New Years Day always marks the beginning, a new chapter in the story of our lives. Fresh, clean pages waiting for what each day will bring. Challenges, triumphs, laughter, tears, it is all there waiting for you to begin. This year, for the first time in 31 years, it also marked the first time I began a year without my grandma. As the pages of 2017 unfolded, the story of her life quietly came to a close, all 97 chapters.
It feels as though she has been gone in a sense, for much longer. Alzheimers stole a lot from her in the last ten years or so. She hasn’t made stuffed peppers, cheesecake or that mysterious green jello confection I loved for quite some time. The birds, squirrels and chipmunks have long forgotten the kindly little lady who set out trays of bread and birdseed every morning; though I like to think they spent some time pestering the new owners of her quiet country house when she left, sitting on the kitchen windowsill and the railings waiting for their breakfast. In the years leading up to her broken hip, the Alzheimers brought out more of stubborn side, rendering her grouchy and suspicious, though she always had a smile and never ending cacophony of crazy sounds for Wyatt that delighted his baby and then toddler self.
A few weeks ago, as she sat in her wheelchair, singing to herself, nervous about the crowd in her room who clearly knew her, though she couldn’t quite place us, he reminded her that she needed to catch him and giggled still while she trilled and whistled for him. In his four short years with her, their roles switched quickly. She held him, and then suddenly my toddler was admonishing “Grandma Sophie” to eat her food, knowing that she would share the cookie on her tray with him. He went from sitting on her lap to take a ride with her in her wheelchair, to pushing her oh so carefully into her room as she shuffled her feet to help.
I can remember many years ago, talking to her about when I would get married and have kids and how she would be there, of course. She smiled gently and told me, that she may not be around anymore when I got married. Even though she had played a rousing game of wiffle ball with us in the backyard earlier (in which, she hit the ball over the house), she WAS getting older. It was fun to tell her, “told you so”, on my wedding day years later 15 days away from her 90th birthday. Her presence there, getting to meet Wyatt and my sister’s little one all defied the odds; but then again, that is what she had been doing her whole life.
In reality, the 31 years I knew and loved her are just tiny glimpse into her long life. She wasn’t always a mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She was the little girl sitting on the front steps of the house on the South Side who casually told an admiring passerby that if he liked her, he should give her a nickel. She was the woman who swam across the Mon River and back because she could, barges and all. She was the woman who astonished my grandfather by painting the house before he got home from his shift at J&L Steel. He never knew what color it would be when he got home. She raised 5 kids into smart, successful adults on the South Side before it was cool. In her lifetime, the Hot Metal Bridge, transported just that. She could swear in English and Polish and frequently carried on conversations in a mix of Slovak and Polish with our neighbor.
She taught me to appreciate a good Polka and butter pecan ice cream. She had an infectious giggle and a beautiful smile. She set her hair in pink curlers at night that we would forever find after she had visited. As my sisters and I sprinted up her driveway from the neighboring dog, she sprinted back down it wielding a broom and then proceeded to call the neighbor and put the fear of God in them afterwards. Her candy jars were always full when we visited and somehow we never missed the cartoons we couldn’t watch on her tv. Rock climbing, hose spraying and exploring were always encouraged at her house, along with piano playing and imagining.
All of the events I have only read about in my history classes, she lived through. Born in 1919 at the end of WWI, she grew up during The Great Depression. Imagine living through that and the fast forward to the technology and privilege we all experience today. She never had a cell phone or computer, though she enjoyed the ability to swipe through our phones to see pictures and got to experience the magic of FaceTime. The world she left behind, is a much different place than the world she was born into. I suppose that is always the case, but after living almost a century, the differences are even more staggering.
At a time in my life that has been a little trying, I’ve adopted the motto, “If Soph could, so can you,” and I am forever grateful to that tiny Polish woman and her determination. She always signed her cards and letters, “you are loved.” Three simple words that carry so much meaning; it was never a question or an afterthought. I only hope she knows just how much she was loved in return.