The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
A Dominant Presence Passes
January 15, 1986
Old Death came by for Grandmother, as she'd been expecting, and she chased him off almost empty-handed. All he got was the worn-out body in its 90th year, which she'd said she was through with anyway. We kept all the memories.
Grandmother, who was "Nana" to two generations of children and eventually to nearly everyone, had lived with us the last 15 years; but for more than 20 before that she'd been a dominant presence on holidays and vacation camping trips, at christenings and sicknesses and impromptu visits.
So our children, and then theirs, accepted her as an intimate and permanent part of the family from whom comfort and wisdom could be counted on, and to whom love and respect for age were due. The older ones remembered her as a robust, active, stylish woman; the youngest only as a gray and fragile and unsteady one. But even as she changed, her gentleness and unfailing courtesy remained constant. She was one of their most effective teachers.
It was only in the last months that her care became difficult. But even as her mind dimmed, like lights going out, one by one, in an old house, she retained flashes of wit and recognition. Once we found her up in the middle of the night, wandering lost, disoriented through the house. We got her back to bed and as we tucked the covers around her, she looked up with a grin and a twinkle and said, "You've sure got a crazy old lady on your hands."
Children had dominated her life and at the end, when she was no longer sure who any of the rest of us were, she recognized and cooed at year-old Sam, her youngest great-grandchild. She managed a brief, uncertain time at the final Christmas table. Then she died on the Epiphany, as if in a hurry, once the Christmas joys were gone.
"There's no need for anyone to come," Peggy had said earlier, thinking she meant it, determined to shoulder everyone's grief. "The weather's terrible. They're all so busy. We'll just have a simple service."
I dutifully passed the word without recommendation. The response was blunt and definitive. "I'm afraid," I reported back to Peggy, "you've got a revolt on your hands. For the first time in memory all your kids are disobeying you at once."
So they came the grandkids and great-grandkids, out from Washington, up from Kansas and Arizona, in from the other Iowa towns, taking charge of the funeral liturgy, filling the house with laughter and tears and all their stories about her. "Nana always loved a party," they declared, chasing Old Death clear out of the country. And as if on order the January thaw came riding in on a warm south wind.
The four great-granddaughters perched on the big bed agonizing over the choice they'd been offered from Nana's treasure trove of earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rosaries, while Peggy showed them ancient tintypes from the last century.
I couldn't quite cross the gulf to share all Peggy's feeling for the loss of her Mom. But mine was more than the ordinary relationship.
It would soon be 45 years since the last autumn before the war when I walked into the College Grill, which she operated, just off the campus in Emporia, Kan. Lonely freshman could not only eat cheap, but tell their troubles to kindly "Mom" Wichert. My trouble was that, having paid my fees and bought my books, I was flat broke. She hired me to wash dishes three hours a day for three meals. I shared the task with her daughter.
The family always claimed they lost money on the deal. But they gained a son-in-law. So, mine, also, was a long goodbye.
When the last of the family had gone, we went back into the empty, quiet house. We realized with a start that we had a big adjustment to make. It was the first time in 37 years since our first child was born that we had lived, just the two of us, alone.
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