It was a gift that will stay with me forever.
It was on the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2002, and it started during a visit to my parents' house in Sherrill, N.Y. It certainly didn't initially seem like the makings of a memorable occasion, since everything began with a call from the nursing home where my grandmother Irma Ess was a resident. The caller told my mom that Grandma had fallen, but everything was fine; he just wanted the family to know what had happened.
Something told me to make a trip out there anyways. I dropped the girls at their mother's house on the way, and took a drive out to nearby Rome, N.Y. to see her.
(That's me with my Grandma Ess way back in 1964!)
Like most of my visits to the Rome Nursing Home, the first order of business was finding Grandma -- she was always on the move! Rarely in her own room, she didn't lack for exercise at the home since she was an avid walker always traveling up and down the hallways at a hurried pace.
I visited her at least once a week, so I was used to spending the first 10 or 15 minutes on the prowl looking for her. I always got the feeling she was trying to find a way out of there. Sometimes I'd even have to enlist the help of one of the nursing home staff, and they would chuckle that Grandma was on the loose again. A couple of times we even found her asleep in someone else's bed.
Once I located her, I joined in the walk as we covered the entire length of all hallways several times. I was always amazed at her energy -- she never needed to stop for a break as we walked for upwards of an hour through the building. Hey, when I'm 90 years old I hope I'm that spry.
(Grandma and I play in the snow in January, 1965)
When we finally retreated to her room, we sat down to watch TV. It was the holiday season, so I expected there would be something festive for us to see and wasn't disappointed when we found "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The 1965 animated classic was always a family favorite when I was a kid and it brought back many fond memories of visiting with Grandma and my Grandpa Harley Ess at their Oakfield, N.Y. home as a youngster.
There were so many fun Christmases there; I can still picture their tree in the corner of the living room and all of the lights that adorned the porch overlooking Oak Street. Family traditions like the sharing of Grab Bag gifts -- usually the more outlandish the better -- were born on the Ess side of the family and to this day live on in our family to delight a new generation.
Regardless of if we celebrated with Grandma and Grandpa on the actual Dec. 25 date or not, our Christmas night and early morning was always a thrill for me. Whether we were at their house or if they came to visit us in Sherrill, I would rarely sleep and was always the first one up knowing Grandma and Grandpa would have gotten me everything I asked for from them. My sisters and I were always seriously spoiled, especially by Grandma, and I remember when we were little we always begged her for money. She always delivered. And whenever they drove in or we arrived at their house we always ran to her yelling "Grandma!" while totally ignoring poor Grandpa, although he never seemed to mind.
(Grandma and Grandpa Ess join me in celebrating my wedding in 1992.)
We sat watching the show and holding hands. When it was over we hugged and kissed, I told her I loved her and would be back soon, and drove home.
The early morning call Monday really didn't surprise me that much, as my mom told me Grandma passed away in the night.
I will always cherish that evening. It was a Christmas gift that keeps on giving, as today, eight years later, hearing any of the songs from the Charlie Brown show immediately bring back the memories of that last night with my Grandma. I am taken back to a simpler time of our visits to Grandma's house -- making colorful Christmas decorations with her, eating our big family holiday dinners often joined by our other relatives, sharing presents, and all the time feeling my Grandparents' love.
In the spirit of the holiday and celebration of Jesus' birth, I think there was something happening that Sunday that goes beyond earth-bound explanation. I felt a compelling urge to be with my Grandma on that day, even after the caller from the nursing home said everything was fine.
Maybe it was because I was the oldest grandchild; some family members have even said I was her favorite. I just know I feel honored and blessed to have been the last member of the family to be with Grandma and to have shared those last hours in the loving way we did.
To me, that was the greatest Christmas present ever.