I used to spend some time each summer at my grandparents' farm in eastern Missouri. I'm sure my long-suffering mother viewed it as a blessed reprieve from her increasingly snarky younger daughter, but what it ended up being was a chance for me to really get to know my grandmother when neither of us was on 'company' behaviour. I was a fully tempestuous teenager, and she was not as willing to overlook my attitude; we got along remarkably well despite that.
The year I turned fifteen, I suffered the agony of agonies, the most terrible trauma, that utterly awful experience: having to talk to an adult about my period because I had not planned adequately and had convinced myself that somehow, if I really really didn't want to deal with it during the visit, it would just...not happen. Every woman reading this is snickering. I can hear you all.
Mortified, horrified by my body's betrayal, I went to my grandmother and confessed my moon-bound shame in a barely audible mumble, wishing desperately that the earth would open and swallow me. She merely said, "Well, then, I guess you need some of those pad things. I got some in the mail once and I think they're in a drawer, and then you and I will just go into town to the Wal-mart and get you more." With an utter minimum of fuss and angst (remarkable given my tendency to melodrama), the matter was resolved within an hour and I was left completely flummoxed by her practical, reasonable management of a situation that had seemed utterly daunting to me.
If anyone who knows me has ever been surprised by my ability to manage other peoples' crises pragmatically and swiftly, be assured that I come by it honestly; my mother does it as brilliantly as my grandmother ever did, and I strive to meet their example.
That hour, in which my shame and embarrassment and resentment of my own body were dispatched by calm acceptance and rational problem-solving, remains one of my core memories of my grandmother. One of the other ones that stands out is a recurring one: after I went away to college, got married, got divorced, and all through the years of living in Kansas and even living in Texas, every time I went to have dinner with my grandmother, she tried to have mashed potatoes on the table one way or another. She knew they were one of my favorite foods, and for some reason they're just not a food people usually make for themselves. Plus, she made way better gravy than I do. Tonight, to honor her, I'm making roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and those brownies she used to call the 'diet-busters', caramel and chocolate chips oozing in the middle. I'm setting her out a little plate and a small glass of wine.
I miss my grandmother. We only saw each other once a year, and rarely spoke on the phone, but the knowledge that she's no longer there affects my entire world. It's been almost a year since she died, and I still occasionally look at something I've done, some way I've interacted, and hope that she would be proud of me.
As the sun sets on the last day of the year, and the night rises, I tend to think on the lessons my dead have taught me, and those I'm learning from the living. I plan for my long winter's burning by remembering those who have brightened my own path one way or another.
From my grandmother, I learned not only that reassuring pragmatism and a delight in simple food prepared well, but an even more important truth: kindness is never wasted energy.
From my stepfather, who made me welcome in his house and found ways to give me 'extra' meat and vegetables without either of us admitting I didn't have enough to eat in college, I learned that it's worthwhile to try and find ways to help others that allow them to keep their dignity and their sense of self-worth.
From my Aunt Justine and Uncle Warren, I learned that family is not just about direct bloodlines, and that the abundance of a home is never diminished by sharing its hospitality and laughter.
From my best friend Jen, I learned that just because you aren't the brightest star in a given constellation, that's no excuse not to shine for all you're worth, because your light adds to the beauty of the sky in ways you can't see.
From Tony, gone almost twenty years, one of the hardest lessons: live your life for yourself, because you can't save people against their will.
From my maternal great-grandmother, a stronger woman than I ever understood while she lived, I learned that we are not only who we appear to be in any single moment of our lives.
From my father's mother, the first death I can recall, comes the understanding that the joy of freely sharing what you have is not necessarily dependent on whether the magnitude of that gift is fully understood by the recipient.
They stand around me, and more, cousins and great-aunts and friends and long-gone loved ones, each with a lesson or a blessing or a challenge, and as the veil thins between the worlds I open my heart to listen to them, to accept what they bring to me and offer my own gratitude. I think of artists and musicians, of writers and speakers who have all added to the Beauty of this world, and I'm profoundly thankful that their passions live on.
I have been blessed in my life, to be touched by bright souls and strong ones. I have been loved and challenged and shaped by them, and I continue to be. Gods willing, I shall continue to be.
The old year is dying, the new one beginning, and I offer thanks and farewell to my dead for another year. I release my own dead weight, my old habits and fears and resentments, and feed that which I do not need into my Samhain fire. May it burn through the coming winter to illuminate my path, to give me fuel to stand as a beacon and kindle those whose fires burn low in the darkness and the cold.
So mote it be.