My maternal grandmother, Helen J. Dunlap, started dying in February of 1994, when my grandfather, the love of her life, died from melanoma. Grandma was never the same. She got more bitter, more negative, more depressed. Then the dementia set in and she became paranoid fand downright mean. Unlike my mother whose death from gall bladder cancer was swift and brutal, my grandmother just faded away. Grandma Helen finally died on Christmas day. Peacefully. Alone.
It is hard writing a positive tribute about someone who I am conflicted about. Losing my mom before Grandma was tough. And the last time I had a real conversation with my grandmother was ten years ago and it didn’t end well. Grandma favored my uncle and had a complex relationship with my mom. Grandma was criticizing my mom for something completely unwarranted and I defended mom. Looking back, I’m guessing that the dementia had already started setting in, making grandma attack those closest to her.
She wasn’t always so ugly. Growing up, Grandma Helen was a strong presence in my life. My grandparents opened their home to my mom, sister, our two dogs (one was a great dane!), and me when my parents split up. While mom got back on her feet, I got to spend a lot of time with my grandma.
I learned the art of holiday entertaining from Grandma. She prepared amazing meals with beautiful touches like chilled butter curls and homemade gravy. She loved food and didn’t skimp on details. My Christmas menu this week included her recipes for yorkshire pudding, grandma potatoes, and steamed cranberry pudding with eggnog sauce.
Grandma was crafty and decorated with an attention to detail. She had an Easter egg tree with plastic eggs she decorated with lace, beads, and ribbon. When my sister and I would travel to see my Dad in California, she would create special goodie bags for the long plane ride. At Christmas, she created Grandma Balls — balls of newspaper with a little knick knack or jewelry in each layer with something special in the center — for my sister and I.
Grandma was a collector. She loved going to garage sales every weekend. She started figurine and doll collections for my sister and I. Every Christmas, she would give us a new addition to our collections. She fueled my love of Barbies and neatly organized all their clothes for me.
I have a ton of quirky, random memories of Grandma…She was 100% Swedish. She was an only child. Her childhood wasn’t easy. I can attribute my good table manners to her – she was a stickler. Grandma taught me about banking and taking care of my money. She was a nurse for GM and her favorite color was purple (or maybe it was my Grandpa’s, so she wore it all the time to please him). Even her wedding dress was a light purple, which was very progressive for her day. When I smell toast and cheerios in the morning, I will always think of her.
Most of my memories of Grandma are surface snapshots; I didn’t know her as a wife, woman, or as a friend, but I honor her for giving my mom life. And I appreciate everything she taught me, with the last lesson being the most important. In her final years, Grandma Helen showed me first-hand how I don’t want to die — alone, depressed, just fading away. Grandma’s last lesson taught me to to stay active, stay connected, stay positive, and keep living until you die.