October 20, 2005

In Loving Memory of Ella Louise Heis

My maternal grandmother, Ella Louise Heis, passed away this morning at the age of 92.

Just a couple weeks ago she met her great granddaughters, Michal and Kenna, for the first time. My two toddlers are not quiet girls and made a somewhat loud entrance into her room. When she saw them she just smiled and then laughed a little as they ran around her room in their squeaky shoes. My mom said to her, "Aren't they cute?" and she nodded. Kenna climbed into my mom's lap, next to my grandma, and reached over to her. It was an amazing picture as Kenna gently put her small, chubby hand in my grandmother's weathered one. I wish so much my daughters would have had more time with her and could have known her like I did.

My grandmother was a truly lovely woman. She was a child of the depression and was particularly pragmatic and preferred things that were simple. She loved the color green, hated the color purple and loved flowers, unless they were lilies, which she said were for funerals. When I got married, my grandmother was the one who candidly told me my dress had too many bows -- which it did -- but it was the late 80s and I thought the bows were the most important part of the dress.

My grandmother never threw anything away. Every macramé plant hanger, painting and seed mosaic that my sister, cousins and I made her still hangs in her house as I write this. My mom recently opened a desk drawer at her house and found a rent receipt from the apartment she and my grandfather lived in when they were first married. That was my grandmother. She saw no reason to throw anything away and certainly no reason to buy something new if you already had something that worked.

When we were in Ohio recently we spent some time at my grandma's house. Michal and Kenna ran down my grandma's driveway to the back yard -- the same driveway I ran down countless times as a child -- and as I watched them laughing and playing I knew she most likely wouldn’t return home. She lived in her house for nearly 70 years --a house I have always loved. It’s quirky and old and everything that houses in Arizona, where I grew up, aren’t. The doors have glass knobs and when I was little I used to pretend they were diamonds. I loved going down to the basement, where there was always a box of toys, and I love the unfinished basement in our house in Chicago because it reminds me of hers. The stairs in the house are ridiculously steep, and too shallow for anyone who has a normally-sized foot to walk on safely, but they are absolutely perfect to slide down or, in my mom’s case, throw a doll down. The house only has two bedrooms and one bathroom – miniscule by today’s standards – but she raised two children there and never would have considered living anywhere else. Her yard is huge and she and my grandfather always planted a large garden in the summer. My sister and cousins and I tried picking vegetables and sitting on the curb to sell them once. I don’t remember if this was a successful endeavor but I do remember that my grandma helped us set up our produce stand and was our biggest cheerleader.

My grandmother was a woman of true commitment. She and my grandfather were married just shy of 50 years and the last time I saw her, her wedding ring was still on her hand. She had the same best friend, Jane Reeder, for nearly 80 years. They walked to kindergarten together and lived on the same street their entire adult lives. The two of them were part of a group of women who literally grew old together. These women started a sewing club before they were married and continued to meet for the next 70 years. Their group evolved into a bridge club, a card club and finally, just “club” -- a monthly gathering for lunch. Jane is no longer alive, but three of the original club members are and, until very recently, my grandmother was still lunching with them monthly.

I think It's funny that it's the little things that about her that I remember most clearly. I remember the way she stacked bread on paper plates and put them on her dining room table so we could make sandwiches for lunch. I remember playing "Up and Down" and solving word find puzzles with her. I remember that when she and my grandfather came to Arizona to visit us, they'd walk me to the bus and wait for me at the bus stop when I came home. My grandmother had her hair “done” weekly and would sleep with clips in it at night so the curls wouldn’t get crushed. (Boy, do we women suffer for beauty!) I remember running in her room in the morning and taking those clips out when I spent the night at her house or when she was in Arizona visiting us. I remember how she always wore a turquoise ring on her right hand and a scareb bracelet on her wrist. And I remember that she always called me "babe" and called the girls the same thing when she met them.

My grandma always saw the best in her grandchildren. I was a particularly precocious child and when I misbehaved she would tell my mom that I must be hungry or tired instead of acknowledging that I was probably just being, well, a brat. She kept a folder with every letter my sister, cousins and I ever sent her and celebrated every good grade and mundane accomplishment with complete sincerity. She cheered when I received my college degree and sat proudly next to my mom and dad on my wedding day. She was truly excited for Eric and I when we told her we were adopting a baby. Eric and I went to Ohio in May to see her for Mother’s Day and promised her we’d bring the baby – we didn’t yet know it was twins – to see her once we were home. I will be forever grateful that we were able to keep that promise.

Ella Louise Heis is survived by two daughters, four granddaughters, three great granddaughters and a great grandson. Hers was a life lived well; a life lived with grace; a life to be envied.

I’ve heard more than one woman, including my own mom, say that there’s nothing quite like becoming a grandmother. I'm sure that must be true, but I also know there’s nothing quite like having a grandmother either. I know that I will always treasure the memories I have of mine.

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