My grandmother died not long ago, and because she led a mostly happy and thoroughly generous and kindly life, I feel compelled to sing a few lines in loving memory of Alberta Mary Van Thiel Taylor, long of Pittsburgh and lately of the Heatherwood retirement community in my old hometown of Burke, Virginia.
Last year in June, we celebrated Grandma’s 95th birthday. The moment was a slice of broadly shared delight sandwiched between a pair of near-death experiences for her, from both of which she recovered with a resilience that left all of us — doctors included — awed. Grateful, too, on some level, but thoughtful.
The previous January she had suffered cardiac arrest and was dark to the world for two weeks. I flew home to say goodbye and spent the night in her hospital room, praying and reading to her and hoping that in some way she might be aware of our feeble efforts to embody for her God’s tender love.
It wasn’t her time. This year, again in January, she collapsed on her way to a meal and spent another few days in the hospital. Again I soon had the chance to visit. She later reported no memory of the experience or of me or of any of the people who had stopped by to wish her well.
She was, as her son-in-law — my devoted father — put it recently, “an unstoppable life force” who had embraced her existence on this planet with such evident gusto that late in life, we theorized, she seemed to regard the merits of the afterlife with no slight suspicion.
Grandma was born to Dutch immigrants in Faribault, Minnesota, on the summer solstice in 1914. Her father, Lambertus, was a laborer who died in an accident when she was an infant. English was a second language she acquired in school at age 6, and Dutch soon became a mostly forgotten one. For years, her mother, Maria, and her stepfather, Casey, let her think that she’d been born on the Fourth of July. As a nonagenarian she recalled with a distant smile her girlhood belief that the parades, bunting, picnics and fireworks of her Wisconsin hometown’s Independence Day celebrations were really for her.
Chicago was her point of entry into the rush of the world. She excelled in her business courses and in the depths of the Great Depression landed a secretarial position back in Appleton, where she could be close to her mother and sisters. There she met my grandfather, an itinerant upstate New Yorker on the make, and approved of his growing inclination to enter the Church. Grandpa Taylor received his first Holy Communion on their wedding day in 1939. I’ve always thought of her as the reason that so many of us in the family are Catholic.
Grandpa’s work pulled her away from her family and home. She determined not to let her initial homesickness ruin the adventure that took the family first to New York, then Ohio and finally to gritty Pittsburgh. Lou — that’s Grandpa — and Little Mother raised their three children and grew old together.
As a boy, I gravitated toward my pensive grandfather, who had traveled the country most of his professional life and rarely ventured more than three miles from home in the time I knew him. He told us Civil War stories and cooked us hot dogs and recited lyric poems at bedtime. He took my brother and me everywhere he went in that little world, including the arboretum he’d planted in the steeply sloped land that descended from their backyard row of arbor vitae. It was a leafy, sunspeckled place we called Down Below, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve revisited it in my adult imagination for solace.
Grandma brought home angel food cakes from her job in the business office of a popular downtown lunchroom. She was the kitchen magician behind many splendid, buttery breakfasts. On summer evenings, she held court in their air-conditioned bedroom, where I would stretch out on the floor with a book or sulk about my older brother’s latest abomination or watch the evening shows on TV. She and my mother would chat pleasantly over familiar subjects.
Outside that icy bedroom, my most vivid memories place my grandmother’s smooth, jowly face against the backdrop of the reawakening city: The fossil-shadowed halls of the Carnegie Museum. The grand cityscape viewed from the crest of Mount Washington. The roller-coasters at Kennywood. The Currier and Ives lithograph and model train displays at Christmastime. Grandma was always our guide.
Once, when I was 15, she put me in my place and that was all the matter required.
In my constant back and forth between South Bend and my parent’s Virginia home over the years, I never passed Pittsburgh without stopping overnight. I wasn’t conscious of these visits as tiny payouts from her persistent investments of love over the years, but now I think that’s just what they were.
She liked a good party. She was a whipsmart cardshark and a relentless manufacturer of ironclad excuses for going out to eat. At my parents’ house she took a vodka martini most evenings and engaged my older children in mock gunfights. Happily she’d receive the younger ones on her lap for chummy consultations. She’s as much a part of their lives now as she is of mine.
She’d spent most of her last two years in and out of hospital rooms and clarity, far from the familiar comforts of the restaurants and living rooms where she’d passed her adult life playing bridge, and laughing and reaching out to the vulnerable and lonely.
In a favorite novel, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding attends his great-grandmother at her deathbed. “No one ever died who had a family,” she tells him. That’s my Grandma.
One day this summer she told a nurse that she knew she had almost died twice and didn’t expect to be around much longer. The old fighting spirit was now all but gone.
Or maybe that zest for life — a new life — was shifting, re-rooting, warming and finding its lilac bloom.
If I know her at all, I’d say she’d seen her angel grinning down the stairs, waving a champagne flute in one hand and a deck of cards in the other.
John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at email@example.com.