Last year at this time, I was in a frenzy. My dad’s parents were a month away from celebrating their sixtieth anniversary, and my grandma wanted to have a big party. A really BIG party. She decided it would be fun to have the shindig at a little place about an hour down the road from her house called Walt Disney World, and she told the whole family that if they could get themselves down to Florida for the weekend, she’d show them a good time. Since she was over eighty and going through cancer treatments, she needed someone to organize that good time. One of my cousins suggested that I’d be the perfect party organizer. As a result, last August I was up to my elbows in arrival and departure spreadsheets, matching t-shirts, menus from Epcot Center, pictures of centerpieces and tablecloths, and emails from my eleven cousins and my dad’s three brothers.
I’ll admit it. I grumbled a lot about planning the weekend. I was nervous about working with Grandma. She has always liked to talk. A lot. So much that it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. Also, even though she had always been financially generous with all of her grandchildren, it also made me nervous to be spending her money, especially at a place like Disney World, which may be the happiest place on earth but certainly isn’t the cheapest. Finally, even though we usually made an annual pilgrimage from Connecticut to Florida when I was a kid, I felt like I didn’t really know Grandma all that well. We’d go to her house, eat breakfast with her in the mornings, and escape to the beach, returning in the late afternoons so she could take us to the early-bird special at the local barbecue joint or pizza parlor and we could sit at the table in a sun-induced stupor and nod at appropriate intervals as she chatted happily to whoever looked like they were listening.
Every time I thought something about the Disney weekend would be easy, it turned out to be hard. People kept changing their minds about how many days they wanted to stay at the park. I got yelled at several times by various family members. Whenever I called Grandma to ask her a question, she’d talk for 20 minutes about other things and then seemed too tired to focus once I finally got to ask her the question I’d been calling about. I ended up making a lot of decisions on my own and praying that Grandma wouldn’t hate them and could pay for them.
The weekend itself, at least from my perspective, wasn’t any easier than the planning leading up to it. I flew with the four kids by myself and took several modes of Disney transport to get to the park. There were constant phone calls about the dinner, a kid who threw up hot dogs all over our hotel room, a husband with a migraine and a lifelong aversion to all things Disney, relatives who showed up for the dinner an hour early and pestered the staff, and probably a bunch of other stuff that I’ve blocked out of my memory.
On Saturday night, we all gathered for the big anniversary dinner. Grandpa already seemed tired from the weekend’s festivities. A few of my cousins started raiding the dessert table before the servers found the meals for the little kids and managed to get them to the table. Then Grandma stood up. For the next forty-five minutes, she was in her element, delivering what she must have realized was her own personal Last Lecture. All forty of the people in the room, her descendants by blood and marriage, listened to her reminisce about her courtship, her marriage, her four boys and her grandkids.
My family met again in Florida this weekend, this time to lay Grandma to rest. I was traveling home from vacation at the time and missed the service, so I’ve been taking a private account of our relationship. I’m not as sad as I thought I would be, although I feel like I could have been a better granddaughter. Some of my cousins emailed her daily in the last few months of her life. I thought about sending lots of emails, but forgot most of the time once I sat down at the computer. But because of the party I feel that I got to know Grandma better, and even though I thought at the time that I was organizing the party for her, this week it feels more like I got a lot more out of it than a free trip to Disney World.
Saying goodbye to a loved one isn’t easy, but reading Shearing by Allyson Smith and Too Late to Say Goodbye by Dalene Rowley in Segullah’s spring issue have helped me gain a better understanding of both saying goodbye and adult relationships with our grandparents. For those of you who have lost loved ones, what surprised you about how you felt about the experience? What helped you through it?