This piece is my eulogy for Grandma, delivered at her funeral on 8 August 2020. The pictures throughout are family photos and the featured image, as with many of the pictures within, came from one of our many Friday night dinners at Grandma’s.
Grandma first asked me to write her eulogy ten or fifteen years ago. Every year or two she’d circle back around to the request, double checking I remembered I said I’d do this and making sure I was still planning on it. I always assured her I did and I would. But even for me, someone who writes a lot for fun and is kinda paid to talk for a living, this is intimidating. How do I begin to pay tribute to Grandma? How do I begin to capture all she means to me?
I can talk about how, as little kids sitting around the card table at the camp, Grandma told us “B.S.” was really supposed to be “Bullshit” and if we were playing it we should play it right…but we were only allowed to swear with her (this was not a rule I’ve kept to). There’s the story of how we went with Grandma to see The Hangover Part III so she didn’t take her sister Marge and her friend Edie to see it, both also in their eighties, like she did with The Hangover Part II. When we asked Grandma why she took them to see The Hangover Part II she said simply, “I was driving and I wanted to see it. I loved the first one.” We can reminisce on how, after a day of gambling, Grandma – Grandma – ended up invited to a VIP box to watch Bret Michaels perform at the Turning Stone Casino as we were left to rock out on the floor. After saying what pretty eyes Bret had, she’d go on to call us every night before Rock of Love came on to ask, “I wonder who’s going to rock his world tonight?! Wow, wow!” There are hundreds of stories of Grandma delighting in scaring us, from sneaking up on Mom decades ago as she cleaned the house with her music turned up too loud to hear Grandma come in, to Grandma crouching down behind the bar in her basement for over half an hour in her nineties to scare Dad when he came in after mowing her lawn. And she was always laughing. Once back home from the hospital, weak and with her eyes closed, Grandma said, “My nose is running.” Mom got the Kleenex and said, “I’m here Mom, don’t worry.” And as she lifted the Kleenex to Grandma’s nose Grandma said, “…so I better go catch it! I guess it’s time for me to say ‘Adios’!” Not only did Grandma make the joke from a half conscious place but she waited for Mom to take the setup for the punchline.
There are so many memories. I have literally thirty-eight full years of stories. Grandma was always a part of our lives. There were all the days she babysat us, all the birthdays and holidays we celebrated together but it was so much more than that. Grandma always felt like a universal constant, one of the foundational building blocks of life. She was always there. Grandma held us in every struggle and shared every joy. Every trip to Waldameer or Water World, she was strolling around with us. Every vacation we ever took, until she decided she wasn’t up for travel anymore, we took Grandma with us. We had Pizza Hut lunches and Dairy Queen runs and smuggling more candy than anyone could ever eat into the movie theatre in her purse and karaoke parties in her sunroom. And then there were our Friday nights.
When Grandpa died twenty-four years ago, Dad had an idea. He said it wasn’t right for Grandma to be alone all the time and he suggested we go hang out with her on Friday nights. With that, the most enduring and important family tradition I have was born. It started with Mom, Dad, David, and I going up to chat and watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with Grandma. It eventually evolved into a regular dinner and our group around the table grew over time. We’d take pizza and salad so the night wasn’t about cooking and cleaning up after and it became this beautiful experience of family, community, and love. I had twenty-four years of Friday nights with Grandma and I’ve only ever missed a handful of them. That was true of all of us – Friday nights were rarely missed. Life was built around this time with Grandma, this time with each other. I’m blessed to have known this and I’m blessed to have understood how special our time together was as I was in the midst of it. I didn’t need to wait for the nostalgia of years to see how rare and beautiful a gift this was. Because really, what’s more important than being together in love?
I grew up always hearing, “Family is everything. They are the only ones who are always there for you.” Now, as an adult, I see the profound truth in this but I’ve also learned “family” has nothing to do with blood. Blood is who you’re related to. Family is who you’re bound to in and through love. And yes, sometimes we can be lucky enough to find those loving bonds with those we’re related to. But the bonds of love are so much larger, so much stronger than blood. Love heals. Love transforms. Love holds the very meaning of life. Love is divine. And love is what makes family.
I write about this truth often but, in thinking of my lifetime of memories with Grandma, I’ve realized she was my first and most consistent teacher of this lesson. So Grandma helped teach me one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. Family is forged in love and love can – and should – be extended to everyone. Beautifully, Grandma never once told me this. Rather she showed me this every day, with every action of her life. I’d talk of the fun of dinner at Grandma’s so often my students would regularly ask if they could come. Laughing, I’d tell them my Friday nights were “work free” zones. But when I’d tell Grandma how my students wanted to come meet her and hang out with her, she’d always say, “The more the merrier!” I’d counter with how a motley crew of high schoolers wasn’t what I wanted on our Friday nights but Grandma never saw a problem. For her, everyone was welcome, always.
Over the years so many friends and significant others have come to dinner at Grandma’s with us. Some came once or twice. For others it became a regular part of their lives, too. And EVERYONE who ever came to Grandma’s was family. No one ever called her “Helen” or “Mrs. Zelina.” It was always “Grandma.” Everyone became family and Grandma loved them. Or more accurately, it was in Grandma’s love that everyone became family.
So many people have told me, “She feels like my grandma, too.” And the thing is, she was. That’s how Grandma saw it, welcoming everyone into her heart from the moment she met them. This love was constantly flowing from her, extending far beyond a visit. Grandma always asked me about my friends – about their lives and their children. She asked to hear stories and see pictures and to know what was going on with “the gang.” She knew them by name and she’d pray for them, too. During one of the conversations I had with Grandma as she was nearing the end, she told me how lucky I was to be surrounded by the beautiful people I have in my life. I was lucky to be loved by such wonderful people, to have such a family. She was right, too. There is no greater blessing than the one found in those we love and those who love us.
Everyone Grandma met loved her. It was kind of hard not to because Grandma loved everyone she met and when you give love it always seems to find its way back to you. We seek love. We need love. Whether from a biological/psychological perspective (as we’re wired to live in groups) or from a theological perspective (where we know we’re made in the image of God) we see we are literally made to love. Grandma understood this in the very core of her being and she lived it every day. Whenever I think of Grandma, first I see her smile. Then, I hear her laugh. Finally, I feel her love. Grandma offered herself in love to everyone she ever met and, by her example, she invited all those she met to love with the same radical inclusivity she did. Is it any wonder Grandma was always happy, always smiling, and always dancing her way through life? Those are the fruits of a life in love.
Again and again over the last few weeks, as we talked with Grandma, she repeated the same wish. She wished us happiness. She wished us love. And she’d offer the same advice, “Always help one another. Love one another. Be kind.” When Fr. Mark came to anoint Grandma, he asked her what the most important lesson she had for us was, what did she want all of us to remember? She said, “Always help one another. Love one another. Be kind.” In Grandma’s life, she showed us the boundaryless nature of this call by helping, loving, and being kind to everyone she met. Everyone she met became family because everyone she met was loved. Going forward, I can’t imagine what it will be like not to see Grandma every week, not to hear her voice and her laugh all the time. But I’m not wondering what I’m going to do without her physically here with us. Grandma’s taken care of that. I know what I’m supposed to do. She told us herself. “Always help one another. Love one another. Be kind.”
As a postscript to this piece, I want to include this video. Grandma had two great musical loves in her life – Elvis Presley and Adam Lambert. The Elvis doll/statue David surprised her with as a gift one day can be seen in the background of some of the pictures above, the framed Adam Lambert poster she had (for real!) cannot. Anyway, when Adam Lambert came to Erie on a tour stop ten years ago, someone in the crowd took video of Grandma dancing to the preshow music and posted it on YouTube! Sadly, we lost the link ages ago and have never been able to track it down. Well, when Grandma was just in the hospital, Mom told one of the nurses the story about Grandma’s love for Adam Lambert. This nurse not only printed pictures of Adam to hang in Grandma’s hospital room but she and her husband stayed up all night to find this video the day before Grandma was released. We are so, so happy to have this back. It’s just 1:56 but it shows so much of her heart and spirit. Grandma loved to dance :).