Carol J. Skumanich, my paternal grandmother, affectionately known to her children and grandchildren as Gaby, passed away on Friday August 3rd, 2012. My phone on silent, my life ticking along, I did not receive the news until 10:30 that evening when I returned my dad’s phone call. I want to say that I was shocked but I wasn’t. My grandmother had been ill, suffering from COPD and emphysema, for a very long time. Her immune system compromised, she was prone to pneumonia and other lung infections. She had been fighting for her life for so long and her quality of life, by the end, was quite compromised. I think she was tired of putting up the fight, tired of being resilient against her weakness. I don’t blame her. There is only so much one can put up with until one can’t anymore.
There are photographs, these photographs, that show her as a young woman. I hadn’t seen them prior to her passing. Upon seeing them for the first time, I was dumbstruck. Seeing her, young and light, with more years ahead of her than behind her, brought the reality of a life lived and lost to illness into sharp, crystal clear focus. It brought up so many questions. What dreams did she have at 18? Who did she want to become? Where did she think she was going to end up? I also noticed from the photographs, as they progressed through the years, is that I had forgotten that she used to go swimming, that she could walk up and down the stairs with ease. I forgot that she used be able to breathe and to enjoy the life that she had made for herself, that laughing didn’t cause her to cough, that she could go places without oxygen, that she could travel.
I do not love the glossing over of someone’s negative behaviors and traits after they have passed away. In ignoring this, it says nothing to acknowledge the intricacies of the people we love and cherish. It does not speak to the trials that life causes. It does a disservice to the dead by making us into angels and says nothing about the type of person one was, nothing about how one loves someone, despite their short-comings, their mistakes. Without recognizing her bad traits, I cannot fully appreciate her good ones.
In addition to being brilliant and funny, my grandmother was a difficult woman, with a wit and a tongue when directed in such a way, caused a deep sting to those who received it. She could be judgmental and was given to snobbery around things like class and race. She was prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. In those times, it was difficult to be around her. I worry now that I should’ve been more gracious, more understanding, more sympathetic to her sadness, her despair, especially since I have experienced so much of my own. My reasons are different than hers, surely, but the experience of isolation and fear similar.
Going home, going back into the valley that I was born and raised in until I was 12 years old, has a tendency to deeply emphasize a lot of my own pain and truths. My experience there is colored, marked by the fact that I knew at a young age that I didn’t belong there. The drive is long and the drive home for the funeral was one of the most difficult drives I have ever made. Given the circumstances of my life right now, where I am playing house with my partner and lack a career or direction, I have been feeling so painfully inadequate. I was worried about whether or not she was proud of me, if I had done anything at all worthwhile when she was alive. I fretted about what to say to people when they asked me what I was doing, with my fancy college degree and my life lived far away.
There is no one else in this world that greets me with the enthusiasm and joy that she did when I walked into her kitchen after being gone for a few months, exclaiming “Shelby!”, with an enormous smile on her face. She encouraged me, endlessly. She was one of my biggest cheerleaders, always enthusiastic to hear about the work I was making, to see the photographs I was producing, to hear what I had been up to. Growing up, she spoiled the shit out of me and I received a long string of awesome gifts from her. At 7, she gave me a purple snapshot camera (my first) and a bunch of film. At 9, the farting Ren doll, from the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, that drove my parents nuts. At 16, the woven blanket featuring Jim Morrison’s dramatic face and bare chest. At 21, a sewing machine for use at college. She was always generous and always excited to see the reaction to her gifts.
At her funeral, I lost count of the number of people that came up to me and told me how proud she was of me, about how, even when she was in the hospital, she talked about her three grandchildren constantly. I was gracious but overwhelmed at this and it was comforting to know she loved me, despite my shortcomings and my failure to live up to my own promise as an artist and as an adult. While I know that she loved her four children very much, I think her three grandchildren brought her much joy in a very different way. I suspect we functioned as beacons of light and youth and promise for her and I think she wanted to see us succeed and come into our own.
After being gone for three days for the funeral and experiencing such enormous sadness of my own and of others, coming back to my day to day life felt both utterly mundane and incredibly difficult. Doing the dishes and getting the mail felt so inconsequential to the enormous and insurmountable reality that she was gone. At three, four weeks out, it still feels that way but I do all of the things I need to do anyways because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what else to do other than to move forward, to keep living the life that I have. I’m not even experiencing the worst of it. Because I do not live close to my family, her presence did not mark my day to day life as deeply as it had my aunts’, my uncles’ , my father’s, my cousins’. I cannot imagine the hole in their life right now.
When I first read my grandmother’s obituary, I was struck by how it breaks down her life so simply, into understated terms about how she spent her time and who her family was. She was so much more than the paragraphs suggest, then what the newsprint tells the reader. Her life, all 77 years of it, is only slightly reflected in those words. It does not tell of the details that made up her life, of the characteristics that I loved her for, that her family loved her for. It glosses over her laugh, her smile, her sense of humor. It passes by her fine, thin, age-spotted hands with long nails filed to a point; hands that knitted and sewed and cooked and comforted. It ignores the time spent at her kitchen table, in idle conversation about the world, about local news. It felt like it didn’t honor her in her complexity. I realize this is out of practicality; there is not enough space anywhere to convey what the dead mean to us after they are gone. There are not enough words, not enough paper, not enough space, not enough time, to say all of the ways in which the people we love imprint on our hearts, our minds and our lives. The best we can do is to honor them in our actions, keep them alive with stories and traditions, to live the life they would want us to live.