Today is the 83rd birthday anniversary of my maternal grandmother, affectionately known to me as "Gummy." This was due, I later found out, to a mis-reading of her handwriting. Originally, it had been her intention that I should know her as "Grammy." She wrote this down once, I looked at it, uttered "Gummy," and the name stuck. It wasn't until years later that I knew her real name was Emma Gene. Gummy suited her better. Grandkids know best about such things.
So, 1997 wasn't a terribly good year. My dad battled pancreatic cancer (first diagnosed in October 1996), and succumbed to it that August. Around Thanksgiving time, 1997, it was discovered that Gummy had inoperable lung cancer. She passed away a few months later in March of 1998. I'm not sure, but I think she may have visited me on the night of her death. But more on that later.
From my earliest memories, Gummy lived in the south Chicago suburb of Homewood. Mom and I would sometimes visit her and her then-husband, Elmer, in their cozy little trailer home. Sometimes, we'd travel into the city for a day of sight-seeing. On occasion, Gummy would take the train down to Champaign and visit us for a few days. I can't fully explain the eager anticipation that filled my every fiber upon the eve of her visits.
We took a trip with my mom and her, and my aunt and uncle Pam and Nicky, and their kids Brandon and Chris, out to Washington DC one year. It was great to visit all of the landmarks around the nation's capitol, but even more enjoyable was the country hotel we stayed at in Virginia. Chris, Brandon and I would play in the barns, take horse rides, and Gummy could be seen taking home videos of the beautiful scenery. She was even able to re-connect with some long lost children of hers.
I spent lots of time with Gummy over the years. Trips to different states, an extremely warm and humid night in Wichita, which I slept through, but was informed of by Gummy and my mom to no end, as they were unable to sleep. There was the occasion when an ice storm knocked-out power to half the town for a week, and I was sent to stay at Gummy's little (but powered) house in Urbana for a few nights. This was after Elmer had passed away suddenly, and she'd moved closer to us. It was during that icy visit that she introduced me to what would become one of my favorite television shows -- Are You Being Served?
Of course, there were the occasional sleepovers, a staple of the grandparent/grandchild relationship. Gummy would make one of my favorites --- macaroni & cheese --- and I'd stand in the kitchen next to her as she put together all of the ingredients. This sometimes led to generational misunderstandings, as she'd asked me to get the "oleo" from the fridge, and I'd be left dumbfounded as to what she meant. Eventually, she'd tell me "just go sit on the davenport until I'm done," which led to even more confusion.
Gummy loved books. Voracious would be an apt description of her reading habits. She especially liked to read 'non-fiction' books about alien abductions, time travel, alien interventions in ancient times, and the Kennedy assassination. She was a wealth of knowledge about such subjects, and her opinions (not that I agreed with all of them) about things like life-after-death and reincarnation used to keep me fascinated for hours.
When she died on a cold day in March, I was sad. That night, I lay on the couch, reading a P.D. James novel. It was late, like, 3AM late. Suddenly, I began to catch a whiff of what can best be described as brewing coffee. This was odd, as I kept no coffee in the house. It reminded me of Gummy, as it was almost always a smell that permeated her house whenever we over to visit, and she'd offer us a cup. I brushed off the sudden aroma, and went back to reading.
And then the smell increased in intensity. Startled, I put the book down and began to look around. I swear, dear reader, I felt a presence in the room with me. I suddenly became very passive, and then, well, there's no other way to describe it, I felt wrapped-up in joy. This sensation lasted for, I don't know, 30 seconds? Certainly no longer than that. And during that time, I just felt this tremendous sense of calm, of peace, and of a direct feeling that Gummy was ok. More than anything, that is what it conveyed to me. And then, like that, it was over. To this day, I do not know what, if anything, really occurred.
There are few days when I don't think of her and miss her. It's not a major sadness, not anymore, but it's there. Grandmothers are special, aren't they? No one loves you quite like a grandmother. And when they're gone, they're irreplaceable. The last time I spoke with Gummy, her voice sounded like Mickey Mouse, due to the cancer, and I told her that she needed to get better because, "I've only got one Gummy." Unfortunately, this made her cry. "I know, honey," she said. "I know."