Margery Mae Harrold, my grandma, was born on July 23, 1922.
She was Freda and Roy Harrold’s first child.
Freda and Roy had two more children in the early years of their marriage: Norma Lee and Leeland. Much later, when Margery was 16, Freda and Roy had their youngest child, Donald.
Born in the heart of the Dust Bowl just a decade before it began, she had a traumatic childhood, but she was fiercely devoted to her family, and especially her mother. Freda and Roy knew their daughter was intelligent and they tried several times to send her to live with other family members so that she could get a better education. Every time, she ran back home.
She met my grandpa, Howard George Jones, during WWII. Born and raised in South Dakota, he was in the Navy and was stationed in Kansas where he worked as a mechanic. They married after a scandalously brief courtship.
The young couple moved around a bit—first to South Dakota, then to Nebraska, and finally, they settled in Denver, Colorado where Howard worked for the fledgling company Frontier Airlines.
There, they had their two children, Wendell (my dad) and Nadine.
Margery was the quintessential 1950s American housewife, but she wasn’t happy. A traumatic childhood leaves its marks. Her husband was a hard man to live with and to love. Most of all, her life left her intelligence unfulfilled.
During the 1960s, when Wendell was in high school and Nadine was in junior high, Howard took a job with the FAA and the family moved to Seattle.
When she was an adolescent, Nadine began to have serious emotional problems and Margery, who was always devoted to her children and extremely close to her daughter, became increasingly absorbed in Nadine’s mood storms.
Wendell went to college, married, and moved to Albuquerque. Nadine, too, moved into a life of her own, though markedly less successfully.
In 1971 and 1973, my sister and I were born, Howard and Margery’s only grandchildren.
To say Margery was fond of her granddaughters would be the understatement of the century.
And then, in 1979, the unthinkable: Nadine took her own life.
After the immediate grief—the literal wailing and gnashing of teeth, the horrifying, noisy, sloppy business of surviving one of the worst imaginable traumas a human could experience—Margery stopped.
Stopped living, stopped feeling, stopped hoping.
She heard the call of bitterness and she followed it down and down and down. She swallowed it in big, long gulps with bourbon and coffee in the morning, beer at lunch, gin and tonics in the afternoons, wine with dinner, and valium before bed.
She went through the motions of her life, but she was not in it.
After Howard retired, the couple bought an RV and a membership to a resort and campground. They spent time travelling around the US, Howard tinkering endlessly with their giant rolling home, Margery happy that he had a project to occupy him so she could get some peace.
They travelled to Europe and Asia, trips that Margery mostly hated. She like to have her things around her, to have control of her environment, and international travel made her uncomfortable.
In 1998, Howard died and something startling happened: Margery woke up. She joined a grief support group and a church. She did volunteer work and spent time with her friends. She bought a car she liked for once in her life. She bloomed.
We watched, amazed and giddy at this new woman who had sprung up before us. She was herself, but lighter.
In 2006, she broke her leg, right below her hip, and everything changed. Her independent life was over.
In the fall of 2011, my sister Erin (who had been our grandma’s primary caregiver for several years) informed our parents and me that the time had come for hospice care. My grandma, who had been dying a long, lingering death for several years by then, finally seemed to be serious about going home.
In the last few years of her life she said to at least three family members, “I know my Father has many mansions and I wish they would finish mine because I want to go home!” She was angry about being here on earth. Three years in a row, as I seated her for Christmas dinner, she thumped the table with her fists and said, “This better be my last one!”
We hobbled along for several years, my parents, my sister, and I trying to make her life as comfortable as we could, but as her confusion grew, so did her anxiety and frustration. She would get irrationally angry and there was little we could do but let her ride it out. She kicked me out of her room one night after accusing me of stealing her independence and her money. She became near-obsessed with “the baby” (whose baby we never could determine) and my sister and I eventually gave up convincing her that there are no babies in our family and instead reassured her that “the baby” was fine.
And still, she was always my grandma. I would put her on the phone with my dad or one of her brothers and her misery would pour out, but with me, whenever she was able, she was my grandma. She apologized when she snapped at me, refused the medicine or water I offered as gently as possible, and called me honey or sweetie in even her most agonized moments.
When she saw me walk into the room, or when she opened her eyes and I was there, her face lit like it had my whole life. She saw me, and she knew me, and she loved me.
As the end got closer, our parents still in Maryland, my sister and I struggled to keep her comfortable. Erin had some long and terrible hours with our grandma, her pain intense. The anguish and helplessness in my sister’s face when I arrived at 6:00 one morning was horrible. We don’t know what ultimately killed our grandma, but the pain was in her abdomen and for several days, we didn’t have everything we needed to get it under control.
Our mom came, and soon after, a hospice nurse arrived. With the right drugs to control her pain, we settled in for the final wait. I called my dad and told him to come, then told my grandma that Wendell was on his way. She wasn’t talking anymore by then but she responded to her son’s name.
My dad arrived the next morning and we spent the day quietly in her room—my parents, my sister, and I tending to my grandma, talking, and being with.
My mom changed my grandma’s sheets and when I leaned over my grandma’s recliner to carry her back to her bed, she opened her eyes and saw me, and oh, that smile. She gave me that smile of recognition and pure, devoted love that she has given me since she first met me.
That night, I didn’t want to go home, but I knew that my grandma wouldn’t be able to die if I was there. She was my grandma and she would protect me to her very last moment. For her, I was never quite an adult. She trusted me as much as she trusted anyone, but she tried to take care of me, even when I was taking care of her.
After Erin and I had gone home, my parents lay down on the fold-out couch, turned off the lights, and listened. My grandma breathed slowly, then more slowly, and finally, she was finished. She went home.
We decided to take her to Kansas to bury her next to her husband and her daughter on Mother’s Day. For weeks before we all piled into my dad’s Toyota and drove from Albuquerque to Newton, family members reminded me: Don’t forget grandma!
I didn’t forget Grandma.
We wore pink because she loved it, and we did the digging ourselves (Thanks again, David!) because in my family, we take do-it-yourself very seriously.
She was ready to go long before she did, but finally, my grandma rests.
In the end, after almost everything was finished and her life was coming to a close, she found joy.
She found her way back, from bitterness to hope.
I am blessed to have witnessed it all.
I am blessed to have been loved by this fierce, flawed, and wonderful woman. She made me special.
I love you, Grandma. When I see you again, we’ll be having coffee in your beautiful pink room that your Father prepared for you, full of birds and flowers, and I will see that smile again.