My daughters’ last grandparent died last week. The call came in at 7:45 in the morning August 24. My daughter, Becky, delivered the sad news. “Daddy, grandmom died.”
Katherine Crane, “Kitty,” Ross had passed away August 23 near Athens. She was 91.
For many, losing your last surviving grandparent is a prelude to your parents’ departure to the Great Beyond. Call it training. The death of pets and grandparents paves the path to that sad day when we sit by the graveside and bid a parent farewell. That’s the route life carved out for others and me. Some, I know, lose parents at a tender age. I hope that for those who lose a dad or mom or both early in life, grandparents become especially meaningful and close.
Yes, I know it seems I am stuck in sadness these days, but that’s not true. It’s just that I have arrived at that juncture in life where death comes calling. In his memoir, Burning The Days, James Salter described how his fellow fighter pilots shot down in Korea were like large raindrops pelting the earth. Death rained down. I know, somewhat, what he meant. In the last year and a half, nine people influential in my life have died, among them my mother and two of her sisters. I admit my last two columns haven’t been sunny side up. One discussed how my sisters and I are cleaning out Mom’s house. We’re gently carting away memories of where we grew up. The other column, just last week, covered why we see cedars shading graves down South. And now I write about the death of my ex mother-in-law, a good and strong woman of the South if ever there were. For four years she was my mom-in-law; for forty-one she was my ex mom-in-law. I tried not to like her but that was impossible.
For those of you who have never been through divorce you may be unfamiliar with the uneasiness that comes with being around ex in-laws. For those who have suffered the travails of divorce, you know it’s quite easy to view ex in-laws in a bad light, if you so choose. Sure, Kitty and I had tensions in those early days when open wounds oozed bitterness and disappointment but the years brought good things into our lives, chief among them mutual love for my daughters, Beth and Becky. My girls loved Kitty very much too, and I can say in all frankness that she was among the better things that happened to those girls.
Just now, Beth emailed me a photo of the little stone house where they lived with Kitty and her husband, Bill, so long ago … the mid 1970s. Seeing that stone house at 55 B 10th Avenue in St. Albans, West Virginia, washes a flood of memories over me. Many times I went there during my Years of Stress, as I refer to them.
My daughters’ mom and I divorced in February 1975. February 7, 1975 to be precise. For forty-one years I listened to my girls talk about “grandmom,” Kitty to me. They’d tell me of their adventures at her creek-side home in Athens. They’d tell me of the things they did together and how she’d use her favorite words to describe good things they had done. “Oh, dahling, that picture you made is just grand,” Kitty would say in her genteel accent.
My girls were blessed to have good grandparents on both sides. Now all are gone. When their Granddad Ross died in 1993, I was unable to go to his service as my first day on a new job started that very day. I vowed to myself then that nothing would keep me from Kitty’s service when that day came.
And now it has come and gone, and I made good on my vow.
Like windblown leaves, Beth, Becky, and I scattered across three states until we each got caught in far-flung eaves, you could say. Becky lives close to Athens, about forty minutes away. Beth lives near Raleigh, about 6.5 hours away. I live three hours away in Columbia, South Carolina. The day of Kitty’s service, August 31, Beth arose early in Apex, North Carolina, and drove over three hours south to Columbia. As soon as she arrived at my house we made the three-hour journey to Athens. We shared memories as we made our way to the Classic City. I thought a lot about the West Virginia Years of Stress when Beth and her sister lived in that stone house. I remembered how I’d drive all day to West Virginia so I could spend Saturday with them and then drive back Sunday, a beaten man. Beaten, because it would be another month before I could see my girls. Something about those lonely trips to Wild, Wonderful West Virginia changed me. I have not been the same since. I cannot explain it, I cannot understand it, but I know it made me a better person. On the drive to Athens, I listened as Beth talked about her grandmother and her own family, and deep inside I knew what I had long sensed was true. Kitty helped make my girls into fine, loving mothers, and for that I thank her.
Kitty’s celebration of life took place at Iris Place, an assisted living center in Athens where she lived among friends. A little before 2:30 on a hot day with round white clouds salting the blue sky, family and friends drifted in. Death provides an occasion for catching up, and lately, far too many of these sad reunions have filled sanctuaries and dining halls. For the first time in many years I saw all my ex in-laws and their families at one time. It put me on edge seeing so many people I used to call family, but all, save one, were gracious to me. Though it was a sad occasion, I was glad to see Kitty’s family, shake hands, hug, and catch up. The service was sweet and several family members added their sentiment to the lady in charge at Iris Place and a minister’s. Beth’s slide show of her grandmother played throughout the service. One soft solo floated across the gathered crowd.
After the service and taking of family photographs, Beth and I drove over to Oconee Hill Cemetery, which sprawls beautifully just beyond the shadow of Sanford Stadium. I have seen magnificent cemeteries, Savannah’s Bonaventure comes to mind, but Oconee Hill possesses a beauty uniquely its own. We drove through its rolling, forested hills looking for her grandparent’s resting place but could not find it. We got out and looked on foot. What magnificent gravestones, rock walls, meadows, and vistas. We looked and looked but never found the gravesite. We ran out of time. We will, however, return so Beth can lay a rose upon her grandmother’s resting place. As we drove across the bridge leading out of Oconee Hills I though that surely some 93,000 red-and-black crazed members of the Dawg Nation could wake the dead sleeping here.
As we drove past Sanford Stadium and headed to my hometown and dinner with family, my mind went over all those years I knew Kitty. She was always good to me, even when I didn’t deserve it. She was a Southern lady, an artist, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. She left her growing family a legacy of benevolence, admiration, and accomplishment. Eight simple words in her obituary, passive voice, say it all.
“She was loved by all who knew her.”