Even when I was a very little girl I knew my grandmother was the hardest person to say goodbye to. At the end of every visit with my grandma my mother or father would take my hand and try to lure me to the door to leave for our home just blocks away. Since I can remember, and from what family has told me, these departures always went the same way. I would stick my lower lip out in a terrible pout and tears would immediately stream down my reddening face as we exchanged goodbyes and the parent to which I was adjoined would tug a bit harder towards the driveway. I would let out a little wail and then yell out “But Grandma, I REALLY REALLY love you!” She would chuckle and reply ” Oh, Colleen, I really really love you too.”
As I grew up this became an important ritual for my grandma and me any time we said goodbye. And somewhat of a joke between the two of us. As a teenager, sometimes too anxious to leave a family gathering to meet my friends, I would sometimes forget, and as I reached the door Grandma would say from across the room, “Colleen, aren’t you forgetting something?” and I would run back to her and throw my arms around her and say “No, Grandma, I didn’t forget. I REALLY REALLY love you.” I can’t remember a visit or phone call or letter that did not end with this exchange of words.
There isn’t much more I am proud of than being a part of the Weiler Clan. Family get-togethers did not just revolve around the holidays or special occasions, they were part of our normal week. Growing up just blocks from Grandma’s and around the corner from cousins we seldom went a week without seeing each other. Grandma made sure of it. My entire childhood consists of memories in my grandparents’ backyard, at their dining table, standing on a chair in the kitchen next to Grandma in an oversized apron, and fighting with the other 24 grandchildren for spots on the floor for Christmas.
Yes, my grandmother had 25 grandchildren. Most of us grew up in the same neighborhood, just down the street from Grandma and Grandpa’s. Saying she always had plenty to keep her busy is an understatement.
My grandmother was a seamstress. If I close my eyes now, I can see her sewing room in the basement filled with her many projects. She must have had ten sewing machines. Every Halloween she stitched with love all of her grandchildren’s costumes. I never wore one that wasn’t handmade. Every mid-October we’d all gather together with Grandma in the basement and decide, or argue over, what everyone would be that year. Then we would pile in cars and head to the fabric store, creativity spinning in all of our brains. My grandma once made a mermaid costume, tank included, that my older cousin Ben wore. She could replicate any Disney character better than any costume company. When I was eight she transformed me into a flower pot by turning a lampshade up-side-down and standing my green-draped body inside of it. Yellow petals adorned my face and my hands were transformed into leaves. As a kid, I don’t think I remember thinking all this fuss was special. It was just what we did, what she did. Now, as a mother of only one, I realize what a tremendous feat creating 15+ costumes in two weeks was. And as I have grown I realize my grandmother was a seamstress on many more levels than could ever be imagined.
Of course she was a fabulous sewer. She could dress any wedding party from scratch and make them look like they came off the runway. There wasn’t a pair of pants or Catholic school uniform in the family that wasn’t hemmed by her. Her quilts adorned most of her grandchildren’s beds and kept us cuddled in her love on cold nights. Her stitch couldn’t be beat. But what I had missed as a child, is so incredibly apparent now. Grandma wasn’t just stitching our clothes, quilts, and costumes, she was stitching us together.
Everything I know about love and family has streamed down from her. My siblings are my very best friends, my cousins are a very close second. When I am with them, all the world is right. We don’t need anything but each other to entertain us. Twenty-five is a pretty big party. Now many of us are married and starting families and the number is getting pretty hard to keep track of. But when I am with them, I never want our time together to end.
I think this is why Christmases for the Weilers always consisted of being together Christmas Day and the day after and the next five days after that too. Grandma was the absolute best at starting crazy, unique family traditions. The day after Christmas was always called “Game Night”. We would all gather again at Grandma and Grandpa’s for leftover stuffed cabbages and we would all bring our games and toys we received from Santa to share with everyone. There was always a 1000 piece puzzle that would be started in her sewing room on the enormous table she kept in there. We’d work on it for days until it was finished. And we always finished it as a family, with every one of us at one time or another placing a tiny piece in the right spot. Often the night after “Game Night” would be “Soup Night”, where every family would bring a new soup or favorite soup recipe to try and we would have a buffet of soups in Grandma’s basement. Of course, the games and puzzling would continue. We’d then gather again the next night for “Potato Pancake Night” and stuff our faces with potato pancakes piled high with applesauce and cottage cheese. Nights like these would go on sometimes even through the entirety or our holiday break.
Even on days that weren’t revolved around family traditions or set-in-stone on the calendar get-togethers; if I decided to walk or ride my bike over to Grandma’s for what I hoped would be a one-on-one visit with her, chances were I’d arrive to find the bicycles of at least a few of my other cousins in the driveway. Ben or Joe would be mowing the lawn, Jake would be on a ladder in the garage taking orders from Grandpa. Grandma would meet me at the door to her kitchen and tell me how nice that I’d stopped by, but let’s get to work, today we’re rolling pie crusts. I’d barely get through the door and notice that Tyler was there already kneading the dough.
Almost every one of my five siblings and I grew up with one of our cousins in our same class from preschool through high school. Our cousins were our neighbors, classmates, teammates, and favorite friends to invite for a sleepover. After Grandparents’ Day at school, Grandma would scoop up her grandchildren and pack them like sardines in her car and take them for root beer floats. I got to experience this twice when I wasn’t even a student. My first two years as an elementary school teacher I taught fourth grade at the parish school I grew up in. My youngest brother and a few of my cousins were still attending junior high in the same building in which I taught. When it was the grandparents turn to come visit their grandchildren in the fourth grade classroom, I was surprised when I looked up and saw my grandmother standing in the back among my students’ grandparents. When another grandparent asked her to point out her grandchild in the room, my grandma pointed proudly and said she’s that one at the front, the teacher. At the end of our presentation and after students had handed out cards and hugs to their grandmas and grandpas, my grandma came up and informed me that after the bell rang it was time for root beer floats. No questions asked. They would wait for me to wrap things up in my classroom, and I was going with her and my youngest cousins for the traditional trip. That she took the time to come to my classroom too, made my day. But then again, I shouldn’t have expected anything less. Grandma was always there.
She always attended eight o’clock Mass every day of the week. And for the two years I taught at the parish, my class attended every Monday before school. And after every eight o’clock Mass, Grandma would wait and my students would know to sit quietly and wait while I crossed to the other side of the main aisle to give my grandmother a hug and a big “I really, really love you, Grandma.” She was the reason I loved Mondays! These are the small things I love and will always remember about her.
They are the things she instilled in me that I hope to instill in my Annie and future children. That a small act can leave a huge impact. That by taking a few seconds to make someone’s day better, you may be setting the example for others to do the same. That when you ask someone how they are, you truly want to know and are willing to listen. That we can choose to take a breath in our hectic day-to-day routine and refocus on what really matters, love.
My grandmother taught me so much. She taught me to roll cabbages, to flip the perfect potato pancake, to make the best homemade applesauce. She taught me when I was eight how to sew a button on a shirt. She taught me checkers, scrabble, and my favorite card game, 500. She never let me win though, she never let anyone win. She taught me that hard work is a reward itself. She taught me to always put my best foot forward. She taught me to admit to my mistakes when I am wrong and to learn from them and move on. Though she was never one to admit a mistake herself, EVER. She taught me that if I don’t take care of me first, I won’t be able to take care of those I love the most (this is something I didn’t understand until I became a mom). She taught me to find and believe in my God-given gifts and to use them to bring good to others. She encouraged me, sometimes through tough love, to be the best I can be. She taught me to be proud of family. She taught me to laugh without hesitation, but to never laugh at others. She taught me not to judge others, and to let it roll off my shoulders when others judge me. She taught me how to properly wear a strapless bra. She taught me to make a feast out of whatever is left in the pantry, when hardly anything is left in the pantry. She instilled creativity into my soul. She taught me to listen, even though sometimes I felt that she had selective hearing. She taught me the only things you need to warm a house are family, laughter, and love. She was an amazing example of living everyday to the fullest even up to the very end.
A little over two years ago, just before I moved an ocean away from my family, Grandma sat me down for one of her chats. I hated leaving all of my family, but especially Grandma. One thing that Mike’s American colleagues and my friends here have always told me is the hardest about being away, is the constant reminder that someday grandparents and parents will not be there, and we are missing all this time with them being in another country. I knew, moving to Italy, my frequent visits with Grandma would be much fewer and farther between than I was used to. So I didn’t know what to expect for our last one-on-one visit before taking off for my new life abroad. I was sad before I walked in the door to say goodbye to her. But then she sat me down and smiled so big and told me how happy she was for me. She asked, “Colleen, could you have ever dreamed of something better happening to you?” She told me that she understood, though leaving her family in Wisconsin was certainly not the same as moving across the world, what it was like to leave a family for a new husband and to start a family away from her mother, father and siblings. She told me not to look back, that Mike and I would make a fabulous life together. That that is what a marriage is. Making your spouse your priority. Sacrificing for one another. Supporting his career, knowing he would do the same for you. Home is no longer where your mom and dad are, or where you grew up. “Home is where he is,” she said. “So go make Italy your new home.” And then she gave me a big hug and said, “I really, really love you, Colleen.”
She was right. It didn’t take me long to realize that, though siblings and cousins and grandparents are important, Mike (and now Annie) are all I need to feel home. I didn’t think I could live so far away from my sisters and brothers, that the distance would be harder on Mike and me. But it wasn’t. It made us closer and stronger than ever. And when I called Grandma from my new home so far away, she would share more and more of what it was like for her having to start over in Aurora. We bonded over our adventures of being so far from familiarity.
And then Annie was born. And my grandmother and I began to bond in a way I never could have imagined. The first eight months in Italy, I spoke to my grandma on the phone only three times. After Annie was born I don’t think we went more than two weeks without at least an hour phone call. My dad set her up with her very own calling card, and made it as easy as only hitting a few buttons on the phone. She became a pro at knowing the exact time to call considering the extreme difference in time zones. I knew she was one of the few people I could actually get a hold of given the time difference. I usually called between 6:30 and 7:30 in the morning her time. She was always up and if I called any later I would be interrupting her extremely busy social calendar. I had to call before Bridge, or poker, or ladies night out began.
You see my grandmother and I now had more than moving away from family in common. We shared the bond that only mothers of children with special needs can understand. And the new mothers in my life, who were brought into my life because of my Annie and their beautiful children, know exactly what I am talking about. Not until you, stretched out on a hospital bed after just going through the pain of delivery, have heard the words from your doctor’s mouth that your child has an extra chromosome, or spinal bifida, or any other number of possible birth defects, could you possibly understand. Only my doctor’s words were words of reassurance, that “Yes, Annie has something that makes her different and there will be challenges, but you will take her home and love her and quickly realize that it is not that different really.” The words my grandmother heard almost fifty years ago upon the diagnosis of her youngest child being born with spinal bifida were much different. She was told to leave her in the hospital, that her baby would be a burden, that she would die and if she didn’t they would find a place for her. Knowing what I know about my own personal experience, the doubts I had of my capabilities as a mother to a special needs child, the fear and excruciating sadness I felt, even the anger; I could never begin to comprehend what it was like for my grandma. She, of course, did not listen to those doctors. She told them they didn’t need to find a place for her baby, because the only place for her was home. She brought my aunt Mary home to her six older siblings not knowing what to expect. Forty-seven years later, Aunt Mary is a happily married woman with a wonderful life and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews that love her.
I am so grateful for the phone conversations we shared and that she was able to hold Annie so often when we were home. My grandma shared with me what it was like for her and was so glad that times have changed and that Annie has so many opportunities, therapists and doctors to help her. She told me that for the rest of my life I should be prepared for surprise, because Annie would surprise me when I least expected it. And that she never forgot the day when Mary was just two years old, and she heard her say “Mama” from the crib and looked up, to her surprise, to see her standing all by herself with her head peeking out from atop the crib. She said she had no idea what Mary would be able to do, so she did what she knew. She treated her as much like her other six children as she could.
My grandmother was as interested in Annie’s development as any of my family members, maybe even more so. It’s all she wanted to hear about every time she called. “What’s that baby up to and into now?” She’d make me hold the phone up on speaker and she would talk to Annie for hours. She loved hearing Annie’s noises and even if I was in the middle of telling her about an exciting adventure in Tunisia or Poland, if Annie made a peep she’d stop me and no longer care about my story, “Oh, Annie I can hear you! Are you saying Mama yet?” And I’d never be able to get her back to the conversation. She was fascinated that Annie uses sign language and wanted to hear all about it. When we happened to be in Aurora and visiting at Grandma’s house, she asked about all her therapies and what she should be doing with her to help. She asked to read the book I was reading about Down Syndrome, and she did.
In many of the books I have on Down Syndrome, they warn of grandparents having a hard time accepting the diagnosis or of an outdated attitude toward individuals with Down Syndrome. That when they were born, these children were not allowed into society, were hidden in institutions, that it was something to be ashamed of. Well, with a grandma like mine, I guess I could have skipped those chapters, huh?
And you know what? She taught me more about raising a baby with special needs than any of those books. She shared with me how she dealt with the pitying looks from others. How God really knows what he’s doing and if we have faith, we can see the challenges He sends us are really His biggest gifts. She cried with me over how hard it was to send Mary into a school where she was tormented by mean girls who constantly made fun of her because she was different. That sometimes she felt she had to be harsh to help Mary to be tough, and that it wasn’t easy. That if we treat our babies differently others will too. And most of all, that they are our babies, our children, and we love them with all our heart as they are.
Two months ago, I received a phone call in the very early hours of the morning from my dad. Because of the hour of the call, I immediately knew that something was terribly wrong. My grandmother was in the hospital. We packed our bags and flew home in time to say our goodbyes. She died on Saturday, July 21 in the afternoon with all of her children around her.
The night of her wake our family gathered at Aunt Pat and Uncle Wayne’s house for food and family time after a long and very sad day. The night couldn’t have ended more perfectly. Stuffed into the couch, chairs, each others’ laps and every inch of floor space in the smaller of the two living rooms, all of her grandchildren sat together (smashed together). Though there were plenty of other rooms for us to spread out to, we wanted to be together, and though our bodies are a bit bigger, it felt like it did when we were kids at Christmas crammed on the floor of Grandma’s living room. We laughed so hard we cried, we teased each other, told stories like we always do, not a moment wasn’t occupied with complete joy and laughter. And like it always is when we’re together, I don’t think any of us wanted the moment to end. It was perfect and I know Grandma was with Grandpa smiling down on the sight of us all thinking “All the world is right as it should be.”
Two weeks ago, the day before Annie and I flew home, my aunts had me go with them to Grandma’s to go through her things to point out a few things I might like to have. Living so far away, I won’t be able to be there the day the whole family gets together to decide who will get what. As I walked into my grandmother’s for what I am sure was to have been my last time, I didn’t realize how unprepared I was for what was waiting behind that front door. There, in perfectly organized piles spread out throughout the home, sat most of my childhood memories. In perfect little clusters. Every corner I turned something reminded me of a special memory of my amazing grandparents. Like the boring looking wooden clock in the kitchen that used to sit just above Grandpa’s head at the dining table. I used to stare at it when I needed to be distracted from staring at the enormous amounts of butter my grandpa would spread on his bread. I’d LOVE to have that clock!
The thing about all of this, is that the things that would be nice to have aren’t the expensive looking antiques. They are the little things that remind us of our childhood with our grandparents. I am sure the tiny children’s turtle stool which is at the top of my list, is on everyone’s list. We all loved and sat on that turtle stool as long as our bums could fit on it. Or the scrabble game that is so old the box isn’t even a box any more but more like two worn-down pieces of thin cardboard sort of keeping the pieces together. All of her grandchildren extended their vocabulary on that board with those very Scrabble tiles and argued with Grandma over her cheating. The rolling pin that she’s had forever that each of us felt her hands over ours on, guiding the dough to make the perfect crust. The things that are of worth to us, the ones people will put up a fight for, are the little things. Their worth can’t be measured. They are things that if we had in a special place in our house, may make us feel a little bit closer to her. But you know what? It doesn’t matter who gets what. Because we all won! We all had her. And we are forever connected because of her. So whoever gets the turtle stool, well we’re all going with it, they get a piece of all of us.
On that last day at Grandma’s, as we wrapped up and my aunts sat at the kitchen counter compiling my “list”, I became completely overwhelmed with emotion like I never have in my life. My aunts noticed and sat me down in the only chair in the room that wasn’t covered in Grandma’s things. And then I lost it. I realized that I hadn’t physically seen Grandma as I remember my Grandma since last November. We had talked so much it had felt like only yesterday. The loss of my grandmother completely began to sink in. Only Suzie and Julie and I will know what was shared in those moments, but it was a beautiful goodbye and I will never forget it.
On the afternoon of the day of my grandmother’s funeral one of my aunts mentioned to me that she was worried that the get-togethers wouldn’t happen as much any more because Grandma always made sure they happen. And I thought about that a lot and what it might be like. And then I realized, they will never stop. Grandma’s stitch is too tight.
Thanks for that Grandma. And, like always, I REALLY, REALLY love you.