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Make the most of memories — sometimes it's all we have

November 03, 2010 | 07:42 AM
The last time I saw my grandma, there was snow on the ground and the temperatures were bitter cold.

It was January and she was in a nursing home on the south side of Milwaukee. She had not attended the family holiday functions one month earlier and we were all told she probably wouldn't make it through the winter.

On separate days, my brother and I went to see her. At the nursing home, I met my aunt, who had warned me that grandma was not doing well. Despite what she said, I wasn't prepared for what I was about to see. I knew she had been in poor health for the past couple years, but it seemed as though the downward spiral moved faster than anyone could have imagined.

My 86-year-old grandmother was a shell of her former self. It was as if her hair turned gray and thinned overnight. She couldn't move. She couldn't feed herself and she could barely see. Her voice was soft and frail.

Worse of all, she suffered from dementia. She said things that made no sense. It was as if her mind was living in an earlier time and a different world than her body. To this day, I still don't know whether she even knew who I was during my hour-long visit.

When I walked out of her room that day, I knew I wouldn't be back. Instead, I chose to remember my grandma as she had always been. I chose to watch old home videos and picture slide shows of all of us when were much younger. I watched all the Christmas home movies on a family DVD of when my brother and I were children. We all played, laughed and smiled. She was in almost all of them and there was a special way in which she looked at us as her only grandchildren.

I also watched pictures flash by of her when she was younger and other pictures of us during holidays, birthdays and graduations. Basically, I did everything possible to replace the most recent memory of my grandmother with those much happier ones.

On Friday, Oct. 22, at 87, she took her final breath. I wasn't there. I found out the next day that she had died.

But it wasn't until the visitation and funeral service last Thursday that I realized something — how proud she was of me and my brother and how little I actually knew about her.

She talked about us to the other people in her life — people I had never met. They knew my profession, where I lived, and they had even been shown some of my work.

There were many other things I didn't know. After my aunt's eulogy, I realized I didn't know who my grandma really was, especially her life before me and my brother were in it. I really never thought about what she was like in her younger days and how she turned out to be the person she did.

She was born just before the Great Depression and she and her sisters were sheltered from that time by their parents. She was only 17 when she married my grandfather in 1940. Later she worked at a school with mentally and physically disabled children and enjoyed that time in her life. My aunt said she loved to hear stories about what my grandma's life was like when she was a child — how they struggled, but never showed it, and how hard my grandma worked at everything while bringing up my dad and aunt.

Every day, in this job, I ask questions and talk to people I've never met before. I ask them about their lives, why they wrote their book, why they volunteer for an organization or why they deserve the award they just received. I've talked to parents just after losing their child in a car accident and a husband just days after his wife was murdered. I've talked to veterans about their military service and their experiences on D-Day or in other combat missions.

I'm embarrassed to say, I never once asked or thought to ask my grandma about her life and her experiences.

Now, I will never have the chance to ask my grandmother those questions or know her the way I should have. I understand that all we have are the memories, home movies and photos of her. That's going to have to be good enough.

But a part of me realizes that it could have been so much more.

Seiser is the editor of the Regional News.

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