Nashville was always a little colder in the winter and rained more; Atlanta, a bit more unbearable in the summer. It wasn’t surface level for us—the weather shaded or brightened the lens through which we viewed all our circumstances.

When I placed my weekly call to Nana on January 19th, she couldn’t wait to tell me about her idea. She would put a swing up for June, or as she called her “my baby”, in her back room. The holes were after all, still in the ceiling from the swing my cousins and I used when we were small. She reminded me again of our plan when I came to visit; she would hold June so I could go and take a bath. Her dog, Lucky, started barking, I promised to come visit in February, and she hung up the phone.

I didn’t think it was the last time. I guess no one ever does.

Later that week, my grandmother went to the emergency room with flu-like symptoms, but things took a turn for the worse. Michael and I rushed to Atlanta. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to her, and many things felt so incomplete. I cried—big, messy tears, the kind that only come when life seems unfair and impossibly broken. She never got to hold June. June would never play in the promised swing in her house.

As I sat next to her hospital bed, I thought about who Nana was to me. Being that my grandmother was one of the most opinionated people I have ever met, I thought a lot about the advice she’d given me over the years.

“Let’s keep this between us. Your parents don’t have to know.”

When I was chubby and in the thick of middle school awkwardness, Nana took me shopping to buy a short, hunter green velvet skirt from the Gap. It had a matching jacket. I’d complained my dad wouldn’t let me wear any “cool” clothes, so she stepped in. I also told her how much I wanted to subscription to YM (a teen magazine), so she ordered it for me to be sent to her house as our little secret. I hid the magazines under a blue leather chair, so my parents wouldn’t find out.

In middle school and early high school, I’d go over to Nana’s house every week to watch whatever show we were into at the time. We watched Promised Land, Touched by an Angel, and 7th Heaven together over the years and we’d eat vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce out of little glass curvy bowls. Sometimes, she’d even let me have two servings. But we never told my parents.

“Cooking is important…if you’re going to catch a husband.”

Our quality time was more limited during high school and college, but after I moved home from China, I lived with my grandmother for eight months. Eating ice cream together was replaced with sharing morning coffee. Many mornings, I’d boil eggs and make real bacon just like she liked. She told me several times I wasn’t a good cook, and that I must learn in order to catch a husband. Thankfully, someone who lived off peanut butter sandwiches and bananas came into my life—so any cooking was an improvement in his book:)

When Michael came into the picture, Nana was ecstatic. She had someone to drink bourbon with at 5:00! When my grandfather was alive, he and my grandmother used to have bourbon every afternoon, so part of me thinks she didn’t trust someone who didn’t appreciate straight bourbon.

“Marriage is all about togetherness.”

My grandmother wasn’t someone who shared her heart and deepest feelings, as she considered this “airing dirty laundry.” But one day last fall, my phone rang around 10am. I was a little worried because it was an odd time for her to call, so I stepped into a conference room at work to answer.

“I’m so glad you answered. I was just sitting here thinking. The loneliness is so hard, Ruth. It’s killing me. I am so down. I really miss Pop.”

It hurt me to hear her say those words. I knew she had lots of visitors every week, but I suppose nothing can quite replace the companionship of a spouse.

Michael reminded me of Nana’s advice to us when we shared our plans to marry. “It’s all about togetherness,” she said, cautioning us that marriage wasn’t always a bowl of cherries. She told us how important it was to have fun and to laugh, and to just be together.

Four years in, I couldn’t agree more.

“Don’t drink and smoke while pregnant.”

When I called Nana to tell her I was pregnant, the first words out of her mouth were, “This news has given me a real boost!”

She the followed up her excitement instructing me that a lot of her friends continued to drink and smoke while pregnant, but she urged me to not partake in either alcohol or cigarettes. She also told me not to gain more than 12 pounds. I told her I merely thought about being pregnant and gained 12 pounds.

I’ve always hated goodbyes.

I’m the person who’d rather slip out of the party without a word to anyone. Goodbyes feel awkward and unsettling, with no words seeming to be the right ones. On January 28th, many people shared beautiful stories about my grandmother at her funeral. But there was something much more powerful than any words spoken: the weather. Just as Nana would have liked it, it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining. The sky was cloudless and she was buried under bright sunshine next to my grandfather. June cried at the gravesite. There was something about that bright sunny day and my daughter’s tears that brought finality—though imperfect in so many ways—to the beautiful, courageous life of Nancy Alton Harper.

But goodness, I do miss her.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

8 Responses to “an imperfect goodbye”
  1. mark says:

    Beautiful tribute! God bless you in your grieving.

  2. Kristy says:

    Oh Ruthie this was such a beautiful post. I remember you talking about your Nana in college. I love you, miss you and hope you know you can always reach out if you need me!

  3. This story made me cry thinking about my grandmother who passed away recently. We shared similar things as you and yours, thank you for sharing your story!

  4. Sarah says:

    So well written as always! Thank you for sharing, as it made me laugh and think fondly back on the memories of my sweet Nanny. I hope you, Michael, and that sweet baby girl are doing well! Much love!

  5. Tiara says:

    My condolences to you and your family!

  6. Summer says:

    This is beautiful! Love this, all of it. You two had a very special relationship. God bless grandmothers, especially good ones like yours! :)

  7. Abby says:

    Thanks for sharing, thoughts & prayers for all of you!!

  8. Laura says:

    This brought tears to my eyes. My Nana is still alive, thank the Lord, but we are slowly losing her to Alzheimer’s. It’s so hard for me to deal with what we’re going through. I can’t handle it most of the time. I’m losing my Nana, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Oh, how I wish I could have just one day where she was fully there! We’d play cards (Rummy) and sit and watch “The Price is Right.” She’d fall asleep watching her Soaps, and I would giggle as a snore escaped.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I think it’s opened the door for me to grieve, and to process what is happening.

Leave A Comment