My Grandma Elva died on Sunday night at the age of 97.
Elva was my fun grandma. She had a hearing aid that beeped when you put your hand close to her ear, and she used to surprise kids with it. Thirty years later my friends from back then still remember that trick ear. She had a Round Tuit (“I’ll do it when I get a round tuit.”) and a B.S. Grinder and an embroidery hoop with “Bang Head Here” printed on it. Her knickknacks expressed her personal brand of humor and sentimental value. She had boyfriends and went dancing and jet-setted between South Dakota, Arizona, and California when she wasn’t busy traveling the world. She was cool.
Elva had style. She wore bright clothes and heels, got her hair permed, and had her nails done in all kinds of splendor. Her house was always clean, and she seemed to have a system for everything, from her crock pot to her Hot Shot which heated up a cup of water in a matter of seconds. She took pride in those systems, and evangelized them to whoever would listen.
My grandma was an adventurer. I was in middle school when Grandma took my mom to China for the trip of a lifetime. She taught me that the other side of the world was just a plane ride away. She gave me the travel bug and bought me plane tickets to Sweden so I could spend the summer of my eleventh birthday there with my best friend. Elva traveled well into her silver years with trips to Ireland and Israel, and even as a kid I remember thinking “Wow, this is a woman who is not letting old age slow her down!”
Grandma also had an independent, can-do attitude and saw the best in everything. For many years, even as her hearing and eyesight worsened, she stayed upbeat. I remember when she told us about her class for the blind, and how interesting and funny everything was, even though without hearing her loss of eyesight was a serious problem. She explored the problem and addressed it head-on. She aggressively adopted technology to help improve her life. Her house in Grass Valley was a study in workarounds, from special playing cards for the visually impaired and a bed-vibrating alarm clock for the hearing impaired to a magnifying projector and books on tape by subscription. And when I say it was a study in workarounds I mean that literally – my wife worked at one of the world’s leading product design firms and was so inspired that she turned it into a case study of how the elderly adapt. She loved to play cards, and in life she played the cards she was dealt.
My most precious memory of Grandma Elva was the last adventure she took me on, a road trip across South Dakota when I was in grad school. We visited her hometown of Wetonka which is now deserted and stopped by a lake outside of Aberdeen to see the migrating snow geese. We drove down to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell and then across the state to see the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Monument. One night it was snowing and I was driving slowly, looking for our motel after a big prime rib dinner. In an unfamiliar place and with poor visibility, I accidentally rolled through the town’s one red light and seconds later was pulled over by a cop. We put on our best, most innocent grandma/grandson faces and got off without even a warning.
Even as old age got the better of Elva, she maintained a positive outlook, curious about the journey ahead of her. And in her final weeks there were bits of levity. I was very lucky to be able to see her at Christmas. At first she thought I was her son Tom, and when my mom explained that it was her grandson she laughed “Oh! Well I’ll be…” and gave a big warm smile.
Elva lived a long and incredible life, through both world wars, the great depression, the cold war, the civil rights movement, women’s lib, as well as multiple waves of industrialization and globalization. She lived her life optimistically and to its fullest through the richest century in human history. Even in death she left this world in the best possible way: peacefully, courageously, and on her own terms. She’s an inspiration who will be sorely missed. Happy trails, Grandma.