On Saturday morning my last living grandparent died. It feels like a fortress has fallen and death will come next for my parents, then me. The permanence of it is sinking in. Whatever stories I didn’t gather I won’t gather, and the remaining stories we do have will fade away, like all the photos in the dumpster when we cleaned out the condo after my other grandparents died.
She was 96. She got to hold her great granddaughter before she died, and a stroke before her last stroke made her more appreciative, effusive, and loving, which allowed great healing for my aunt, uncle, and mom.
Amazingly she died when my whole family–minus my mom and aunt who stayed with my grandmother–was gathered together on the Tuolumne River, carrying on the family camp tradition that she created in those mountains, on that river. She went as a girl, my mom went as a girl, I went as a girl, and now I bring my baby girl. She died in the morning of our last day there, giving us enough time to create an evening ritual. We gathered on the banks of the river and took turns sailing off objects with stories of appreciation and wishes for safe travel to the other side. I believe her spirit was with us.
The next day I got to visit the family camp that burned down. Every building that hadn’t changed, that had been exactly the same since I was thirty and twenty and thirteen and three, was completely gone. But I wasn’t devastated. Three years have passed and I knew it was gone. Instead I felt comforted by what was still there: the place, the rocks, the spot on the Tuolumne River where I want my ashes spread. Thankfully, some things change shape very slowly.
My grandmother wasn’t the kindest person. She was self absorbed, she struggled with empathy and compassion, and she could be sharp tongued and mean. I’ve heard we are genetically most similar to our grandparents, and I haven’t always been comfortable with my resemblance to her. But anyone who has tried to fundamentally change who they are knows that all qualities have their flip side and I appreciate her legacy of strong will, independence, and ferocity, as well as her intelligence, love of travel, and mermaid blood.
A friend recently died from an ectopic pregnancy. She was younger than me, and had two boys. We don’t know how much time we have. On our last night at family camp three years ago as the ashes of the rim fire were falling all around us it didn’t occur to me that our camp could burn down. I hope my life is long and rich with a relatively easy exit like my grandmother’s, and that my grandchildren can be there shaking ritual rattles, sailing pinecones and wishes for me down the Tuolumne River.