Last month, our family lost its matriarch. Munna wasn’t just the head of our family, the last-standing of her generation of siblings and spouses. She was our light and our spirit; she truly united us in love and laughter. She cracked jokes and drank screwdrivers and loved me and my family so very much.
What is it that makes some grandparents scary to kids, a relationship bound in familial love but with so little true emotional closeness? Whatever it is she found a way around it. Or maybe she was hyper aware of that awkward, forced dynamic and was determined to avoid it. I remember as a kid, our conversations on the phone—a few simple questions and then an “I love you” and a goodbye. I always hung up the phone feeling relieved I hadn’t had to grit my way through a longer conversation the way I had to with others, and I loved her for that. Maybe that was her game all along: always leave them wanting more.
When I was a child, visiting her in Puerto Rico, we were walking home from the Big Orange juice stand one day and happened upon some discarded tile from a condo renovation happening nearby. Rather than walking by the small, half-inch ceramic squares, she gasped, eyes twinkling, and she scooped them up. We spent the afternoon on her patio, overlooking the ocean, painting Christmas trees and wreaths on the tiny squares and gluing earing poles to the backs, transforming waste into jewelry, turning the ordinary into magic. This was her superpower.
She took me whitewater rafting when she was 74. She gamely paddled along when she could, smiling and laughing, but mostly she was just along for the ride. The guides made her get out and walk on the shore past the worst of the rapids, and she just smiled and laughed and said “sure.” It was all fine. She had no agenda, no measuring stick against which she was going to judge the experience or her performance in it. She just showed up, grandkids in tow, ready to experience something new. The experience itself was the whole. There’s no point in measuring something whole. A measurement is only made by discovering what is lacking, what is missing. Eight inches has meaning because we compare it to something longer or shorter, something that it’s not. A review of something is an assessment, a “this was good, but this wasn’t,” but even “good” doesn’t exist in a vacuum, even “good” can only be defined because we know what isn’t. For Munna, it didn’t seem to be about this. There was no good or bad, no “I was successful at this but not at this.” There was “I did this.” And that was enough.
My Munna didn’t spend much time alone. She was married to her first husband, G-Daddy, from college until his death, and a mere handful of months later she had eloped with another widower, a man who took her dancing and traveling and on long drives through the mountains of Northern Georgia. My mom and her siblings seemed to balk at this marriage, at its suddenness and its intensity, but even as a child I could see Munna’s stamp all over it. It was again, always, a simple, immeasurable whole. “I want love and companionship. I have it. I will smile and laugh through it.”
20 years later, Poppy, as he came to be known, also passed, leaving Munna once again on her own. She waited, not too patiently, and eventually an eligible bachelor showed up at the nursing home, and Munna quickly claimed him for herself. She ate with him and sat with him. She cracked inappropriate jokes about the crumbs that fell in his lap being her snack for later. She’d wear a ring and tell him, much to his daily, recurrent surprise, that he had proposed to her. When he fell ill, she went to visit him, and when she began to break down, he would totter down the hall to her bedside and lean down into her reaching arms to plant a kiss on her waiting lips.
My Munna lived beyond the lands of judgments and expectations and “shoulds.” She said “sure” to the thousands of adventures that lead us through life: the long drives across the country, four small kids in tow, the backyard picnics and parties, the trips, the retirement to tropical islands, the jumping into love without fear or second guessing, the whitewater rafting, the midnight milkshakes and the board games, the sewing and the jewelry making and the drink-in-hand socializing. The creation of a preschool because kids needed loving and she could do that. Wholly. The devil-may-care attitude that comes with eating dessert first.
This is the legacy of our matriarch. That a good life isn’t found in the assessments, in the review, in the measuring. That a good life is found in the verb. In the showing up, unapologetically, for whatever is coming next. In the smiles and the laughter and the “sure.” In the dancing and the caring and the going-doing-seeing. In the loving and the longing for love. In the ability to turn the ordinary into magic.
When it was her time, she smiled, and said “sure,” and moved wholly onto whatever comes next.
Even though my Munna is gone, she hasn’t left us.
She’s with us in our delight with the ordinary, in our ability to see the magic that can come from the mundane.
She’s with us in our sense of adventure, in our willingness to say “sure!” to whatever experience comes our way.
She’s with us in our happiness with the here and now, our ready smiles, our deep satisfaction with what we have, whatever it may be.
She’s with us in our bonds with each other, in the love and true joy we feel in our family’s presence.
This poem, by e. e. cummings, reassures us that Munna is still here, carried in each and every one of us.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)