An Unforgettable Character

Last night, my last remaining grandparent passed away at age 93. I heard it happened while she was sleeping and on morphine, which if true, is not a bad way to go—all things considered.

The last few months have been especially hard on our family since she was always the beacon of good health. Never needed to visit the doctor until very late in life, and even then, she generally didn’t care for the advice. Her famous phrase of “all you need is meat and cabbage” was a truism to her. To see her having such a hard time was difficult for everyone involved.

She will be remembered for many things, but one thing that stands out when think of her is Work.

As a kid, I didn’t have an allowance. I had to work for my money. Whether that was mowing ours or other people’s lawns, shoveling ours or neighbor driveways, being the stock kid at a pharmacy, typing legal documents for lawyers, it didn’t matter. I was taught from an early age that nothing was free and you had to work to get what you wanted. Grandma B. was the primary person who instilled that work ethic in me when I was young.

Whenever I thought I wanted to go buy something..a comic book, guitar strings, etc. I called her. Not to ask for money, but an opportunity to earn it through work. And work I did. My brother, cousins and wife can attest to her work ethic. This was the typical phone call regardless the subject:

Me: “Hi Grandma. I was wondering if I could do any jobs for you today.”

Grandma: “I’ll be right over.” CLICK!

There was no “okay, that sounds great” or “I’m so glad you called because…”. No. It was an immediate hangup. Then within what I swear felt like 30 seconds, her car would magically appear in my driveway. She wouldn’t usually come to the door to get me. She’d wait. She was teaching me that if I was the one who wanted to work, I had to take the initiative to get out the door and go right away. And she wasn’t going to wait forever. If I took too long to get out there, she eventually came to the door and wasn’t happy about it.

The inside of her car is still so vivid in my mind. The front seats were usually empty except the floormats were covered in dirt, old newspapers and small tools (gardening or hammers). The back seat was essentially her version of those steel truck bed tool boxes. Laid across the seats were shovels, and gloves, and rakes and steel posts, and probably 10 other items that just blended in. Don’t even ask about the trunk. God knows what actually was stored in there.

I’d hop in the front and with a simple “hello” we’d be off—straight to the apartment complex she and my Grandfather owned and operated. I can’t recall the total number of units (probably 24-30) but there was always things to do and they would take all day. Raking every single leaf off the property during fall in Michigan is no easy task. Neither is hand shoveling the entire parking lot and every interior sidewalk in freezing cold. If my experiences with her were Boy Scout merit badges, I’d have one for removing old appliances, ripping out all the carpet, repainting walls, removing toilets, scrubbing tile floors, repairing wall damage, loading her car up with tons and tons of trash for the dumpster. One time, I was asked to watch the freshly poured cement dry and protect it from the nearby high schoolers as they came home after class let out. Honestly. I sat in a lawn chair watching cement dry.

No matter the task, she always had the same thing to say, “Thank you, Matthew for working hard today. Here is your money.” I never got out of a job in time to go spend it that same day, but it didn’t matter. I knew the work was important to her, and me too.

Fast forward to last December, I had the privilege to work on a project for Ford to help introduce the new Ford Fusion to the world. It was a hell of a way to cap off a really good year in my career, but the biggest bonus was that I could get back to Michigan a few more times to visit her at her nursing home. She wasn’t doing very well, and honestly didn’t seem like she wanted to hang on for very long. But when she knew I was coming over to visit I would hear that she was actively telling her wonderful caretakers I was coming to see her and she couldn’t wait. That made me feel so happy.

We took pictures and I tried to explain to her what I was working on. I’m sure it sounded like gibberish to her. In the end though, it didn’t matter. I was finally able to share with her the fruits of my labor: a 3D driving experience on an iPad. She had never used an iPad before, and when designing the experience, it never occurred to me that someone who was 92 at the time would ever encounter it. To my total surprise, she loved it. She wanted to keep driving the car around and appreciated how simple it was to do. I can’t explain how good that made me feel. To finally connect with her in this way meant everything to me.

There are so many truly hilarious stories about her that I love to hear and tell, but this one meant the most. I hope she’s finally reunited with the love of her life and seeing the many people she’s missed for so long.

I love you Grandma B. And no, I will never stop calling you that. Clearly the stubborn apple didn’t fall far from the tree.