This is too long. And too short.
She lived for a little over a hundred years, always in a home surrounded by people who loved her. That’s how she came into this world, and that’s how she left it. That’s a hell of a wonderful life.
Dorothy Elizabeth Baumer Armstrong, my grandma, has been a part of my life since before I was born. I got the call this morning at work from my mom, “She’s gone.”
My brother and my mom’s best friend Jane were both on their way home to join her. Mom said she’d have to call me back when she could talk. At that moment, she was too overwhelmed. My mom is an only child. Her dad, my granddad, died back in 1982. Now both her parents have left us.
Grandma was not an only child. She had a younger brother (Bill), one older sister (Alice), and two younger sisters (Lois and Jean). In addition to her mother and father, Dorothy Baumer had both sets of grandparents nearby as well in their hometown of Milton, PA.
When she left her childhood home, she built a home of her own – several, in fact – with Ralph Whitman Armstrong, my granddad. They moved around a lot because of his career – Massachusetts, Mississippi, Tennessee – but eventually settled down in Windsor, CT. When granddad retired, they moved back down to Pennsylvania, this time to Audubon, PA, to be near my mother, my brother and me. And the rest of her family, who never strayed that far from Milton.
When Ralph died, Dorothy lived on her own for a short time, but fell and broke a hip. She got back on her feet in short order, but rather than continue to live alone, even with many friends and neighbors in the apartment complex, she moved in with her daughter, my mother, into the home in which my brother and I grew up. Phoenixville, PA, near Valley Forge Park.
In 1990, mom and grandma decided to consolidate the household still further and moved to a duplex in a condominium community in nearby Downingtown, PA. This is where she died.
She had been fading for a couple of weeks. One morning, even though she was still breathing, mom couldn’t wake her. In a hundred years of living, even when she was sick, she would always wake up. More often than not she’d get out of that bed and get dressed and come downstairs to the kitchen and begin her day.
Now, just a couple of weeks after her 100th birthday, she slept from a Monday night all the way through Tuesday, not awakening again until Wednesday morning. The rest of the last two weeks went like that. Off and on, up and down. I was able to Skype with them a couple of times over the week and Grandma wasn’t very talkative, but she did occasionally give my mom the side eye when she was talking, so she was still in there.
More and more, though, she didn’t want to get out of bed. Wouldn’t walk. Not couldn’t, just wouldn’t. Would really only leave the bed to sit in her big chair for a while, then get carried back to bed again. For years, right up until about a couple of weeks ago, there were a lot of times we wished she’d stay in one place so we could keep track of her. Now she refused to budge. She’d take a little food and drink but she was never a big eater to begin with.
When my brother and mom called later in the day and put me on speaker phone, the unusual start to today was recounted. Grandma woke with some aches and pains around 4am, felt it was time to wake the house, so she roused my mother and brother and they all got some breakfast together at 5. She said she was feeling better, so my brother went to work, grandma went back to bed, and later mom found her. My brother thought she was being her usual mischievous self, skipping out when we weren’t looking because she had assured us all was well. One last little burst of energy before checkout time.
So she died at home, comfortable in her own bed, secure in the knowledge that people she loved were nearby and would take care of her. You can’t ask for a better way to go than that.
She was sharp as a tack until 97. She was a ruthless Scrabble player, strategizing relentlessly, always trying to plan several moves ahead, moving in for the kill early and building her lead, not wanting to accidentally leave open any high scoring squares on the board for anyone else. She hated to lose, but she hated it even more if she felt you were letting her win, so you were kind of stuck. All my holiday visits over the years were consumed with hours and hours of Scrabble games each day. These last couple of years, I’ve missed playing Scrabble. One of the trivia questions at the coffee shop last week was “how many tiles does each player get at the start of a Scrabble game.” I used to know without thinking. Now I had to guess. (It’s seven.)
Not surprisingly, she was also a huge fan of crosswords. Had those always at her side until just the last couple of years as well. She had built up a storehouse of the most random bits of knowledge across all areas of human endeavor, just because they fit so neatly into so very many of her puzzles. Give her a clue, she almost always knew the answer without much digging. If not, a letter or two would normally give her all she needed. I’ve missed doing crosswords with her, too, these past few years.
She used to play the piano. Her emphasis when she attended the West Chester Teachers College was in Piano and Music Instruction. She handed her upright piano off to us. Despite ten years of lessons when I was a kid, it never really took. Naturally uncoordinated, the music never flowed out of my fingers over the keys the way it did when she played. It did teach me how to read music, though. Just recently I’ve been learning to play guitar. Still very rudimentary at this point. Basic chords trying to turn into songs.
Grandma lost her social filter completely a few years back, too. I was home visiting recently and trying to figure out the guitar chords on a song by repetition while Mom was doing Grandma’s nails at the kitchen table. After one cycle too many over the same set of chords, Grandma muttered under her breath, “Oh for God’s sake.” Once I stopped laughing, which took a while, I put the guitar away and decided to practice a different song later in the day. Everyone’s a music critic. Needless to say, I shall not be attempting to play a little something at the memorial service. She can look over my shoulder from now on in a different way while I struggle to make music going forward.
In the years of her early 90s, there was less and less that she was allowed to do around the house, which was hard for her. She was a homemaker. She built a number of households from scratch over the years and kept them running smoothly. That’s what she did. She liked to feel useful. She’d been doing for others her entire life, but it was difficult for her to allow others to return the favor. Not so different from the rest of us, I expect.
It was a year of milestone birthdays for the family this year. Mom threw herself a party for her 75th birthday – and people from all corners of her life came – family, work, church, the gym. Their little abode was overrun with well-wishers. Grandma isn’t much for crowds, so she retreated to her suite of rooms upstairs. She has a little desk, her own bathroom, lots of closet space, a skylight, and a balcony – lots and lots of sun, and her high ceiling is the roof, so it can be particularly nice when it rains, hearing the sound of the water coming down. No rain that day, though.
People, particularly family, came upstairs to pay her a visit. She was very popular (too popular in her opinion). But her two living sisters, Lois and Jean, had made the trip to see Dorothy (Alice and Bill had long since passed on). The sisters hadn’t seen each other face to face since Christmas of 2009, so February 2013 was a big deal. Grandma was in her big chair, with her sisters on either side of her. They didn’t have a lot of current short term memory between them, but oh did they remember the past together.
She’d never admit it, of course, but she likes holding court, being the certain of attention. Out shopping, or visiting the doctor’s office, people would make such a fuss over her, being nearly 100 years old. She could be very charming.
When Grandma turned 100, there were flowers and cake and phone calls and in-person visits but it was a much more low key kind of day. Special, just without all the crowds.
She’d taken to existing on two different timelines. There’d be the present, and with a little reminding she could track through the day at hand, and the people around her. Then there was the past. She’d ask for her mother. She’d ask, “Where’s Pop?” She’d ask for her older sister Alice. All long gone. She’d call for Mary – there was an Aunt Mary back in the day, we were told by cousin Connie, custodian of family history. She’d call for Edna. Never did figure out who Edna was. Grandma was always enormously relieved when Mom assured her she didn’t need to get up and go to school in the morning.
The day of her 100th birthday, she was on three timelines. The present, of course, with its celebration. The milestone of 100 years boggled her mind as much as ours. She was also very concerned that she link up with her sister Alice at some point because she needed to study her arithmetic for a test the next day. Granddad hadn’t surfaced in conversation for a long time. But that day, on her birthday, he was back. She let us know that, now that her husband was traveling more again for his job, she would have more to do around the house to keep things going.
Even though Granddad hadn’t been an active topic of conversation, she hadn’t forgotten him or his place in her life for even a day. She may have outlived him by over thirty years, but she was always very concerned with the rings she wore on her left hand.
Since Grandma’s fingers had been getting skinnier, and the rings had been slipping, along with her memory, Mom was worried the rings might actually get misplaced these last couple of years. So the rings were put on a chain, and most of the time they were kept in a little jewelry box right by Granddad’s picture on her nightstand. Every night before she went to bed, she’d ask about the rings. Several times a day, she’d touch the empty fingers of her left hand, wanting to be reassured the rings were where they were supposed to be. On her 100th birthday, Mom put the chain with the rings around Grandma’s neck, so she could carry a little piece of him through her big day with her.
One ring was her birth stone that he gave her on her birthday. The next was the engagement ring. The last, the wedding ring. She used to have a little three part saying to go with the rings. It’s been a few years since I heard it, though, and now it eludes me. I think it started with “I hooked him” for the birth stone. I forget what she said about the engagement ring. But the wedding ring was always, “I got him.” And she would smile the biggest smile, even long after he was gone, whenever she would say that. There was even a bit of mischief in her eyes when she said it. She was rightly proud of that marriage. It lasted 45 years, and she set up house in a great many places before they finally settled down. He was the love of her life, and she was his. He was a giant of a man, and she was a tiny woman, but they were equals. His deference to her, and his love of kids, made it plain that though he was a big man, he was never scary. Not to us.
Much as Grandma would sometimes fuss about my brother Mark, he was great with her. A great caretaker. He loved teasing her, just like Granddad always loved teasing her. In fact, Mark and Granddad were both redheads. He’s a big guy, too. Mom said in her last days that Mark could always get Grandma to smile. Mom thought maybe it was because Mark is loud, and her hearing is shot. I like to think it’s because he reminds her of Granddad.
Granddad gave Grandma the engagement ring at Christmas one year, tucked into a new pair of slippers. Every Christmas of their lives together, he would always get her a new pair of slippers. Every Christmas after he died, Mom would get her a new pair of slippers. That first Christmas was the toughest, and that first set of slippers he didn’t buy for her made it harder, and easier at the same time. The last couple of years, we still got the slippers, even though we weren’t sure she remembered why they were important anymore. I wonder if anyone gets slippers this Christmas.
The year he died, Granddad and Grandma had ordered special ornaments for Christmas. Inside the gold and silver ornaments – one for me, one for my brother, for when we had our own homes, and families and Christmas trees – was a paper scroll. You write down your Christmas memories on it – who was gathered, what you did on Christmas eve, what you ate for Christmas dinner, who got what presents, what holiday festivities were included, even what your New Year’s Eve and resolutions were. It also had a Notes section – for a little annual family update on major events in our lives. It ended up being a record of all the Christmases without Granddad. When the original ornaments were all filled up with paper, we went out and got two more to continue adding to the Christmas history. This year’s gonna be a doozy. Maybe we should unroll all the scrolls and read everything about Grandma.
As the hearing started to go, we got some interesting miscommunications.
“What kind is it?”
In church, when you’d pass the peace to the person next to you, the greeting and reply where “Christ be with you,” “And also with you.” One Sunday a man said to Grandma, “Christ be with you,” and she replied, “OK.”
And sometimes it was good to have the hymnal in front of you, even if you could swear you knew the hymn by heart. One Sunday, the closing line “lost in wonder, love and praise” became “lost in wonder, love and space.”
She loved spending family summers in a rented cabin on Nantucket Island when we all were younger. She teased my father that he was betraying the family tradition by settling down for his retirement on the competing island of Martha’s Vineyard instead. She subscribed to the weekly Nantucket newspaper and read it avidly after she could no longer easily travel there herself, and got no end of pleasure from picture books and calendars of life on the island.
The last couple of years, she’s been a little confused about her place in the world. At least I thought it was confusion.
She would ask, “Where am I going to sleep?”
Mom would patiently reply, “Upstairs, in your bedroom, where you’ve been sleeping for over twenty years.”
She would ask, “When am I going home?”
Mom would patiently reply, “This is your home.”
She would ask for her sister Alice. She would ask for her mother.
She would call out to her daughter as if she were Alice, or her mother.
We would patiently respond, “This is your daughter, Beverlee. She’s my mother. She’s your daughter.”
“Alice is in heaven.”
We did this so often that one time when her sister Jean called on the phone, Grandma exclaimed, “I thought she was dead!” No, no, that’s your older sister Alice. Oh dear.
“Grandma, you’re a hundred years old. If your mother were still alive she’d have to be over a hundred and twenty-five at least.”
Now I wonder. Because, as my father said when we prayed this evening, “Dear Lord, you have another member of our family with you tonight. Dorothy has a room in your house.”
All these people she’s been asking for – her mother, her father, her sister Alice, her husband Ralph, her brother Bill, and so many others. She’s been waiting to see them again for such a long time. And it may not be something you believe, and that’s fine. But we believe it. And she believed it.
“Where am I going to sleep?”
“When am I going home?”
Even though we’re going to miss her terribly, she gets to see all of them again.
Living one more time in a place surrounded by people who love her.
Not a bad way to go.
‘Til we meet again.
With love, your grandson