Forewarning: this is a more personal post than this blog is generally intended to include.
When I was a child, you were an object of reverence and fascination. Your seashells and swords and Asian art-covered walls filled me with curiosity and fear – curiosity to touch these items, but fear of disturbing them. Your large, window-filled house surrounded by seemingly endless woods and construction and gardens was a mystery to explore, but only within carefully laid out time slots for when I could visit certain areas. Some evenings before dinner, we could climb on the giant boulder – I think serpentinite – in your front yard and set up the badminton net to attempt to play. “My” bedroom, shared with my sister Dana, was for particularly prescribed hours of sleep. The library was for watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with Granddaddy after dinner, though perhaps also sometimes before, if I was lucky. My father’s section of the house, with the seashell room and his bedroom, seemed frequently locked up. Your bedroom I hardly ever saw, save on the rarest of occasions – I remember my wonder after many years to discover you had a balcony. Days, of course, were spent at summer camp, first Coyote Point for learning about animals and tides and fascinations of that sort, then at the Burlingame Country Club, where I wore crisp white tennis clothes you specially bought for our multi-week summer visits. Your lessons on etiquette, your encouragement of tennis and badminton and swimming and golf, were so foreign and thus carefully remembered (except golf, which I managed to replace with swimming most days at camp).
With the end of my summer camp visits, with Granddaddy’s subsequent strokes, I came to visit you for less prescribed times. I began to write you letters, my cousin Ian and I serving as your “best correspondents”. Your responses were so beautiful, I strove to write better. In your replies to my remarks about the classes I began to love in college, I found your entire support of my education motivating. I came to realize how you had crafted, so long ago, the Sugar Bowl apartment in the Sierra Nevada, shaping my experiences of my favorite place in the world with your choices of art and furniture and cooking ware. Exploring your house, I found your fossils and giant obsidian slabs, and we discovered a shared source of joy: geology. This love of the outdoors, of skiing and the mountains and rocks and redwoods, you passed on to me both directly and via your son John. Standing in the redwood grove you planted as we buried Taz, our shared dog (my first, your last), I could feel it – this was our family. As our discussions grew in content, I saw my grandmother as a smart, adventurous, driven woman with care in her heart for things beautiful and right – from arranging flowers to supporting the rights of others. A desire for the unfamiliar, from exploring the neighbor’s stunning houses and construction to traveling around the world, I got from you. Writing you from Nepal during my six weeks there, I felt proud to be your granddaughter, for I knew it was your Asian art-covered walls and Afghan statues and stories of travel that had started me on the journey there, far before I discovered my humanitarian inclinations. Years later, hiking in Zermatt during my summer at the World Health Organization, I remembered the Sugar Bowl photos of you and the family in Switzerland.
I sent you a postcard this time from WHO, knowing that with your recent strokes, the photos and brief words of that medium would serve better than a several page letter. I mailed it to a different address than Pinehill Road, as you had, upon Granddaddy’s death, proven once again a strong, warm woman in choosing to move into an apartment complex filled with friends rather than stay in your home without your husband. You grew softer in this time, speaking more of emotion with me in a few years than you had in the previous twenty. Our conversations became less varied, more centered in the past and familiar topics, and I learned more from you of your history, of our family history.
Our last visit was more of a show and tell, and I was happy to celebrate one last Christmas with you. When my father called me in the middle of a Friday a month later and left a voicemail, I knew something was wrong. He never calls when I am at work, preferring text or email for most occasions. When his voicemail only asked that I call him back, I knew what phone call I was about to make. Your passing is not easy. I know your quality of life, your vigor, had deteriorated drastically. I know you deserve peace. Selfishly, that gives me little comfort. I do not share others’ belief and seeming certainty in the existence of after lives; I can only hope they exist. This is my last letter to you, and it builds upon the theme of what I am grateful to know I have already told you. I am proud to be your granddaughter, to have been shaped by such an extraordinary person as you. To know you, to love you, has been a privilege. Thank you.
For Virginia Gadsby Fuller, Nanny, my grandmother, 5/3/1921 – 1/31/2014.