Adapted eulogy from the memorial service for my maternal grandmother, Olive May Nelson (1/09 – 6/07)
My brother told me right after she died that when he thinks of Grandma Ollie he thinks of her hands.
Grandma’s hands were delicate and pretty, her thin, pale skin and blue veins accentuated by the simple diamond band she wore from my grandfather. Her hands are the perfect metaphor for who she was. Diminutive and always delicate in appearance, she rarely topped 100 pounds, inside was a tough, scrappy constitution.
As her family, we remember a woman (and hands) in motion. She could discredit your statement with a flick of her wrist, poke fun at your idea with a her pointy little index finger, or punctuate your joke with a hearty clap, which she did most often.
Those were the hands we held when we slept in between her and Grandpa Eddie’s twin beds during visits as kids. Those were the hands we held to walk her back to her apartment across the street after he had passed. And those were the hands that tapped gently, reflexively, and so comfortingly any time they were held.
We laughed at how those tiny hands could wring a sopping dishrag virtually dry. Or how their viselike grip on your shoulders punctuated her threat to shake you out of your shoes if she was cross with you. Those hands helped her conjure words like “Gatorade” by making an alligator with her thumb and forefinger.
Olive was strong and fiercely independent. She was on her own at the age of 15. She told us stories of how she had to work as a nursing student to pay for any thermometers she broke. Graduating first in her nursing class, she opted to live the first years of her married life in secret so she could continue to work during the Depression, a feminist before the word was invented. She gave birth to our mother at 33, then lost three babies to Rh factor. She lived 35 years after her husband died; alone, but never lonely. Until dementia stopped her, Grandma was a voracious reader and an intelligent listener.
She was fiercely loyal. She had friends from first grade with whom she exchanged Christmas cards until she could no longer write. She followed the New York Mets faithfully, staying up late to watch them play on the West Coast, clipping and neatly storing their box scores from the newspaper, and earning a bouquet with a bat in it when they finally won the World Series, a passion she passed on to “The Best Boy in Town,” her youngest grandson.
In fact, she never missed his games either growing up, and was baffled as to how they could call him for “traveling” in basketball – “How else was he to get from one end of the court to the other?”
She picked on you if she loved you, and she loved none in this world more than our mother.When we moved to Erie, Grandma was there to help unpack. When my mother had her fourth child, my grandmother was there for us (willing to do everything but cook). And when my mother was hospitalized for brain surgery, my grandmother again was there to meet our needs, and only after that did she excuse herself to go home and cry and pray for her only child.
We cannot remember a Christmas Eve when Grandma didn’t sleep at our house, just so she could be there when we awoke at 7 a.m. to open our gifts. It was the only day of the year she saw the sun rise in the sky, although she usually left by noon for a nap.
Her ideas may not all have been conventional, but they were hers, and she wasn’t about to change. She believed in God and never missed the Pope’s midnight Mass, but she was fascinated by the book “Communion” and the idea of alien life, and entertained us all with her theories on reincarnation. Yet at the end of every day, we knew Grandma was on her knees to pray at the side of her wooden bed (She was terrified of lightning and refused to sleep in a metal bed.) Why tempt fate?
Ollie loved to laugh. She and Mom would play a game of “ha, haha, hahaha” and end up in tears. I remember watching The Absent-Minded Professor with her when she got hysterical over the basketball players flying across the court with flubber. My sister recalls walking her across the street one rainy night when a car drove by, hit a water-filled pothole that soaked her from head to toe. My grandmother belly-laughed all the way home.
Grandma loved a party! Whether it was eating smoked almonds and drinking soda at her place on one of our many sleepovers, or holding court for generations of friends, Ollie was a fixture in our home and a fixture in our lives growing up.
When I met my husband in 1990, he was immediately drawn to Ollie’s charm and baseball acumen. She quickly informed him she was on her way out. He said, “Grandma, you can’t die, I’m just getting to know you.” She responded, “That’s your problem, I’ve been around a long time!” Little did she know, she still had 17 years to go.
While we lost a lot of Grandma to dementia in her last years, I wouldn’t be surprised if she awoke just after midnight on each birthday to be sure she made it, just like when she turned 80.
One time Grandma said that sometimes she’d catch her reflection in the mirror and be amazed by the old woman staring back because that was not how she felt inside. I speak for us all when I say that’s not ever who we saw either. We saw a strong, smart, independent, funny and loving woman who was always on the ball and forever vibrant and energetic.
Grandma was a great example to her granddaughters, cheerleader to her grandsons, and unwavering supporter of her daughter. When all was said and done, she knew what mattered in this life: faith and family, and she lived accordingly.
We are so blessed to have grown up with her across the street and to have these and so many other great memories to treasure for the rest of our lives.
With Grandma’s passing, we are sad to lose what little of her remained on this earth, for even so diminished by disease, hers was a great spirit. She leaves behind a legacy to be admired: her daughter and son-in-law (always did like that Ed, she said recently) have been married for more than 40 years. Her four grandchildren are healthy and happy. She boasts two great-grandsons and seven great-granddaughters.
The locks may be off at her nursing home now, but I have to think that St. Peter is looking at some security updates for the pearly gates.
Hail to the Cardinals! Love you, Gram.