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21 Dec

I had the privilege this trip back to the states to be able to help my 86 year-old grandmother move from Seattle to the upper peninsula of Michigan to live with my aunt and her husband.  My sister, mother and aunt had already done a significant amount of work leading up to the actual move to Michigan to smooth the transition, and my plan was to simply help with boxing up some things and then accompany my grandma most of the way to Michigan.

While there was a bit of work to do – sorting through memories and discussing with my grandma what should be done with what, packing and preparing for two flights with her beautiful, but rather skittish cat – it was truly an experience that helped me learn more about her life and memories, understand what she thinks about the world, and appreciate the challenges faced by those who deal with pain or other difficulties.

We spent a full two days, plus a few hours, sorting through objects that had been gifted and acquired over the better part of a century.  Some of the items were priceless with the stories behind them – bone-china pieces handed down through generations originating from England, a funny “dirty finger” (described by my grandma) statue that was a gag gift to my grandfather who passed away a number of years ago, weather instruments that my grandma has now given to Justin and I for our boat that my parents had given my grandparents years ago.  Many of the items were just ‘lucky’ residents in the house (no sentimental value, but enough ‘object value’ to allow someone to decide it should be kept instead of parted with).  Seeing the essential items for my grandma was definitely a window into the life of this wonderful woman – a picture of Jesus that has hung over her bed for decades; wedding pearls that had been worn by her, her mother, my aunt and my mother; a tiny tin container and mini clock that now dictate her schedule of necessary prescriptions that seem to be needed as one approaches the century mark…each with their story and solid place in my grandma’s life.

I am not an accumulator, but I understand my grandma well enough to know that she held onto gifts that people had given her over the years because she would see the object and think of the giver.  As a lover of cats, she has been the owner of at least a thousand kitty cups, figurines, pictures and such.  I went through many items I had personally given her – these things gave me pause for thought about what they represented at the time of the gift and now, as an item gathering dust on a shelf.  I’ve already been moving towards a different approach for gift-giving to show the people I care about that I love them, but helping my grandma actually complicated my current thoughts of “avoid accumulating things!”  My grandma’s memory was triggered by some of these things, and because of this, I was able to learn about experiences she had in younger days – is there a way to preserve these types of memories and trigger remembrances without the physical object?

After all the packing was done (well, most of it anyway), my grandma, Gracie (her nervous, beautiful cat) and I flew to Chicago, spent the night in a hotel near O-Hare, and then I watched my grandma and Gracie as they boarded a small plane to Michigan.  My grandma deals with significant pain as a result of rheumatoid arthritis, and we used a wheelchair extensively during the trip.  However, that incredible woman had no real concerns for herself during the entire trip – she only wanted to make sure her cat was safe, warm, and eating (my grandma has the “eat eat eat!” grandma-gene…this has probably saved and prolonged the lives of over ten cats, not to mention family members!).  Traveling with my grandma brought back memories she had of going to the Philippines, to Bermuda where I was born, and other places – and I got to hear things I never knew about her.

The little kitty that was pretty nervous at first, but ended up being an impressive traveller!

Those three days – sharing with the matriarch of my family, time moving in a whirlwind, charged with many different emotions and full of lessons of being more empathetic for people traveling with children, mobility-challenged people and the elderly – have been special to say the least.  I’m grateful to have been able to spend them with her.

One of my favorite pictures of my grandma - isn't she beautiful?

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