My grandmother died today. It was expected. She was 91. A few days before Christmas, she went into the hospital with heartburn and emerged five or six weeks later with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and a failing heart. Still, it was half-surprising. She had been on the verge of death several times in the past couple of months, and I thought, somehow, that she would pull through and live another year, maybe longer. She was the toughest woman I’ve ever met, and she had cheated death before.
One day, when she was about twenty, she was washing dishes in the kitchen. Her father was at the table cleaning his shotgun. He didn’t realize the gun was loaded, and it went off. For whatever reason, my grandmother had opened up a cabinet door under the sink. The pellets ripped through the door, and lodged in her knee. She spent a month in the hospital, which was far enough away from the hamlet’s tiny cluster of farms that no one visited her. In fact, the villagers thought she was dead, and when she returned, one mistook her for a ghost. If the cabinet door had not been open, she would have lost the leg and likely bled to death. Instead she escaped with a nasty scar and thirteen pellets that stayed in her knee for the rest of her life.
A few years after accident, she met her husband, my grandfather, at a farmer’s dance. They were married, and my mother was born shortly after. I don’t know if it was a happy marriage or not. I don’t think her generation tended to concieve of things in terms of happiness. Life was a struggle, and you made the best of it. She would say, rather, that the marriage was difficult. My grandfather had started drinking when he was a boy. His father pulled him and his brothers out of school to help on the farm. If the boys worked hard, he would give them booze on the weekends. So it was that my grandfather became an alcoholic, a binge drinker. Somehow, he was still successful and ran a sawmill and a farm with one of his brothers.
But his alcoholism is the single most salient aspect of my grandmother’s marriage—and my mom’s childhood. My grandmother had wanted to be a teacher, but Sweden was still a poor country. She was forced to leave school after the sixth grade to work on her family’s farm. Now, as a wife, she was a homemaker. And in her anxiety over her husband, she threw herself into house work, cooking and cleaning, even straightening the fringe on the rugs with a comb, a practice she probably picked up at the homemakers school she was sent to when she was 18. Perhaps because she didn’t like her home life, my mom spent much of her time at church and became a Christian, which led to my grandmother’s conversion. She and her sister-in-law converted—or they might say, were born again—after they had hosted a village revival meeting in one of their barns. My uncles remember my grandfather and his brother sitting out on the porch not long after, hungover, asking each other “what the hell had gotten into the women.”
When my grandfather died, and his brother hung himself the next year, my mother was still a teenager, and her brothers were something like ten or eleven. It was not long before my mom left for Bible school, and then for the U.S. One uncle joined the merchant marines when he was 15 or 16, and the other left the farm not long after. My grandmother continued to run the farm with her sister-in-law for over twenty years.
I passed my first five summers playing on that farm. I loved the smell of diesel coming from the tractor bar, loved searching through my uncles’ old toys, loved going to the neighbor’s dairy in the mornings to fetch a pail of fresh milk with my grandmother. For me, it was an echanted place, and I had no idea about the pain that had lived there or why anybody would have wanted to leave.
When I was five, my grandmother sold the farm and moved to the nearest city. She also sold her car and started biking everywhere. She was almost seventy. A few years later, a bus hit her and she lost a few teeth and wound up in the hospital. She biked for several more years, until she was almost eighty, when a teenage girl on a bike ran into her head-on and she wound up in the hospital again. Her mobility declined over the last decade, and more than once she was admitted to the hospital with various, life-threatening ailments. But she was still strong. Even a year ago, she was pushing her walker through through several inches of snow to get to church.
I spent out a lot of time with my grandmother over the past few years. I started visiting every year after college, when she became too old to travel to the U.S. Then two and a half years ago, I moved to Sweden. As a child, I had viewed her as a sort of saint, someone who could do no wrong (and who baked the world’s best cookies and rolls). When I got older, and my Swedish got better, her shortcomings became apparent to me. She was stubborn and demanding. Like many in her generation, she was a tough parent. She was also an unyielding fundamentalist; her unease at my reception into the Catholic Church was palpable.
But if her faults emerged, so did her virtues, which were considerably greater. I had never before considered her fortitude and her courage, which persisted throughout her life. One simply soldiered on. She was also generous. She took the money from the sale of the farm and gave the lion’s share to her children, which helped them to buy their first houses. (Until I was 22, I had never understood how, when I was six, my family had suddenly had the money to stop renting and buy a large house.) A couple of years ago, my grandmother’s sister-in-law died. My great aunt, who was childless, had lived very simply, and it was assumed that the only inheritence would be the meager amount from the sale of her house. But a few days before the house was sold, they found a box under the kitchen sink with several hundred thousand dollars in cash. My grandmother split up the money and gave it to her children.
Most important, though, was that she prayed for her children and her grandchildren twice a day. I am a man of an uneven, often unsteady faith. But even on my worst of days, I cannot understimate the difference this has made, unmeasurable as it is. So when I said goodbye to her on the phone on Friday, I simply thanked her for her prayers, for the privilege of having a grandmother who prayed for me everyday.