She never knew what it was to be a child. She was raising children by the age of seven- a sibling on her hip, and another following close behind, hanging onto her skirt as if she was their mother. Youth was not a time of whimsy and delight for her. It was a time of hardship, strife, and duty. She bore the weight of adult responsibility as soon as she could walk.
She kissed her young new husband on the lips, and watched him turn his back and go off to the war. She gave birth to their first child without him there to see her. She suffered through a crippling illness while she cared for her baby on her own, and worked her hands raw for the domestic war efforts.
When the war was over, she had to pick up and move forth as if none of it had happened. They raised their first three girls, then after a gap of time, a son and another daughter. She raised grandchildren, as well. She kept her gardens. She did the washing and hung it out in the sun to dry. She cooked every meal. She canned and froze what she grew for later. They bought a farm, but kept their city home. Now she managed two lots of gardens, two houses. She dried a million tears. She bandaged a million scrapes. She found a million kind words to soothe broken hearts. She snapped a million green beans. She baked a million pies. She stitched a million seams. She patched a million holes.
She took us to the airport to fly out to California. She wanted us to meet our aunt, uncle, and cousins there, and see the ocean for the first time in our lives. She kissed her husband’s lips, and they both had a tear in their eyes. I had never seen this between them before. This would be the last time she would ever kiss him. It was meant to be goodbye, but not goodbye forever. The very next morning, she and our aunt were on a plane home, leaving us in the capable hands of our uncle while they sorted out the business of our grandfather’s life.
Twenty years she went on without him. She still took every window out of its frame twice a year and cleaned them until they sparkled. She still fed her birds. She still watered her flowers, pulled the weeds, and picked the tomatoes. She never gave up, not even for a moment. She went on and on as if she would live forever. She mailed handwritten letters, wrapped Christmas packages, baked cookies, greeted guests, made tea, cooked holiday dinners, shared garden magazines. She did the newspaper puzzles every day. She watched the news and kept track of the weather forecast religiously. She went to Central Park for the band concerts every week in the summer. She beat Joe at Scrabble. She got most of the answers on Jeopardy. She told us stories of her life on the farm as a girl. She kept track of the life events of every member of our massive family. She told the cleverest jokes. She played along with Joe’s riddle games. She clapped in time to his songs as he strummed his guitar. She refilled the hummingbird feeder.
Rheumatoid arthritis gripped her neck and shoulders, her arms and legs, her hands and feet. She was getting closer and closer to ninety years old. Aunt Melody was there at her house much of the time, mopping, scrubbing, stocking shelves, dusting, any little thing she could do. Her mother had never let anyone sleep on stale sheets in her house, and so she wouldn’t let her sleep on them, either. She couldn’t get up and down the stairs very well anymore. We washed her hair in the sink. We took her list to the store for her when she was feeling particularly badly, and we gingerly helped her into the car and drove her when she was strong enough to get out and about. We took her out in the sunshine on her better days. I did what I could to help. She didn’t like letting other people do the work she had done for so many decades on her own. When the day was done, I always told her whether or not she’d see me tomorrow. One afternoon, I told her, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She said, “Oh, but tomorrow is Saturday. Take the day for yourself. Spend time with your family.” I shook my head. “You are my family. I’ll be here, rain or shine.” She said, “Well, at least sleep in a little. You don’t have to come early in the morning.” I took my time the next day. I was just ready to head over there and see what she might need help with when the phone rang. It was my father. She was gone.