Celebrating Lettie

Lettie, January 2003

Today we had birthday cake and fried hamburger and onions and regular coke and remembered my Grandma Lettie, celebrating more than nine decades of her influence in this world.

Every year when the wild roses began to bloom I think of my grandma. My mom told me when I was really small they always bloomed just in time for Grandma’s birthday, and pretty much every year, that is the case. I saw the first blossoms on Lex’s field trip Thursday: Grandma would have been 97 today.  

Wild Roses, June 10, 2013
Lettie & Mackenzie (known as Israel these days)
Grandma will always probably be 88 in my mind, even though she was considerably younger than that for most of my life.  For months (years?) my little six-year-old son talked to everyone about his Nana he lost when she was only 88.

  That little boy will be 16 this fall. I know the conventional wisdom is that losing someone gets easier as time passes, and there is some truth in that. But some days the loss actually seems more difficult; as years pass as years go by, it’s just that many years since you’ve been able to spend time with the person no longer in your life. You rearrange your routine to try to cover the holes left behind by absence, but the holes are still there. 

Israel Mackenzie's Headstart Graduation
My grandmother was nearly as big a part of my family growing up as my own siblings and parents. She wasn’t just someone who sent a birthday card once a year or who my parents made us dutifully call on holidays. We saw her every day. She watched various combinations of my siblings and me over the years while we were still small as my parents worked and finished advanced degrees; she took all of us at different times in different combinations along on her travels all across the U.S. All of my childhood memories involve my grandmother. She was there at every holiday but also every regular day. Once everyone was in school and not spending their days with her, at some point every evening, after everyone was home from work and school, her little red car would rumble down our driveway, still checking in on us all.

And she was just as big a part of my first son’s early childhood as she was mine. While I was at work during the day, he was busy with Grandma.  By the time he was three he had his name on the attendance at the senior center and foothills club, and after he and Grandma had their morning toast and coffee (or apple juice), they’d spend their days together often out at her meetings or working at the local food pantry. He still has these women who were my grandmother’s friends for decades, checking in on him, following his progress.

Mission Senior Center, 2002. I was doing a photography project with my high school students and Israel was interested in the idea of documenting things & the work they were doing. (He was 4.) I let him take one of my cameras with him one of the days he was hanging out with Grandma. He took a whole collection of photos of his friends at the senior center. This one one of them. You can barely see Grandma's head--she's sitting on the right side of that back table.
People leave their mark on the world in many different ways, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who has done so in a way I respect more than my grandma.  She was a huge part of my family’s lives, but we were only one piece of hers.  My mom was the youngest of seven children, so she had literally hundreds of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  By shear numbers that meant she always had a handful of them experiencing success and a handful struggling. She did what she could, in big ways and small, to support them all, all the time. She had different people living with her throughout the years. She was always on road trips across the state to check in with different family, to attend weddings and graduations. Every Christmas she’d buy presents for everyone, spend a few evenings wrapping them all, pack her car completely full, and spend a few days driving around the reservation delivering them. Every year she’d threaten not to give a present to anyone who didn’t come visit her personally to collect it, but of course she never followed through with that threat. 

Mom, Grandma, & Azia...just hanging out. 2003.
  The older I get the more thankful I am I chose to stay close to home to raise my children, and that they have these strong links to their grandparents and great grandparents. Israel has many vivid memories and years with his great-grand grandmother. Not a lot of people get that experience. My daughter has fewer, because she was so young, but even my younger two boys know about her because she is still a part of our lives.  They show off her button collection and talk about her love of elephants, pointing out the ones they inherited from her collection.

Azia with a whole box of craft supplies from Grandma's private collection (2010). Treasures still show up now and then.

Today as the kids and I were talking about it being her birthday and figuring out how old she’d be, they decided to have food for dinner that reminded them of Nana. Israel wrote out the list, getting input from the younger kids, but mostly reminding them of the food she always seemed to have around.  As Azia and Zoran snacked on toast (with jam of course) Azia told the younger boys that actually Nana would definitely be having coffee with her toast. As she and Zoran began frosting the cake and deciding how to decorate it Zoran proposed Miami heat colors. Then they both remembered Grandma was a Lakers fan, and Azia exclaimed excitedly, “That’s probably why I’ve always like them! Now it makes sense! I never really knew why they were my favorite.” And then her and Zoran began remembering stories their yaya had told them about Grandma and Grandpa Paul and the Lakers.  
At my Grandma’s funeral I remember looking over the huge crowd, hundreds and hundreds of people spilling out of the church, the connected gym, and into the hallways, and thinking, this is what a legacy looks like.  I don’t think it had occurred to me before that point that one person could connect with so many others.

Israel's dinner for the evening. He explained to the younger kids. "This is really good. I'm going to eat this all the time when I'm an 80-year-old woman."

But more the more powerful and lasting legacy than that one day, is the day-to-day ways she continues to weave through so many lives, those holes left by her absence still there, but patched with new memories and new grandchildren still linked to who she was and all she did for us. 

The kids counted out 97 candles and distributed them among their pieces of cake. We probably should have recruited a few more cousins--that many candles on one piece of cake is quite a fire hazard.

She started something really good all those decades ago.

We're sure lucky to be a part of it.

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