The first time I met Grandma Sweetie Pie, I was pregnant. Aside from Ross and his parents, I don’t think anyone else knew. I was 31 years old and convinced children and marriage weren’t in my future, so this pregnancy was a surprise. After years of trying and failing to conceive in my previous marriage, the pregnancy was miraculous. Of course, my family was thrilled, and DG and Mary adjusted to the initial shock pretty quickly (DG sprang out of his chair to hug me), but the first time I met Grandma Sweetie Pie involved meeting the entire extended family.
It wasn’t actually Thanksgiving. One of the first things I learned about Ross’s family was that they celebrate when everyone can get together. The day doesn’t matter. The gathering does.
At the time, Grandma Sweetie Pie still lived in the small house where she and her husband had raised their six children. Inside was a surprise—steps too steep for someone who seemed so frail, a wide window with a view to bird feeders, music…music…music, and a whimsical basement.
I’m from Florida. Basements are terrifying, dark places where people go in slasher films to turn on the circuit breaker or inspect that weird thump or hide some loathing secret. At the least, it’s where people hide during roaring tornadoes.
Grandma Sweetie Pie’s basement was bright lights, long white tables, and the walls…the walls were forest trees and stumps and lakes and clouds and critters and dreams. In each brush stroke, there was a story of someone in the family who had held a brush and added an element, and did I want to add one, too?
I added the crooked tree. The one on the property where I grew up. The one that appeared in my first novel.
I met everyone. Literally everyone. All funny and clever and interesting. All kind and genuine and curious. And at the end of the day, stuffed with all the fixings and homemade pie, they invited me into the family photo. We hadn’t announced I was pregnant. I didn’t know what the future held. Ross and I weren’t married. What if I ended up being “that girl who showed up at that one Thanksgiving”? I thought maybe I could stand at the edge and they could crop me out. But no, I was herded into the group, wedged lovingly next to Ross and included with Grandma Sweetie Pie and all the people she loved.
Grandma Sweetie Pie had raised a family filled with artists and creators, people who used their hands to make things, with imaginations wide and hearts wider. And wild, curious things. Practical things. Tough things. People who faced challenges and brought bags filled with whimsy and practicality.
I heard stories of Grandma Sweetie Pie dressing up as Wonder Woman for Halloween, donning the costume without looking at herself in the mirror because she knew if she did, she wouldn’t come out. I suspect she would have come out anyway.
This was a woman who turned down an acceptance to Julliard to marry a man and move to Illinois and raise a family.
If you’re wondering what happens to an artist who is transplanted to the Midwest, to small town America, this is it. She brings her music with her. She grounds her children in faith. She teaches them to search for four-leaf clovers, to seek the shapes in the clouds, to never forget the beauty and wonder of a changing season, of a small kindness. She makes them strong. Stronger. She gives them her music, determination, art, and curiosity. She laughs. Mostly at herself. And then they learn to do the same. She accepts them. Just as they are.
Eventually the house was sold, and Grandma Sweetie Pie moved in with family, and then moved into a nearby nursing home, and was a light and delight there as well. Even when she didn’t recognize faces or names anymore.
I live with her legacy. My house is whimsy and music. We could do with some extra grounding, our pace too fast. She would tell us to slow down. She would tell us to savor more moments. She would tell us not to worry. To trust. To have faith. We need to remember this.
Last Sunday she was reunited with all these people she’s been missing.
But these people she left behind…
Yesterday when we celebrated her 98 years, I saw that first photo of the day I joined them for Thanksgiving. It was the first of many photos with new faces added.
At the church, I was entrusted with making sure some of the folks who couldn’t make it to the service could be there, via Zoom. I held them in my hand, angling the camera, trying to anticipate what they would want to see. The priest spoke of her service to others, her faith, her family, her humor, her intellect, her curiosity. I watched Aurora, my miracle, watching me, sending me hearts with her hands. I watched Matthew, a pallbearer, lift Grandma Sweetie Pie with his hands that dance across piano keys. I thought about the people, those who were present in person and spirit, who know without any doubt how much Grandma Sweetie Pie loved them.
The artisans. The educators. The musicians. The tenders. The problem-solvers and fighters and nurturers and finders of four-leaf clovers.
She gave birth to all of this.
May we all be so blessed.