Early on New Year’s day “Ursie” Gude passed away. That morning she had talked to one of her sons about how she hadn’t been feeling well and mentioned there wasn’t much to do but get up and get on with the day. A month earlier she and I had talked about how her mother and father made the journey from a small town in Switzerland to America. At the same visit, she told me stories about how her father had bootlegged during prohibition. She had just been visited by all of her living children over the holiday. Her maiden name was Hug. She danced the jitterbug with my fiancée at my sister’s wedding. She was born on October 13th 1925. She had 9 children and 5 grandchildren of which I am one. She was 87.
Death is a jumbling experience. It feels like mixing all the good with all the sadness. In the last 24 hours I remember a series of small moments in rapid succession:
– Sitting in a St. Louis kitchen drinking coffee.
– Getting caught sneaking a piece of ham at Christmas.
– Silver spoons in a cabinet.
– Learning that Ursie is short for Ursula, short for Ursuline, short for Ursulina.
– Fingers that wouldn’t unbend.
– A tiny smile at small salacious details in the family history.
– Pulling games out of a dark wooden closet together.
– The words “Oh! And you know – ” with a particular cadence I’ve never heard from anyone else.
These tiny moments do not encapsulate a person. But they are what I have to remember.
A memory: Sitting with Grandma Gude on her couch. She tells me she is old. How does she know? Watch this. She pulls at the furrowed, blue veined skin on the top of her hand. She releases and I watch as it leisurely returns to its original position. Now do yours. I do and my skin snaps back almost instantaneously. See, that’s how you know. I’ve lost my elastic. But yours is still there.
Today when I look at the tops of hands I think, “How much elastic?” and once in a while I check myself. I’d say I have 60/40 left.
A story I heard second hand: In 2008, as you might remember, we had a national election. My grandmother was a deeply devout Catholic. She also didn’t agree with John McCain. She struggled with this choice, weighing an unswerving faith against a personal set of principles and intuitions. She agonized over an internal moral conversation most would never bother to have. So much so that she consulted a priest and admitted, somewhat pained, that she ultimately had to vote for Obama, even if some of his views disagreed with the church.
“Oh my dear, it’s fine. So did I.”
A family dinner: My aunt tells my grandmother she should get the internet. She doesn’t know what it would be good for. Keeping in touch with your grandchildren! You could send them an email. Let’s do it now! And, though some of us are slightly wary, we all do so together at the table. Somehow the caps lock is on. And then we have to explain that it’s as if the whole letter is being shouted. Her reply is that’s ok. We’ll leave it that way.
My grandmother and I didn’t talk much about the work that I make. But she’s mixed into it, along with all the other pieces of myself. She is present when I stop myself to listen. She is present in the small nervous gesture of pulling on the skin of my hand. She is present when I am wrought with a choice that others might easily make. She is present when I make the effort to try something new, even if it’s approached with a bit of chagrin.
These tiny moments cannot encapsulate a person. But they are what I have to remember: jumbled together out of order, without a clear timeline. Memory is strangely non-linear – it feels so much more like a collage or an aggregate of these moments mixed around and piled on top of each other. No one of them is enough.
In trying to contemplate or communicate about things that are unspeakable, a shadow is all we can hope to cast. And perhaps ultimately it’s why I’m a creator. I want to study the shadows of experience in myself and those around me. Hone in on them so that I might know the thing I’m trying to look at just a tiny bit better. To let these seemingly random or disparate pieces combine into something approaching a whole.
To try and capture something of a kind, incredibly strong, quiet matriarch. Of a person who was practical and loving. Of a mother and grandmother. Of a storyteller and survivor. Of a woman who cared for so very many people I care so very much about, each one of whom has their own tiny moments that mix around and muddle and add up to missing her.