In early February of 2019, my grandmother Katy passed away. She was 93, so we can say things like “she lived a long and happy life” and “it was not unexpected” but it was unexpected, because up until she had a stroke, she was in damn near perfect health. A little forgetful and a little deaf, but healthy enough to still be hiking and swimming every week.
It’s taken me nearly a full year to wrap my mind around her loss. What I’ve been struggling with isn’t facing a world without her in it – she had prepared me for that for years, by doing things like collecting apple seeds in jars which she kept quietly in the closet of her little round house in the event that she might need to end things on her own terms.
No, I had been prepared for her to die for years. We all had.
What I’ve found myself grappling with over the past year is all the ways in which I was defined by her, the ways in which my personality and sense of self has been shaped by her.
The version of Katy that I hold in my mind is intertwined with the kind of person that I am, too. I am not sure whether I designed a life based on hers, or whether I am genetically predisposed to do things like her.
But perhaps the distinction isn’t important.
I wrote the following vignettes for my grandmother’s memorial, thinking that everyone in the room knew her, perhaps even better than I did. But after my speech, as old family friends and family members approached me to talk about her and share their own Katy stories, I realized that everyone in the room had known a different version of her: throughout her life, she had changed, shedding her old self like a skin and evolving into someone new.
Perhaps the primary constant in Katy’s life was that she was endlessly resisting stagnation.
The stories her friends and family members shared with me weren’t always good or positive things. Some of them were heavy things that had weighed on them for decades; things they had only begun to grapple with now that she was gone.
But overwhelmingly, they thanked me for being honest about Katy’s flaws, her complexities.
It felt balanced, like an honest portrait of a life rather than a glorified celebration.
I think Katy would approve.
Katy was not your typical grandmother. She was a force of nature who I have idolized my entire life.
To me, my brilliant, adventurous grandmother always seemed more like a mythical being than a real person. Stories about Katy feel like lore, legend and myth.
I collected stories about Katy my entire life, alongside the postcards she sent me from faraway places.
While it’s likely that some of these vignettes and memories are exaggerated – or possibly even totally inaccurate – when it comes to Katy, nothing is too fantastical to be true.
Katy lived in a little round house in the woods of Kentucky, perched on top of a steep hill. To get up her driveway, you had to put your car on Low and crawl slowly up.
In the winter, the driveway would ice over and you had to park at the bottom and hike all the way up in the snow. As a kid I thought this was the worst thing.
But Katy hiked up and down her driveway twice a day, every day, year-round, in ice and snow and rain and sunshine.
Katy didn’t really have a functioning TV. What she did have was floor to ceiling bookshelves in nearly every room.
One room was filled with salacious Conan the Barbarian paperbacks, which I suspect belonged to her late husband; another with cloth-jacketed P.G. Wodehouse and vintage Agatha Christie novels.
I always found something to read at Katy’s: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Nancy Drew, Calvin & Hobbes.
I stayed up late reading them on a mattress on the floor of her office, watching fireflies flicker outside floor-to-ceiling windows and listening to train whistles and singing cicadas.
Katy lived 5 minutes away from us, but was rarely in town. Growing up, I’d ask my mom “where’s Katy?” when I hadn’t seen her in a few weeks. The answer was always some faraway destination.
We used to celebrate big holidays twice: once with just us, and once more with Katy, when she was back in town from her travels.
Katy almost always wore the same outfit: a long belted skirt, a long-sleeved button-down shirt, black loafers, and a khaki Tilly hat.
She sometimes wore pants or a long-sleeved dress, but she never left the house without her Tilly hat.
These days, more often than not you’ll find me wearing my “travel clothes” instead of my regular clothes at home, too.
Katy sometimes picked me up from school. She always brought me the same snack: walnuts, yellow raisins, apple slices, Ritz crackers, and some kind of World War II-era canned meat.
Katy was a stickler for proper grammar. Often, after I was finished telling her something, she would respond “you said the word LIKE 17 times.”
When I started my travel blog, my mother printed out each of my posts for Katy to read – but first, she edited them for grammar and removed all unnecessary instances of the word “like.”
Katy had no time for the patriarchy’s BS. Once, in the 1950’s, she sent my mom to school wearing pants. School sent her home to put on a skirt.
Katy put her in a different pair of pants and sent her right back.
Katy was a mathematician and physicist. She once discovered a groundbreaking mathematical proof. But her boss, who was a man, published it under his name.
Katy’s favorite author was James Joyce, and her favorite book was Ulysses. She once told my sister that she’d had three criteria for her husband: he had to be less attractive than her, he had to be able to beat her at chess, and he had to have read Ulysses – all the way through.
We read Joyce in my English class in high school. I didn’t understand it.
Katy had no interest in titles or labels. My family called her Katy. Not “Mom” or “Grandmother,” Katy.
Still, to everyone else, she was Katharine.
Katy grew up on a blueberry farm. Every summer, she took us blueberry picking at a farm in Indiana. We would drive slowly up to Indiana in her hot station wagon with the windows rolled down. Katy would spend hours on each bush, picking every last blueberry.
When the sticky summer sun became unbearable, we would drive home, carefully labeled buckets filled with blueberries stacked in the back seat.
Blueberries have always been my favorite fruit.
Katy made her own bread. It was sweet and nutty, with bulgur and oatmeal and yellow raisins. She baked it in her breadmaker and kept it in a (re-used) ziploc bag. I called it Katy bread.
When I came over, she served me Katy bread with salted butter and honey. In the morning after I slept over, breakfast was soft poached eggs and cracked black pepper on Katy bread.
When I inherited her bread machine, a post-it note with the recipe for Katy bread written in her careful handwriting was taped onto one side.
When that machine broke, I carefully moved the post-it note to the new machine.
Katy loved mushroom foraging. She took off on mushroom foraging trips across the country, and every year she’d hunt down morel mushrooms in her forest, fry them in butter, and serve them on Katy bread.
For Christmas this year, I asked for a book on foraging.
Katy had a collection of magazine clippings and books about Everest Expeditions tucked on a high shelf in her closet. She saved the 1953 issue of National Geographic, with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the cover after the first-ever successful ascent up Mount Everest.
I once asked Katy if she ever wanted to climb Mount Everest. Oh no, she said, hiking the Annapurna Trek to Base Camp was enough for me.
Katy once went to live in a commune at a nudist colony. She returned after a few months, seemingly unchanged – except that she replaced the toilet paper in her bathroom with a bucket of reusable rags.
Katy made an effort to learn the local language before every trip. She’d get audio tapes from the library and play them in her car.
She’d pick me up from school and we’d listen to someone repeating simple phrases in Spanish or French or Italian over and over and over, and attempt to mimic their pronunciation.
Katy once taught English in Vietnam. She created detailed lesson plans, curriculum, and games. Her class was so popular that students signed up in droves. Eventually, the school had to increase the number of students in her classes, AND the number of classes, just to meet the demand.
When her teaching contract ended, the students threw her a parade.
Katy once visited Ireland and came back with a CD of rowdy Irish drinking songs, which she played on repeat in her car for months.
Katy brought back coins from her world travels. She gave them to my sister, who arranged them carefully by country.
Today, I have my own collection of coins I’ve picked up from all over the world. I dump them in a jar by my door.
Katy played the cello, although she wasn’t very good at it. When I was 2, my parents asked me if I’d like to play an instrument, too. Did I want to play the violin, like my sister, mother, and uncle? No. I wanted to play cello, like Katy.
I wasn’t very good, either. But I’ve continued to play cello my entire life.
Katy taught me how to sew on buttons and mend holes. We would haul out her mending and cover our fingers with silver thimbles and sit on her brown and yellow striped couch together and mend.
I later chose to study fashion design in college, and I’ve never considered a hole a good enough reason to throw away perfectly good clothing.
Katy knew the words to what just about every song written before 1950. She would often sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Soldier Soldier Won’t You Marry Me” and “Daisy Bell” in her clear, warbling voice.
Katy did not stand for elbows on her table. If you put your elbows on the table, she would knock them straight off.
She had other rules, too: the host must eat first, and you must finish everything on your plate and in your glass.
Katy once made me sit at the table for 3 hours to finish a glass of lukewarm skim milk.
Katy used to pick my sister up from school. Whenever she arrived early, she sat in on my sister’s last class of the day: math. On the ride home, she told my sister: “don’t listen to anything that woman says. Everything she taught you is completely wrong.”
Katy was a stickler for proper pronunciation. In the hospital, she introduced her nurses to her sister Dorothy, standing at her bedside. She weakly held up 3 fingers. “Do-ro-thy,” she said. Ka-tha-rine.
Katy loved Contra Dancing. She went dancing all over the country. My sister and I joined her sometimes in Louisville. We weren’t very good, and Katy had to ask strangers to dance with us.
But everyone wanted to dance with Katy.
Katy once broke her hip and walked on it for months without telling anybody. She finally informed my mother the week of my sister’s wedding, convinced that a broken hip was a death sentence.
She missed the wedding, but her replacement hip worked just fine.
Katy wasn’t one to show her feelings. When her husband fell ill, she took care of him for a few months, and then took off on a 3-month Semester at Sea cruise.
Katy fell in love again at age 90, with an old friend she’d known for over half a century. His family called my mom, concerned, asking if she knew they were going on joyrides together in Katy’s Suburu.
When they first started dating, Katy told me, with rapture, that she had never expected to be sexually appreciated in her 90’s.
She moved into his care facility, and after he died, she stayed there. I remember her crying at the table at Thanksgiving that year.
Katy never really seemed to get older. For as long as I knew her, Katy’s face was always wrinkled, her hair was always brown, and her eyes were always sharp. She was always in better shape than the rest of the family.
The one thing that did get worse with age was her hearing.
I once introduced her to a handsome new guy I was dating. After a long dinner together, she told him, “I couldn’t hear a word you said, but I very much enjoyed looking at your face.”
Katy had a comfortable relationship with death. We once went hiking in the redwoods near my home in California with my mother. Katy raced ahead of us – forever the fittest one in the family – and I joked to my mom that I was worried about her: what if she injured herself and fell into a ravine?
My mom said “she would love that. She’d love to die in the woods.”
When we caught up to Katy I told her what we said. She gripped my arm with 85-year old superhuman strength, looked me straight in the eye and said, “just leave me. Leave me to die.”
She was dead serious. She would have loved to die in the woods.
When Katy had her stroke in January, I was in the arctic tundra in Norway, staying with the Sami indigenous tribe and herding reindeer through the Arctic tundra in -30 degree weather.
My hair was frozen, my snowmobile crashed, and there wasn’t any cell service, so I didn’t get the message about her stroke until a few days afterward.
It felt like a Katy-appropriate excuse.
In the hospital a few days later, I showed Katy my photos with the reindeer. I played her a video of Sami traditional singing, called yoiking, and showed her the opera house in Oslo, which is designed to look like a glacier rising from the fjord.
Although she wasn’t fully cognizant of her surroundings, when I talked about my travels, she was captivated.
Katy took detailed travel journals in her tiny, precise script. She wrote down everything she did every single day.
One thing she never wrote about was how she felt.
I want to collect her travel journals and recreate her journeys. Maybe then I’ll know how she felt.
Katy’s house was filled with artifacts from her many travels. Woven baskets, clay sculptures, handmade rugs, colorful paintings, necklaces made from hand-carved wooden beads.
I didn’t get the full story behind each souvenir before she died, but I took as many of them home with me as I could.
Today, my house is covered in travel artifacts: hers and mine.
From time to time, I’ll come across something in a market abroad that looks familiar, and then I realize: many years ago, she was here.
Travel is just one of the legacies that Katy passed down to me. With each trip I take and each new country I visit, I feel like I’m following my grandmother’s larger-than-life footprints all over this great, big, wide world.
Have you lost someone close to you? I’d love to hear some of your stories or recollections about them. Writing them down really helped me, so maybe you’ll find that it helps you, too 🙂
Drop me a comment below, and the comment thread can be our collective grief circle.
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