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  • Today marks Grandma's birthday, and the day she died. Her birthday was always the first of three milestone days rounding the cusp from January to February: her birthday, her wedding anniversary, and my birthday, all in the space of four days.

    I was due to be born on her birthday, actually. My mother swears that Grandma moved mountains to get me out, to share a birthday with me. (She'd always wanted a daughter, had ached for one and had one and lost one, had beautifully raised two sons but never lost the longing for a girl.) She nearly succeeded, too; unusual for a first-time birth, my mother went into labor only one day later than predicted. After twenty-eight hours of labor - thanks, Mom! - Grandma finally had her baby girl. I was one generation removed, but still. I was hers.

    She spoiled me, or tried; I did not appreciate it as much as I should have. She gave me extravagant dolls and piles of frilled, lacy clothes, then watched me wear cowboy boots and oversize t-shirts stolen from my father. I ignored my dolls in favor of Nancy Drew mysteries. She took me shopping, made appointments for us to get manicures and new hair styles, and every single time I wrecked the results, climbing trees, chasing dogs, getting dirty. I wanted to go to the amusement park with Grandpa and my brothers more than I wanted to be at the mall. I was not the girl she'd envisioned, but I was her girl and she would give me the whole world if she could.

    It was easy to underestimate her, though it never worked out well for those who did. Grandma loved soft things, sweet things, but she was tough as nails. I often forget that she conquered cancer and a stroke, neither of which she talked about, even during treatment. Joint reconstructions (she displayed her hardware in a shadowbox, arranged in the shape of a butterfly), a fall that required facial reconstruction (while she was in the thick of mothering of two young children), my grandfather's cancer, his broken back, childbirth that nearly killed her and did kill her daughter, a second fall that broke her arm and left her looking like she lost a bar brawl (as an elderly woman living alone); there was almost nothing she couldn't plow through. Almost.

    I don't know how old she was when she died. I stopped counting at seventy, because that's when she did. She turned seventy six months after my grandfather died; in a way, her life ended then, too. She was eighteen and one day when they married, and she didn't remember her life without him in it. For the first time in more than fifty years she had to pay her own bills, drive alone, wake up in an empty house. She did it all - she absolutely did - but her spark dimmed through each step, slowly burning out over a number of years. After she died, I pulled out old pictures and recognized the woman I had been mourning for years, who was not the woman I had so recently kissed goodbye. The woman in the photos is the woman I will remember, and honor. The one smiling as she plucks a crab from a pot of boiling water, barehanded; the one whose shoulders lift in joy as she sneaks a cookie from the cooling rack and hands it to me; the one walking her dog between my mother & me, who will wrap her arms around both of us the very next minute and whisper, fierce, I love you.
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