Raising Richmond: A great grandma

Thelma Eliza Harris died a little over a week ago. She was 102 and a really, really great lady. I’m her youngest granddaughter, and I miss her very much.

“It just keeps fluttering.”

Sabrina, the hospice nurse1 and a true force of a woman, carefully cradled my grandma’s arm, checking her pulse. Every time it seemed to stop, Sabrina would feel it dance a little.

I sat crouched next to the bed, gripping my sister’s hand as Lynne, Grandma’s pastor, whispered a prayer.

Then Sabrina pursed her lips, slowly shook her head, and said, “She’s gone.”

Lynne sat with us in her room as we waited for my dad (Grandma’s younger son) to arrive.

“Have you ever been present when someone passed on?” she asked me.

I blinked through tears and shook my head. She looked at me so kindly, I felt my eyes fill up again.

“Well,” she sighed. “It’s a very hard experience, but when people pass as peacefully as your grandma did, it can be such a beautiful moment. Like you’re on holy ground.”

She was right, of course. But the thing is, for me, Grandma was nothing but beautiful, peaceful moments; her death was just the perfect, most appropriate ending to her time here with us.

— ∮∮∮ —

Grandma2 was 102 when she died, the last of our grandparents to pass on. It feels strange to be in the world when she isn’t. I’m doing fine, really. I mean, she was 102; it’s not like her passing was a shock–sad, but not a shock. But she’d been here with us for so long, so consistently, I’m just not really sure what to do with her absence.

The grandparent-grandchild dynamic is a funny one. Not funny-ha-ha, of course; funny as in I don’t think there is anything like it in the entire world. From watching my son JR interact with my parents and in-laws, I gather that it includes all the love of parenthood without all the drama that can come with the day-to-day task of “doing life.”

Of course, I can’t speak for all grandparent-grandchild relationships, but I will say that mine–with all of my grandparents–always felt sweet, simple, and blessedly uncomplicated. They each made me feel precious in a way that no one else has since or probably ever will.

I’ve spent much of this last week (as of this writing, it’s been exactly one week since she died), just sitting with my thoughts about Grandma. I keep expecting these bigger milestone moments to come to mind: the days after my grandfather’s death; her at my college graduation; watching our friend Nic escort her down the aisle at our wedding; seeing her hold our son for the first time. Those memories are there, of course, but they aren’t front and center. Instead they’re getting upstaged by these little random moments that I haven’t thought of in years3–bits and pieces coming together to create this sweet picture that, in my mind, is just her.

— ∮∮∮ —

All of us kids are staying overnight, and it’s my turn to sleep on the sofa in Grandma’s craft room; my brother and sister lucked out by getting the twin beds in the room my dad used to share with his brother. Since I’m still pretty little, Grandma sets up dining room chairs along the edge of the sofa to keep me from falling on the floor in my sleep.

I spend much of the night creeping around the room, looking at my Grandma’s recently completed projects, even the occasional work-in-progress: paintings, needlework, all sorts of arts and crafts that she clearly spends a lot of time on but doesn’t really boast about.

The next morning she wakes me up with a gentle pat on my shoulder. I’m curled up like a kitten in one of the chairs.

— ∮∮∮ —

It’s sunset on a summer evening and we’re standing in her driveway, staring at closed flower buds dotting the tall, green stalks that line the fence in her side yard. We’re getting impatient, but Grandma tells us to keep watching. Suddenly the buds spring to life, opening and closing like time-lapsed, stock nature footage you’d see in a video during science class. Turns out they were just night bloomers, but for a long time I thought Grandma had magic flowers; she was a really good gardener, you know.

— ∮∮∮ —

Grandma sits tucked in the corner of the couch, finishing up some needlework while my brother, my sister, and I spread out on the braided rug covering the floor of the den. Bob Ross’s (or maybe it was Mr. Rogers?) soothing voice has lulled the three of us into a trance of creativity, a rare moment in which we are all drawing quietly instead of bothering each other. There’s the occasional soft clink of pencils rolling around in an old orange juice can as one of us searches for whatever color we need next.

— ∮∮∮ —

I’m in the tiny bathroom connected to my grandparents’ bedroom. Grandma humors my sister and I by letting us play with her makeup. There are all kinds of powders and lipsticks sitting out on the counter. Grandma asks me what I would like to put on. I point to the Chapstick in the medicine cabinet–standard, no-fuss, black-and-white tube of Chapstick. She seems to approve of my choice and gets down to the business of helping me put it on. We complete our makeovers with some jewelry. I choose a pair of sparkly, red clip-ons off of Grandma’s earring tree.

— ∮∮∮ —

I’m sifting through a black box filled with paint brushes, bits of sponge, and palette knives. Grandma is helping me paint a picture of a meadow (just like one I’d seen her do) on a small piece of wood. I want to add little flowers, but all of the brushes I’m finding make the paint go on in big, messy blobs. Sensing my frustration, Grandma reaches into the box and pulls out a plastic stick with three small prongs at the end of it. She dips the end in pink paint and dabs it on a paper towel, leaving clusters of little rose-colored dots. Wrapping her fingers around mine, she shows me how to layer the dots to make them look like flowers. It’s perfect.

— ∮∮∮ —

A magnet on Grandma’s refrigerator reads, “I love a man with dishpan hands.” It’s been there as long as I can remember, but at about 14 years old, I’m finally old enough to get it. She and I have a good laugh.

— ∮∮∮ —

We’ll “officially” say goodbye to Grandma on Wednesday at her memorial service. There will be friends and family, traditional hymns (as she would want), probably quite a few casseroles afterwards. Maybe I’ll even wear those red, sparkly earrings; I think she’d like that. It’s gearing up to be one of those bigger milestone moments that can’t seem to take root in my brain these days. I’m interested to see which memory will stand out more in my mind as time goes on: the private experience of being with her as she passed or the public experience of celebrating her life with those who knew and loved her. However it goes, I’m just grateful for all of it–for the big moments and the small, for the long life she had, and the blessing it was to be part of it.

And may I one day be to my grandchildren what she was for me.


Thelma Eliza Harris


— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Hospice care workers are the most amazing people you will ever meet. If you ever meet one, just tell him or her thank you…maybe even throw in a hug. 
  2. Or “Little Grandma”, as we called her. Our other grandmother was “Big Grandma.” My brother came up with these highly insensitive names when he was little, and they just stuck. I always wondered if the grandmas knew about them. 
  3. Memory is a strange thing and not always totally reliable. Please keep in mind that these memories are filtered through my specific lens as my grandma’s youngest grandchild…but they feel real to me. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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