Two years ago today, my grandmother, whom we affectionately called Weya, passed away. She was 88 and just a few weeks shy of her Valentine’s Day birthday. Though dementia robbed her of the final eight years of her life, she continued to dream big, make us laugh, and inspire us to be better. I was her “Nini,” and she was woman who could do no wrong. On the second anniversary of her passing, I’d like to honor her with this list of five things I loved about her:
1. She was deeply caring.
Weya pulled our family through some seriously tough times, such as my parents’ divorce. She made sure my siblings and I had an amazing dinner each night (my favorite dish was her “juice mixtre,” with boiled potatoes, ground beef, and tomato sauce). She pressed our heads, ironed our clothes, and tucked us in at night. She gave my sisters and me advice on how to be upstanding young ladies. I may have slipped from some of her guidance–“Boys and girls who aren’t married shouldn’t sleep in the same bed,” she once said–but I’ll never forget how much she nurtured me in my formative years. I still have a pajama top she gave me when I was 12, when I got food poisoning from Burger King.
2. She was feisty.
My grandmother was a genteel Southern lady who cooked homemade greens and watched “Matlock” reruns, but she was no pushover. I’ll never forget the time a man came to our door and, upon introducing himself as Darnell, Weya got buck. “That’s not my Darnell!” she shouted, referring to my uncle. We couldn’t stop laughing. To this day, we still burst out with that line randomly. Her reaction was funny, but more important, it showed how tough she was. She wasn’t going to allow anyone to mislead her, even if she was innocently wrong. And in the days when AOL was the most popular ISP, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell us we were “tying up the line.”
3. She was innocently superstitious.
Weya held endearing superstitions for the smallest circumstances. When it stormed, we had to turn off the lights and sit in total darkness–and silence–until it passed. “God is working,” she’d say. No more than one person could do our hair at a time. Opening an umbrella in the house? No, thank you. And, sweetly, I believed everything she said, much of which I only recently gave up. I don’t mind two people dabbling in my head at once anymore and I opened an umbrella in my room one afternoon (just to see what would happen), but I always remember her stern warnings. They make me smile now.
4. She seemed invincible.
I don’t ever recall Weya crying about anything. She remained poised and classy, even when things were positively heinous. I’d wonder how she could run her hands under scalding-hot water without flinching. On road trips, she neeeeever needed bathroom breaks. I rarely saw her eat, with the exception of a few pork rinds or pig’s feet. She couldn’t even admit to falling asleep–when we’d catch her dozing off, she’d insist she was just “resting her eyes.” It seemed that nothing could shake this woman. Though none of us can be perfect, Weya carried an unbelievable sense of pride, dignity, and resolve that put her pretty close to the mark.
5. She was grateful.
Although my beliefs eventually diverged from Weya’s traditional Christianity, I admire the hope and gratitude her faith gave her. After she had forgotten how to walk and talk, she still dreamed about going places, meeting new people, and enjoying life. She’d qualify all her plans with “If the Lord spares me” and shout out “Thank you, Jesus!” at 3 a.m. She couldn’t watch her favorite TV shows and make salmon croquettes with her disease, but she continued to exalt the heavens for all she had. That amazes me–this woman was bedridden and could barely remember our names, but she was so happy and grateful. If she could be thankful for her life even as her mental faculties failed her, so could anyone.
Weya’s dementia was hard to deal with sometimes. Before I understood what was happening in her brain, I couldn’t understand why she would lash out at me for no reason, or why she couldn’t walk through airport security when I escorted her home one time. I got angry. I got annoyed. I didn’t sit with her all the time.
Looking back, however, I’m thankful that I was able to do small things for her last days, whether it was putting lotion on her legs, reading her a few verses from the Bible, or feeding her macaroni and cheese while rubbing her head. Her final years forced me to look deeply at my own humanity and at hers. I will never forget this amazing woman. Though she is gone, her words, deeds, and spirit will dwell in my heart forever.