Tribute To My Feisty Irish Gram (1920-2018)
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine—” my alto voice cracked as it blended with my dad’s tenor. We held gram’s hands and sang one of her favorite songs, as she passed from this world to the next place. “—you’ll never know dear how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” I couldn’t get the last three words out.
She was a feisty ninety-eight-year-old Irish woman with a room full of loved ones who spent her final hours with her. We were told she could hear us even though the morphine kept her from being able to respond with anything more than a few occasional groans. I believe she could. When I arrived, I ran my hand along her feverish forehead and back and forth through her thick gray hair. She groaned loudly. I think she knew we were there. She did the same when she heard her ninety-four-year-old sister’s voice on the phone that afternoon. Auntie Joyce was on her way from Canada and you could tell gram heard her sister’s last words to her, even though she couldn’t respond.
Just two days before, she’d been giving my dad and Uncle Jim hell because they’d kept her waiting longer than she wanted while they enjoyed a round of golf. My poor Aunt Trudy had to calm her and assure her they’d be at the nursing home to visit her soon. She didn’t want to hear it. She was spitting mad.
Maybe she knew. Maybe she knew it would be the last time she’d see her three children together so she was impatient to have them all together. And as we sat in her room last Thursday, trying to ignore the rattling sounds the unexpected and sudden pneumonia created with each breath, we talked about fond memories of time spent with her over the years. She was still with us, but we knew she wouldn’t be for long.
My dad had told my sisters not to drive in from Michigan and Virginia. “She might bounce back,” he'd said. I told them to come. She didn’t want to bounce. She was ready to go.
Patricia Collier Raufeisen was a tough, funny, driven lady. She didn’t know the meaning of rest—she was always on the go. She didn’t retire from her foster grandparent’s job until after my dad retired from his job in his sixties. (He’ll never live that down—retired before his mother.) Even into her late eighties we’d still catch her rearranging her furniture when she grew bored of the scenery in her little apartment.
She’d set out on her own from Ireland in the 1950s with three young children in tow, crossing the ocean to live near her only sister in Ontario, Canada. I don’t know the specifics of what happened with my grandfather, and I never met him. I’d been told he had a drinking problem and I’d assumed that was why their marriage ended at a time when marriages rarely did.
But one day last year, when I went to visit gram in the nursing home, she said she’d been thinking of her first husband, Walter, a lot lately. “Whenever I close my eyes I can see him. I feel really bad for how I treated him. I wasn’t kind and I’m ashamed of that.”
I’d never heard my gram so vulnerable before. And it was enlightening. Things are rarely black and white. The older I get, the more I see the grays. I picture a man who was unable to meet the expectations of his spitfire wife and when he failed her—as he probably often did—he medicated with alcohol. I imagine it was a tough relationship for both of them. That’s just a guess. But it’s the impression she gave me.
I know she had a different relationship with her second husband, the man who I thought of as my grandpa. We called him Papa Bert. He was a gregarious, full-of-life kind of guy who made people smile wherever he went. He made gram smile too. As we were looking through old pictures over the weekend, my Aunt Trudy pointed out that gram wore a hundred-watt smile in every picture with Papa. Their relationship wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I remember hearing them fight on occasion. But most of the time, he was able to charm her out of any irritation that struck her. And she made him happy too. He called her his queen.Appropriate, because we have a couple pictures of her where she looks so regal she could be the queen of England. She was always stylish. Always.
Even at ninety-eight, in the nursing home, she had coordinated outfits and scarves and jewelry. One day, just before her 98th birthday, I arrived with a pink and wine colored potted plant and it was eerie how well it coordinated with the colors in her outfit…she could match without trying! She’d put on blush that day, even though she could barely see anymore. But she was upset because she was sure someone had stolen the blush brush from the compact and she’d had to apply it with her fingers. I told her it had probably fallen under a dresser or her bed, but she was quite sure it was stolen.
After she passed away, my dad and Aunt Trudy were standing by her bedside. Dad shook his head and said, “She lived a hard life. But she never complained.” My Aunt Trudy laughed. “Yes she did. She complained all the time.” Dad chuckled. It was true.
She had a love-hate relationship with the nursing home. She didn’t want to be there (I mean, who would?). She wanted to be home. But it wasn’t realistic. She couldn’t really see, her hearing was failing and she had started needing a wheel chair most of the time over the last few years. She was living out a very difficult time in her life. Gram adored reading and cooking. She could no longer do either. She loved to visit with people, but most of the people around her in the nursing home couldn’t hear her when she tried to make conversation. And the food. Don’t get me started on her feelings about the food.
Gram was an amazing cook and a pastry chef. She loved food and took great joy in feeding her family. So, going to cafeteria food was a gigantic step down for her. To say she was not a fan of the nursing home food would be a gross understatement. To say that she handled that dislike with gracious forbearance would be a bold-faced lie. Every time I visited her, she told me how bad the food was. I often wondered if the people who worked there saw her as the feisty little Irish lady who was full of colorful stories of her homeland or if they saw her as the never-satisfied old queen with haughty taste buds who thought everyone was stealing her stuff.
I got my answer the day she died, as staff member after staff member came in to say goodbye to her and left the room wiping tears from their eyes. At one point that night, two ladies approached me and asked if they could pay their respects. They explained they were cafeteria workers and they loved gram. They called her sassy. I’m quite sure she told them exactly what she thought of the food they placed in front of her daily. Yet they still loved her.
Because even though she complained and told you precisely what she thought, she also had a twinkle in her eye and would recite long poems from her childhood, word for word, in her magical Irish brogue, with a soft giggle for an encore. Her laughter was lyrical, and she loved to sing. One of my earliest memories is of her singing You Are My Sunshine when I would go stay with her and Papa at their cottage on Conesus lake. It’s a happy song that’s also a sad song and it reminds me of her. She was a happy woman who was also a sad woman. She was a contradiction. But she loved and was loved in return and she’s the matriarch of a family full of people who love each other fiercely, through the good and the bad, the happy and sad. That’s a legacy worthy of a queen.
I would tell her to rest in peace, but I know she won’t listen. I have a feeling she’s somewhere rearranging the furniture and cooking up a mean batch of shortbread. Love you Gram. Sláinte!
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