Leave it to my Grandma Signe to die on a leap day. (February 29, 1996)
Unusual is too strong a word to describe a woman who chews gum with her front teeth, but to me, my grandma 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), and on Thursdays, she’d pick up her friends and road trip five blocks to the senior center for potluck and gossip.
Signe never forgot to send a card and a couple of bucks for 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, some more difficult than others. Signe’s was when her husband Martin died. She was 33 and eight months pregnant. My dad, also named Martin, was 6.
When Martin died, Signe never spoke his name again, and insisted my dad be called by his middle name, Donald. Maybe she 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.
Signe was never an overly-talkative person, but she was no wallflower. She had a way of letting you know you did something she didn’t like. My dad’s memories of his faather are few, but clear. He told me how one day, Signe poured Martin a cup of coffee. When it was full enough, Martin yelled, “Whoa!” Signe kept right on pouring, letting the coffee spill over the cup and onto the table. She said 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 readily available therapy and support groups. But in 1937, a farmer’s 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 World War II, 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, you’d hardly blame Signe for getting out once in a while.
And that’s how I knew Signe: as a woman who got out once in a while.
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.