Leave it to Grandma Signe to die on a leap day. My family’s never sure when to mark her death on “off” years – Feb. 28 or March 1?
Unusual is too strong a word to describe a woman who chewed gum with her front teeth, but to me she was eccentric for keeping a small bottle of Southern Comfort in her refrigerator.
Signe had an Andy Warhol eye for color and was a slipper knitter and a first-rate doily maker. A coterie of widows were her loyal companions. She drove a big green boat of a Chevy, and with her right foot on the gas and her left foot on the brake (usually at the same time), she’d pick up her friends and road trip to the senior center for potluck and gossip.
She never forgot to send a card and a couple of bucks on every grandchild’s birthday, and when she came to visit, she always played games and talked to us about us, never about herself. She was careful to stay away from stories about her past. It’s as though she didn’t have one, like she was always a grandma, never a girl. To me, Signe was born at age 60 and simply grew older as I did.
We all have defining moments in our lives when we’re forced to turn a corner and make a decision in order to go on living. Signe’s defining moment was when her husband Martin died. She was 33, eight months pregnant and raising my dad, also named Martin, who was 6.
When he died, Signe decided to never speak of her husband again, even going so far as to insist my dad be called by his middle name, Donald. Maybe she just didn’t see the point in talking about something she couldn’t change. But I suspect she loved Martin so much that his death knocked the wind out of her, and the only way she found to breathe again was to not talk about it.
Signe and Martin grew up on farms just a few miles from each other. She went to college and eventually taught school a half mile from Martin’s homestead. They dated for many years, marrying in December 1930. My father was born in February 1931. You do the math.
Martin was good friends with Signe’s siblings and was known around the area as the guy with the fancy car with a canvas top and side curtains.
While Signe was never an overly-talkative person, she was not a wallflower. She had a way of letting you know you did something she didn’t like. And so it was with Martin. One day, she poured him a cup of coffee and when it was full enough, Martin said, “Whoa!” But Signe kept right on pouring, letting the coffee spill over the cup and onto the table, replying curtly, “Don’t you talk to me like you do your horses.” It never happened again.
Maybe her refusal to speak of Martin seems strange in our modern world of psychoanalysis, but at that time what could she say? In 1937, a widow with two small children didn’t have much time to feel everything she was feeling, let alone cry or talk about it. My guess is she simply shut off those emotions and went on with the business of raising her children in a world wary of single mothers.
Signe obtained a loan to buy a house which she fixed up as a boarding house for single female school teachers. For extra money she made donuts and sent my dad down the street selling them for two bits a dozen. He never got more than three blocks from home before running out.
During the war she went back to the classroom, teaching school until she retired 20 years later.
Signe’s parents moved in when they retired from farming, and from then on Signe kept busy with choir and Bible study and playing cards with her friends. Apparently Signe’s mother griped about her never being home, but if you knew my great-grandmother Alice, you’d hardly blame Signe for getting out once in awhile.
And that’s how I knew Signe: as a woman who got out once in awhile.
Toward the end of her life, Signe suffered from dementia. She said some things that, in more lucid moments, she would never have said. But with dementia she no longer lived in the present, as she had since Martin died. Her past was all she had. She spoke of her parents, her siblings, her friends and of running naked through a graveyard.
I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, but I hope a long time ago she did run through a cemetery, carefree, happy, beautiful and spontaneous. I hope the last few years, weeks and hours of her life were filled with the thoughts she spent all her life trying to forget. Warm wonderful thoughts of how much she loved and was loved.
So it doesn’t surprise me that my somewhat eccentric grandmother died on a leap day. And I’ll bet Martin was up in heaven waiting for her with open arms.