She was two weeks away from her 103rd birthday. She hadn't been doing well. Still, the call came as a shock. I guess it always does.
She traveled the world, but I remember her mostly in Wisconsin, at the cabin. Sometimes in Wheaton, at our house, where she and Grandpapa would stop on their snowbird's migration. And a little bit down in Fort Lauderdale. She was magical. Everyone elses' front yards faced the street, but both of hers faced the water. She sent postcards and gifts from remote places and her letters were sealed with wax. Her hair wasn't gray, it was soft and white. I can't smell Dove soap without thinking of her. She had blue sequined eyeglasses and shiny gold and silver shoes and fabulous square wicker box purses that always had candy in them. Usually Nips. Pink lipstick, of course. Twinkly blue eyes. She had a shameless sweet tooth and she didn't apologize for it. She didn't apologize for anything.
She introduced me to Fluffernutters, and she made fudge on rainy days, and walnut sticks, corn fritters, date nut bread, and the best devil's food cake anyone's ever tasted. Even when other people privy to the secret recipe attempt the cake, it's not as good as hers. Lard figured into many of her recipes. And she lived well over 102 years, making it hard for her grandchildren to worry too much about their own cholesterol.
Not one for deep cleaning, but always up for a party. The cabin always had little bowls of mixed nuts lying around, ready for the party to start or left over from one that ended. She played cards like a fiend, and watched her soaps, and read trashy romance novels that shocked my socks off when I'd sneak them in grade school. Her married initials spelled GEM, and the orange pontoon boat with the flecked orange and black AstroTurf carpeting was named in her honor. Her ample dining table had a lazy Susan. The picture window faced the water and was framed by hummingbirds who flocked to the red sugar water in the feeders that hung from the eves. Grandpapa's chair had arms. It was sacrosanct. She spoiled all her boys, especially her husband. Grandpapa died when I was in high school. He always had her heart, but she still glowed at male attention into her 100s.
I would have loved to know more details about her childhood. She lost her mother, young--perhaps due to breast cancer, although we're not sure. She had scarlet fever, and lost most of her hearing young, too. Her father was very successful. He used to blow pipe smoke into her bad ear to soothe the hurt. She attended Principia, a boarding school run by the Christian Scientists. Maybe because of that, she never put too much stock in medicine. She met my grandfather who was working as a parking attendant at his father's garage downtown Chicago. I have a fuzzy wedding picture that shows a very elegant girl dripping with flowers. I saw home movies of a Mexican honeymoon.
Her car was a fire-engine red VW Beetle, and she had a lead foot. She'd floor it over the roller coaster roads of Northern Wisconsin, and we'd bounce around the bench seat in the back. I have one memory of sitting in the front seat next to her. I was around seven years old. I'd heard grown ups say "up North" and "down South" and "out West", but I didn't understand that the preposition actually described a location; I just thought you could pick which one to use as the mood struck. So, feeling very adult, I took a deep breath asked her something about "up in Florida". She didn't suffer fools, not even seven-year-old ones. Disregarding oncoming traffic or the deer that often leaped into the road, she turned her head to look at me incredulously then burst into laughter and set me straight. It always seemed appropriate that Gammie taught me the location of true North.
Her advice was sound; I refer to it often. In college, faced with furnishing my first apartment, I was agonizing that the shower curtain I liked cost more than several others in the catalogue. She said, "Oh for pity's sake, you have to look at it every single day. Get the one that you like." Even as a little girl, I tended to hoard the special treasures that came my way (Halloween candy, fancy soap). She noted one of my little stockpiles and said, "It's not doing you any good in that closet. Use it up." That was her attitude about everything from fancy soap to life itself. She used it up.
We romanticize her--those of us who didn't live close and take care of her as she aged. Of all the granddaughters, I know the least. Even in her prime, though, I am sure she wasn't easy to live with. Somehow it seems that the traits that made her difficult are also the ones we celebrate. She was stubborn. She shamelessly played favorites, and that hurt feelings. She once told my mother, her daughter-in-law, "Well, I've always had everything I ever wanted in life, and I see no reason for that to change." So her children had to figure out what to do when the money ran out late in her life. But underlying everything was a refreshing honesty: there was no B.S. about her. She loved life and she lived it well, and she squeezed every bit out that she could.
She hadn't been able to lift herself for the past week, but the night before she died, she sat straight up in bed and held out her arms. I love that. I love that she was fearless and open armed all the way to the end.