You Knew Watching Her

And you knew watching her that even though she did not want to be dying, she was going to do so with the same elegant ordinariness with which she has lived.
— Anne Lamott, Small Victories

She lived eighty-six years and eight months longer than any one expected. My grandmother, Mary, was born premature, so tiny that she fit in the hand of the black woman who was part nurse, part house-help to the family. The way my grandmother told it, the only reason she did live was that this kind woman kept her warm and helped nurse her to health. 

Yet in a long life, MaryMa (as all of us grandchildren called her) saw more than enough dying. Her brother Hoke was a "blue baby," as they were known back then, and lived only a few hours. Her sister Alice died in a car accident at age 47. Alice's husband Johnson committed suicide two years after Alice was killed.

When MaryMa was twelve, her mother died of a stroke. Then when she was 31, she lost her beloved father as well. Even before those deaths, though, little six-year old Mary watched her six-year old cousin Elizabeth get run over by a car and die. MaryMa's first cousin John lost his six-year old son to accidental hanging in a dogwood tree while waiting outside for his dad to come play with him. 


These early deaths were not partial to MaryMa's side, and she experienced many other deaths on her husband's (my granddaddy Lambert's) side as well. Lambert's brother Gilbert disappeared on a lake and is thought to have been drowned during a boating mishap. His other brother Gena, along with a friend, were both electrocuted while working on the farm. Mary and Lambert's nephew Chip died in a motorcycle accident when he was in his mid-20's. There are others I won't recount, although each one does count. 

I have known so little death compared to what my grandmother knew all her life. Yet it must be that all these deaths fueled an ordinary willingness to live and keep living. She was beaten down in numerous ways by a hard working life, the harsh reality of a loveless marriage, and having lost so many that she loved along the way. In spite of the dying she had been doing all her life, her spirit was not destroyed and her love for her family did not waver.  


To be a person who was given so little to work with, MaryMa's life mattered more than she would ever have acknowledged. She was nothing if not ordinary, yet there was a gravity of love and kindness in her years of relationship with me and so many others. Her words to me time and time again were that she loved me "the whole world full." Though MaryMa's whole world was really just a small rural farming community in Eastern North Carolina, and though she'll be forgotten in a couple generations, you knew watching her that the ordinary is good and it is enough. 

Good-bye my dear sweet MaryMa. Today it became your turn to face death and you faced it bravely and well. Now finally, you fully live. All the dying is over. You are with your family again, Hoke and Alice and your mom and your dad, who all left you much too soon. You get to experience the things that our minds and bodies on earth know not. We will miss you until we are with you again, to be sure. But I am happy for you, MaryMa, because you are at last done with all the dying, and you are home.