The Death of the Matriarch

Four days ago my Grandmother Rose died, quite naturally and very unexpectedly, at 90 years young. Her death was at very least, incredibly shocking and at most, absolutely devastating.

Just one week ago, on a Friday night, many of us gathered at my Aunt’s house to celebrate one of her beautiful daughter’s high school graduation. Grandma was there, laughing and talking, eating and visiting, spending time with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews and other relatives.

One of the things I shared with my Grandma was a fascination with genealogy and specifically our family tree. She taught me, many years ago, how to read historical records, where to look for certain information and how to make sense of it all. She would roam around the county court houses and graveyards of Indiana with her sister Billie, tracking down every last member of her family she could find. I could sit and listen to her for hours and hours talking about this cousin or that aunt and who married who and why they had to move or how her parents met. No matter how many times I heard a particular story, it always grabbed me. She was quite a storyteller.

My cousin Kit, Aunt Billie’s son, also shared this love ancestry. Just Friday, while we were all saying our goodbyes before going separate ways, I talked to Kit about getting together in a couple weeks and sitting down to record Grandma Rose telling some of the old stories.

I literally said the words “I really want to record them now, because when she’s gone, the stories are gone too”.

Now I had absolutely no idea what was to come. That I would never have a chance to hear her telling tales of her four sisters and their dear mother and father. That I would never again receive a phone call from her on a Tuesday evening about the latest episode of “Genealogy Roadshow” or “How Do You Think You Are?” That I would never again hear that slight Indiana-Midwestern twangy “And I love you” and the end of our calls and visits.

The grief of the unsaid, all the questions unanswered, all the tales left untold and all the knowledge that just evaporated into the heavens is just palpable.

More than anything she was the Eppert glue. She held down the family as only the strongest and most adored women can, with love, acceptance and forgiveness. The grief that we all my drift and fall apart without her here weighs heavy on my heart.

My Grandparents didn’t know how to make friends. If you were not already a family member, but you know Rose and Grandpa Verlin, and they were fond of you? You were instantly their family. They would involve you in their holidays and family dinners, and in turn would take care of you and your loved ones as if you had always been a part of their lives. Their generosity and kindness knew no bounds.

One such family friend, who has become like a younger “cousin” to my mom Linda, Pam Bouchard, told me today that she sees so much of my Grandma’s qualities in me. That in the way that I always remember names and socialize and keep track of everyone that I will be the one to carry her spirit of family togetherness into the next generation.

And though that was, by far, the greatest compliment I’ve received in some time, those are mighty big shoes to fill.

One thing I will never doubt, not for an instant, is whether or not my Grandma Rose loved me or was proud of me. I KNOW she did. She often complimented me on the girls, how I handled conflicts between them and she felt that I was getting pretty good at parenting.

She knew that I am stronger than I believe I am, and she knew that I would find a way to heal my broken heart. She knew that I would survive the pain of losing two babies one after the next, because she knew that I wasn’t alone. And I knew how much she lived to see her great-granddaughters.

Man did she love my girls. And they adored her.

Last night, as we were getting ready to leave the funeral home, both girls wanted to go up to the casket and say goodbye. After a full day of being in the quiet funeral home and being on such good behavior and playing nicely with so many cousins, they were a bit tired so I didn’t want to push them. But it was on their terms and they were ready to see her and talk to her.

My reserved Cedella didn’t say much, but give me a kiss on my hand to put on Grandma’s cheek. She whispered an “I love you. I’ll miss you,” before burying herself in my skirt.

Isora was her usual chatty self and wanted to talk about how they made Grandma Rose a really fancy bed to sleep on, and all the flowers and whether Grandma would ever get better and wake up. When we told her that her body was always going to be sleeping, but her heart and soul is in the stars, she seemed to understand finally. And then she said “Who is going to be Grandpa Verlin’s friend now?” When I said “Well we all are going to be Grandpa’s friends now” she said “That’s not the same thing.” She knew that she had literally never seen one great-grandparent without the other and how would he live without her.

And while those small moments were heartbreaking, they were also so sweet and full of so much love.

Seeing dozens of family members that I haven’t seen in years and years was bittersweet as well, Grandma always did like a good party. But seeing several aged faces from Eppert Oil, their successful business, really did a number on me. How many people can say that almost 20 years after selling their business they were still so loved, still in good contact with and still close to so many of their old employees. Eppert Oil was just a greater extension of the family, and is was inspiring to see how many people still held such affection for their old boss, and paid their respect to her all these years later.

I want to share the eulogy that my brother Rob read at the funeral service today. It was the most beautiful speech I’ve ever heard at a funeral. And while I certainly cannot take credit for a large part of the text, I did have a hand in writing bits of it, as did our sister Tracey. (*Yea, I’m just here to take full credit for that “Matriarch” line. One of my best sentences yet!)

Hello, For those of you who don’t know, I’m Robbie. And Rose was my Grandma.

As we gather today to acknowledge her passing, it’s hard not to look at this as an occasion of mourning. After all, death has a primary consequence: it hurts the living. In our shock we are brought low. As we are forced to feel this loss—her absence threatens to become a permanent pain.

But there is another way to process our collective grief. We can take a different path toward healing this precious wound. And along this path we can move forward. But if Grandma taught each of us anything, it would be that we can’t do it alone.

We might ask, “What’s next?” For the woman we all loved and cherished.

We may wonder, “What’s next?” for those of us left behind?

I don’t have any answers. But I believe that Grandma did. The one thing that so many of us knew about Rose, as a wife, a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, a great grandmother, a boss or a friend, is that she was a living embodiment of love and acceptance.

We could all learn a lot from that. She lived a life of true generosity obeying always the Golden Rule: Treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. If we saw things the way she did, if we embrace the changes caused by people like her, we might see the world as a far better place for the contributions she’d made.

Despite never graduating high school, Grandma had a brilliant mind that she put well to use. Working day and night to grow a business with grandpa, she became the CFO of a successful corporation while somehow managing to raise six children in the process. In so many ways she never left the office behind. She was truly the Rolodex that bound this enormous family together.

And yet, as far reaching as her memory was— her heart was all-encompassing. A normal heart might only have space for family or for friends, but Grandma had a fathomless reserve of compassion for everyone who stepped into her life.

I believe that Grandma Rose found a piece of herself in each of our hearts and if we look close enough we will find that she left a part of herself behind. Her compassion, her love and her charity beats in each of our hearts now and she will continue to live on in the actions we take. 

Grandma had no room for hate or resentment in her heart. She had an uncanny ability to find a piece of herself in each of us, something she could relate to—something she could latch onto and hold tight.

Whether you were related by blood, by marriage, by mutual concern or by proximity—in her eyes each of us was special. Each of us was unique. In her presence we felt that attention and when we were close to her we all felt like we mattered most. She knew all of our names and all of our faces. She knew our successes and our failures. She lived each of our ups and our downs … but above all, she listened to our stories.

Many know that Grandma was born on St. Patrick’s Day. When Ali’s daughter Isora was born three years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, she spoke to Grandma Rose that evening to tell her the good news and Grandma was overjoyed. She said “87 years and I finally got the best gift I could get” and in that instant she loved her great-granddaughter, as much as each of us, and was so pleased to have a little one to share birthday celebrations with. Little things like sharing a birthday mattered to her. Not expensive gifts or fancy things.

She was a wealth of information. She was the internet before the internet. If anyone needed to know anything, about Eppert Oil, about the family history, she had the answer and if she didn’t, well she would sure find out. She doggedly kept track of all of us, our relationships, our moves, our big life events. And nothing could separate her from those she felt the bond of family with.

At the center of Grandma Rose’s story is that of the Matriarch of a vast and diverse family unit, bonded by her insistence in gathering together, sharing traditions and recognizing how much we all have in common. She genuinely loved to be with her family. Even in the last few years as she grew more weary, and large groups were exhausting, she knew how important our family gatherings and traditions were and in keeping them up, she’d kept all of us together.

I find it astounding how much she lived through and experienced in 90 short years. Throughout it all, she was still learning every day, working on the computer and reading on her Kindle, she was even on Facebook! At 90 years young!.

She watched us in triumph and at times, in failure, all the while offering unwavering enthusiasm for each of our hopes and dreams. Whether investing in our higher education, business ideas, buying of houses or cars, or supporting the art we created, Grandma was always there to help make our dreams come true. She showed how easy it was to give and receive love, because she gave so willingly and so often.

But what’s missing from this picture of such a benevolent and hard working lady is how fun loving she was. And even on a simple drive to a restaurant or on a long family vacation when she would announce, “Verlin, slow down!” or, “Verlin, Watch the Road!” Deep down I think it a sign of how playful Rose and Verlin were together.

She enjoyed her passions and passed those impulses onto us. Whether it was her and her sister Billie’s obsession with genealogy, or her extensive collections of Barbies, paper dolls and candy dishes, she has taught us to collect more than antiques and actions figures, but good friends and loving family, and to value the people that are important to us.

Yesterday when everyone was gathered for the family viewing I was oddly reminded of the Eppert Oil Christmas Parties. Seeing so many faces from so long ago I recognized what we have here. This is a family. We’re a collection of memories and anecdotes, shared laughs and mutual tears. Photographs alone can’t tell the tale. Her lasting legacy is the love we share, reminding us to come together, not to cry or mourn but to follow her example and live a life of love and acceptance.

In the end, I’m not left wondering, “How could she love so much?” but rather “How could I love those around me more?”

The path we have to walk may be a bit lonelier now. Instead of walking beside us, Grandma Rose is walking on ahead. We can follow in her footsteps … walk this path towards a healed heart, but she taught me that we can’t do it alone. We have to walk together.

That’s what she would have wanted.

Goodbye Grandma Rose and thank all of you for being a part of her life. 

Thank you for reading all 2000+ words of this post. I hope this inspires you to call your grandparents or parents. Or maybe it just makes you think about how we can all do better at loving one another.

How I am going to live without Grandma Rose?

 

 

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