About a month after she was born, World War I broke out. She’d lived through 17 presidents and 10 popes, and outlived most of the people she’d known in her long years.
Married to my grandfather Joseph for 38 years, she then lived another 38 as a widow.
The pastor at Grandma’s funeral on Jan. 2 reminded us of these incredible facts. And to those, I could add a few more.
On Dec. 28, 1930, at age 16, my grandmother watched the first North Dakota Capitol burn to the ground. It had started in the middle of the night. She and her parents were having breakfast when they noticed the commotion outside.
“You’d think the Capitol were burning,” her father, Charles, quipped, as she once shared with me. A short while later, they learned that the Capitol really was burning, and it was too late to save it.
Grandma didn’t just hear about facts like these that most know only through history books. She lived them. After discovering that her father’s remark, meant as a joke, was truth, she watched with others the wide, stout Capitol just blocks from her home smolder to its final end.
Grandma told me about the heroine who’d helped save many of the important state documents. She shared, too, about the aftermath — how, for the next several years, the state offices were scattered throughout the city as workers tried to resume normal operations, and plans for a new, taller Capitol were born.
This is but one significant memory of many my grandmother had tucked inside her brain and heart. We children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were privileged to sit at her dining room table many a Christmas to hear her spin these amazing memories anew.
When I set about writing a children’s book about North Dakota in the early 2000s, I started my research at Grandma’s feet, and have had the privilege of sharing her remembrances with hundreds of young people since.
On Dec. 28, 2015, exactly 85 years after the fire that took that first Capitol down, Grandma, at 101, took her final breath.
For some reason I find comfort in this fact, because in the 47 years I’ve known her, Grandma has been the living embodiment of the North Dakota I have come to know. Symbolically speaking, the crossing of these two dates makes sense to me, and prompts a smile.
But of course, the latter date is most significant because it represents the passing of someone incredibly dear to me. We are just starting to unravel the colorful threads from this former seamstress’s long and beautiful life.
Grandma died peacefully, the way we all hope to go. We who love her are glad about that. After suffering her last years with dementia, it seemed only right for Grandma to leave in a quiet whisper.
I imagine some might believe our grieving should be less than most, because she did live a long, good and interesting life. While it’s true we’d been anticipating her death for some time, I find this no less reason to grieve and grieve deeply.
True, Grandma had reached centenarian status, living longer than a great majority. But that only means there are more things to miss.
My paternal grandparents were gone by the time I’d reached second grade, and my maternal grandfather passed the beginning of my fourth-grade year. So from age 9, all I’ve known of a grandparent has been through this tiny, whipper-snapper of a lady named Elizabeth, or Grandma Betty.
And so we grieve. Yes, with a sense of peace in our hearts because there were so many blessings in how it went down and the amazing life that came before. But still missing her spunk, her storytelling, and all the memories she held inside and so generously shared with us through the years.
Certainly, I’m relieved she’s free of the chains of the disease that had scrambled her memories in ways that were both comical and painful to us. But I miss the beautiful person whose existence paved way to mine, who helped me believe I had something special to share with the world, and who was one of the first people to show me what love is.
I thank God for her incredible life. That I had a chance to be part of just a smidgen of it leaves me both honored and blessed.
May the perpetual light shine upon you, sweet Grandma.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 16 , 2016.]