The last time I saw my Grandmother Sara I’d wheeled her down to the community room of Meridian Way, the retirement home where she’d been living for the last year and a half.
“Is this okay?” I asked, setting the brake, “Are we close enough to the window?”
Grandma smiled, sat forward looking out over the skyline of Minneapolis and said, “It’s fine, Ethan, just perfect.”
“Would you like something to drink?” I indicated the refreshment area on the far wall, “Some tea, maybe?”
“A glass of water would be nice, sweetheart. Just a small one.”
It may sound like a simple thing, but I liked that Grandma always told the truth. It was a way of life for her. If you asked her about anything: are you hungry, tired or thirsty, for example, or her opinion on politics or religion, she’d always be honest with you. In my experience, most people weren’t as forthcoming. Not Grandma Sara, she always told the truth. It was refreshing.
“I’ll be right back. Don’t do go anywhere.”
She laughed at my lame joke, “Don’t worry, I’m perfectly happy right here.”
My earliest memory of her was when I was four years old. Mom dropped me off a lot back then when she went out on one of her ever increasingly frequent dates. I loved being with Grandma. We were snuggled on the couch, and I had my sleepy head resting in her lap, wrapped up in a shawl she’d knit. We were watching television, one of the courtroom dramas she loved so much. I remember the guy on the witness stand being approached by a solemn looking man holding a bible and being asked to ‘Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’
I roused myself and sat up, “What’s that mean, Grandma?”
“It means to never lie, Ethan. Always tell the truth.”
It was my first life lesson from Grandma, and one that always has stayed with me.
She was a seamstress and worked for Lea’s Creations, a dress shop just off Nicolett Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Grandpa Ernie had been killed in World War II on D-Day and she lived in the bungalow they’d purchased in northeast Minneapolis just before he’d enlisted. She didn’t drive and took the bus back and forth to work. After mom left for good, Grandma took over the task of raising me and it was probably a good thing, too.
Once I was caught stealing a pack of gum with my friends Eddie and JK. They took off running and got away. I wasn’t so lucky. The store manager, a huge, hairy man with bushy eyebrows, caught me by the collar of my tee-shirt and made me sit in the back room while he called Grandma.
“You’ve got yourself a career criminal in the making here, Mrs. Stevenson. Make no doubt about it.”
I was seven years old and terrified. Grandma left work and took the bus to the store. We walked home without saying a word, me becoming more and more frightened with each step.
We walked in through the back door sat at the kitchen table. She looked me in the eye, her voice full of sadness, “Ethan, why did you do such a terrible thing? You just about broke my heart, stealing somebody else’s gum for pity sakes. Haven’t I raised you to be better than that?”
I felt horrible. It was plain that I’d disappointed her and let her down. “It wasn’t just me, Grandma. Eddie and JK were there, too, but when Mr. Jensen asked who else was there I told him it was just me.”
“So you lied?”
“No. Well, yes,” I said, tears suddenly flowing. I’d not only nearly broken her heart but also lied, a big “No no” in Grandma’s book.
“So you didn’t tell on them?”
Grandma sat back and thought for a minute before saying, “Well, then, good. That’s a good thing.”
“What do you mean? I thought I wasn’t supposed to lie.”
She surprised me by suddenly reaching over and hugging me. “No, you shouldn’t lie, but you need to do right by your friends, too. Sometimes it’s okay to lie a little like you did. It’s called a white lie.”
I didn’t realize that life could be so complicated, but Grandma dedicated herself to helping me navigate my way through it.
That last day together her heart was worn out, weakened by a series of mini-strokes, but her mind was sill sharp. We’d stayed close our entire lives. I helped her choose Meridian Way, helped her move in, and visited at least every other day. She was the only family I had next to my wife and three kids.
One of things she told me that last day was how much she loved raising me.
“You were like a son to me, Ethan. The son I never had.”
What could I say? I gave her a heartfelt hug and she hugged me back, both of us making the most of our time together. I’m glad that we did. She passed away during that night due to a massive stroke. I was told she didn’t feel a thing.
And that thing about lying? Well, just before I left her that last day she asked if I ever regretted not having my birth mom around in my life.
“Were you okay with this old lady being your mother?” she asked.
I looked at her, this self-sacrificing woman who was the most wonderful person I’d ever known, and said, “Well, Grandma, I have to be honest here,” and I paused for effect, a long, pregnant moment, before grinning and saying, “You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“You wouldn’t lie,” she asked, joking.
“Never,” I said.
I remember that she smiled, then, and I did too. I couldn’t have asked for more from her. And that’s the truth.