I would rush in, squeal “Pattiiiiiiiii!” and give her tiny body a bone-crushing hug. She’d break into a wide smile, straighten her nine yards of sari and say, “Little Maitri, you’re just the same. When I look at your face, it’s like looking at you when you were five years old. Even your mannerisms haven’t changed.” That was our routine for thirty four years. And that is how I will always remember my grandmother, my Patti.
At 10pm on Sunday, after a visit during which she didn’t open her eyes once while struggling to breathe through her mouth, I held her hand and said quietly in Tamil, “You are my favorite grandmother. Forget that, you are the only grandparent I have truly known. Right now, I don’t feel frustration at your pain and your insistence on living like this. I feel nothing but love for you.” With that, I smiled, kissed her hand and her right cheek and left for my home. Less than two hours later, not minutes after my head hit the pillow, my brother called with the news that Patti had passed away, surrounded by my mother, father, uncle, aunt and a nurse. I remember now my last coherent thought before hearing the news: “This is no way for such a great woman to live. Please let her not suffer like this any longer.”
Regal, elegant Patti. Even in death. While my uncle and father informed family and friends and funeral arrangements began, my mother and I cleaned and dressed Patti in a green sari, her favorite color, and prepared her for family who would arrive starting at sunrise. Predestination is not my philosophy of choice, but as I arranged the folds of the sari on her lithe, sleeping frame, it all made sense. This is why I moved back to Ohio. This is why I wasn’t away on business. Just for this very moment.
Ninety three years is a long time to live. In that time, she raised eight successful, idiosyncratic children and was there for their children, her sixteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. As my mother said last night, Patti made each one of us feel special, as if we were her favorite and no one else. And not just members of the immediate family. She saw the good in every single person she interacted with and would only remember them fondly. This is probably why 300 people showed up at the visitation yesterday although her obituary did not appear in the paper until today. Desi, not desi, Hindu, not Hindu, young, old, they were all there.
There are scores of amazing things Patti did in her life. She taught herself English at a young age in the heart of South India, drew masterpieces in color theory with no formal training and created museum-worthy dioramas, miniatures and costumes from common household goods. Small yet quick and resourceful, she managed a large joint household consisting of her own brood and in-laws and, as I found out only last night, saved one of her sons and my brother from drowning (in the same temple tank but decades apart, oddly enough). The most telling, however, was her modernity. At a time when good Tam-Brahm South Indian wives were supposed to keep their children on conservative life paths, she allowed her sons to cross the seven seas, encouraged all four of her daughters to get college educations and eventually let every single one of her children leave the nest to make their own homes in unknown lands like North India, Kuwait and the United States.
She retained this progressive world view well into her old age. I dare anyone to find me a vegetarian, Orthodox-Hindu nanogenerian who was more accepting of the western-ness of her grandchildren than their parents, watched MTV with these kids, listened to their school and college stories, marveled at their non-traditional ways and welcomed her granddaughter’s non-Hindu-Indian husband into her family with open arms (to the point where I was chopped liver when D was in the room, but that’s neither here nor there). Point out to me an Old World grandmother who had her granddaughter teach her the fundamentals of geology and computer visualization so she could understand that granddaughter’s graduate theses. Find me a Tamil-speaking, nine-yards-sari-wearing bubbeh who flew from Kuwait to New York City accompanied only by two Arabic-speaking youngsters and communicated with them. While others feared experience and change, Patti viewed life as an adventure, ready before everyone to go forth and explore. There was nothing she could not do, there was nothing she kept us from doing. If our family has strong, efficient women who do even when men tell us not to, it is because of her.
Patti lives in us now. For the last two days, I did what I do best at times like this – make lists and take charge. I dressed Patti with my mother, made sure her sari was always just right, followed her to the hearse with my father and uncle, wrote her obituary with my uncle and sent it off to the local paper, got her stuff together, drove my mother and aunts (my other mothers) to the funeral home where we changed her into a beautiful royal-blue sari, wrote her eulogy with kind edits from my brother, delivered it at her service and was the only woman who stood next to her until the incinerator took her at 5pm yesterday. She would have done the same and expected nothing less of me. I see this quality in my baby niece, who patiently accompanied us all day yesterday, holding, hugging and consoling when my mother, sister-in-law or I broke down and observing with tears and strength as Patti was prepared for the fire. She is the rock of the next generation.
It’s sinking in today, now that I’m back at my desk and not going, going, going. I don’t know what is worse – that my mother lost her mother or the world lost a treasure. But, I am fully certain that she lived a long, full life, not one of us had any interest in wanting her to stay alive only to suffer and it was her time to go. Patti, for you to whom all of us have gone to for comfort, we know that you are now in eternal comfort. I love you and miss you. Thank you for being my grandmother.