What Writing My Grandmothers' Obituaries Taught Me About Motherhood
I lost my Granny five years ago this summer, and my Grandma Ruth this past spring. As the writer in the family, I was asked to write obituaries for each of them, and the process of boiling down each of their more than 90 years of life into a few hundred words taught me a lot about life and motherhood.
When you’re gone, no one mentions the piles of dishes in your sink. My Grandma Ruth was an amazing cook, but she wasn’t always an excellent dish washer. People went on and on about her Friendship Bread and how loved they felt eating it. They talked about how much work and time she put into her confections, but no one mentioned the mess she made in the kitchen making it. It reminded me that my family probably won’t remember my housekeeping skills, but they will remember that I was always ready to make a cake for a friend’s birthday or whip up a special meal, just because.
People don’t always remember what you did, but they remember how you made them feel. Granny was opinionated and demanding at times, but what most people remembered about her was the way her face lit up when they entered the room, how she listened with rapt attention to what was going on in their lives, and how she never let someone leave without saying, “Blessings on you, child.” I try to remember Granny’s ways when I am interacting with people. I make sure my friends and family know that I’m excited to see them, I offer them hugs, and I text them out of the blue to let them know I’m thinking about them when we’re not together. We never know when our love is the only thing getting someone through.
We are not our darkest days. Both of my grandmothers struggled with health issues throughout their lives. Granny had Fibromyalgia, like me, and Grandma had multiple heart surgeries. Some days, they were probably just trying to make it through, but they both kept “hanging in there,” as Grandma would always say, and taking life day by day. It can be really hard to stay in the moment when there are three million things to do and a million more to worry about, but my grandmothers remind me that taking life moment by moment is really the only way to stay present.
Being a mother is a powerful and lifelong job. My grandmothers didn’t stop parenting their children when they moved out of the house, but the ways they watched over and supported their kids changed after the kids grew up. Whether it was providing financial support during tough times, making phone calls to check in on their kids, or taking 10-plus hour flights to visit our family when we lived in Hawaii, they made sure that their children and grandchildren knew we were worth the effort. Their acts of lifelong mothering teach me that my kids won’t always be little, but I want them to know that they are always loved beyond measure.
We live on in the hearts of our loved ones. My grandmothers made some pretty amazing contributions to society. Grandma Ruth was a union shop steward for a chain of grocery stores, and Granny and Granddaddy spent thirty years as Methodist missionaries to Malaysia and Singapore. They touched the lives of many people, but none more so than their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They changed the world one child at a time, and we feel them every day; from their arms wandered ministers and mothers, teachers and engineers, fathers and therapists. They will live on as long as we live, because their love is imprinted on who we are. I see Granny, who always wore a butterfly pin on her left shoulder, every time I watch a butterfly alighting on a flower or I pass by a patch of Queen Anne’s Lace. I hear Grandma every time my dad and Aunt Karen laugh and I taste her in my homemade biscuits and gravy (even though I leave out the bacon fat). Whether or not I have the blessing of decades more living, I want to leave my loves with this imprint of love and the knowledge that they are wonderful and worthy no matter what.
Writing my grandmothers’ obituaries was not easy, but it was so rewarding. I was able to use my gift with words to honor two of the most influential women in my life, and I can only hope I was able to encapsulate their lives in a way that acknowledged their impact on my life and the lives of everyone they encountered.
Kendra Atkins-Boyce is the granddaughter of Wava Hale Teilmann and Edna Ruth Wheeler Atkins. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two amazing daughters. She is a birth trauma doula at Karysma Birth (karysmabirth.com, @karysmabirth on Instagram) and founder of The Birth Trauma Project (Facebook and Meetup).