Thursday, January 30, 2014

In Memoriam

On January 24, 2014, my beloved grandmother, Grandma Vel, passed away at the age of 92. I've been away from the blog for a few months and this isn't how I imagined coming back, but I hope you'll indulge me. The following post is adapted from the eulogy I wrote for her memorial.

Vel in 1942, age 21

For Vel

As I thought about the memorial service, one of my first considerations was to worry about what I should wear. Even though the small service was just for our family, the occasion seemed to warrant more than my usual jeans-and-a-t-shirt wardrobe. I considered shopping for something a rung or two up the formal ladder of attire.

But then I remembered a particular Sunday morning, during one of my sister's and my summer visits to Grandma Vel's. This would have been, I believe, the summer between my seventh and eighth grade years of school. We were all getting ready to go to church. While Sis and I donned our dresses and brushed our hair, Grandma's voice erupted from her room, in one of her usual exclamations of frustration, “Oh, Godfrey!” followed by her laughter. We found her sitting on the edge of her bed, struggling to pull on a twisted pair of pantyhose. She cursed and grunted until she'd shown them who was boss, and then complained the whole morning about how uncomfortable they were. It was the only pair of nylons she owned, she later explained, and she hadn't worn them in years. The elastic had given out, so the pantyhose sagged at the ankles. Her wrestling match with them had put a run one leg, and the toe seams showed through her sandals. When we got home, she threw them away and changed back into her own comfortable uniform, jeans-and-a-button-down. It didn't occur to me until today that I might have gotten some of my fashion sense from Grandma, but I think I must have, and I know she would want us to be comfortable here.

When I think about Grandma, I remember how she always seemed larger-than-life. She was tall, with broad shoulders and a bit of a swagger in her step. Even when I'd grown taller than her, she was still something of a giant in my mind. When she was excited, the concept of an “inside voice” escaped her. She spoke loud, she laughed loud. Her heart was large and overflowed with love, especially for small animals, such as stray cats and her granddaughters. Vel took up a lot of room. She was a landmark, a destination, all by herself. Only a landscape as expansive as her much-loved Zion National Park could house a woman as brimming with life as she.

Vel is the baby in her mother's lap. Two more would be born after her.
The oldest few were already grown and gone.

Vel was born in 1921, one of seventeen children, to poor Danish immigrants. She grew up in a small coal mining town in Utah that no longer exists. As I thought about what I should say in my remarks, I knew I couldn't really talk about any of her family history, as it falls beyond my area of authorial expertise. I didn't witness her bucolic childhood in Spring Canyon, nor did I watch her grow up in a tribe of sisters. As a young woman, she developed her talents as an artist and a songstress, singing on live radio to great acclaim, and painting canvases of the untamed wilderness which inspired her. She became a woman I never met, riding in a standing-room-only troop transport train for her brief honeymoon in San Francisco, and riveting bombers during World War II. I like to think we'd have been friends, had we met at a play group as young mothers, with our arms and laps and houses full of children. I look at photos from that time in Vel's life and recognize a kindred sense of harried weariness, of love and exhaustion so deeply entwined it doesn't seem you can ever pull one from the other. But I'll never know. That wasn't my experience with her.

My father is the well-behaved one on the right.
Since she passed, I've been reflecting a lot on what my relationship with Vel was, and what it wasn't. I don't know what it was like to grow up with Vel for my mother. I can only imagine the family was complicated, as all families are. Vel's children would have adored her when they were young, and hated and been embarrassed by her when they were teenagers. As a parent, she probably often fell short of her own desires, and her children's expectations. This is the way of being a mother.

I don't know what it was like to have Vel for a mother-in-law. Mom always spoke of her with fondness and respect. Maybe everything was smooth sailing between them. Maybe there was some underlying judgment and animosity I never knew about.

To me, she was always Grandma Vel. In all of my life, she is the only person from whom I have ever felt complete and total acceptance. I believe it must be the prerogative of grandparents and grandchildren to find in one another not just the potential for, but the fulfillment of, perfection. Vel used to praise Mom's late mother, Liz, as a paragon of ladyhood. She admired Liz's genteel manners and said she felt like “a bull in a china shop” next to her. But to me, her brash ways were every bit as instructive in the art of Womanhood as Liz's more subtle, cultured example.

1962, still waiting for Nelson Eddy to sweep her away.

From Vel, I learned that that the simple pleasures in life were just as marvelous as the finer things, that an evening at home playing cards and sipping margaritas was the best thing in the world, as long as you spent it with the right people. She taught me a woman should never leave home without three essentials: her lipstick, so she'd always be presentable; some tissues, useful in civilization or the wilderness; and chewing gum, so your breath will be fresh, in the event your dream Latin lover suddenly materializes at your side.

Another family pet. This one she called Fury,
presumably because she'd trained him to tear the faces
off of intruders. Don't let the fluffy ears fool you.
On the same summer holiday I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, when Vel wrestled with and discarded those hated nylons, we had one of my first mature heart-to-heart discussions on the subject of spirituality and religion. I don't remember how the conversation started; I probably asked her why she so rarely went to church. But I remember well her telling me that she felt closer to God when she was out in nature than she ever did inside a building. Vel didn't need organized religion telling her how to find God. Her deity was all around her in the mountains. He was in the yard she worked so hard to make beautiful. He was in Mop and Sandy, her dear little dogs. Even though it was different from how she'd been raised, and from what some of her children came to embrace for themselves, Vel found a spiritual path that fit her perfectly. A little bit Christian; a little bit Pagan; a little bit Pantheist. As far as I know, Vel didn't have a word for her beliefs, and she didn't need one. It was something just for her, and it didn't matter if anyone else in the world agreed with her. She taught me that's it's ok to break from convention, and to hold fast to what is right for myself.

I have frequently said that I feel like an imposter grownup. Sometimes, I feel as insecure as I did in high school, and I'm sure that one day, some government agents will turn up at my door and charge me with impersonating an adult. But then I remember Grandma Vel, and how she never felt her age, either. Even in the last few years, when she was living in a nursing home and mostly confined to a wheel chair, she groused about being surrounded by old folks. Vel never got old. She took French lessons and learned to use the computer and socialized with her friends, refusing to let something as inconsequential as the passage of time put a damper on her enjoyment of life. She showed me that I may not be able to escape the indignities that come with age, but I never have to feel—or be—old.

Vel, on the right, with one of her sisters (center)
and a childhood friend. Vel never lost her youthful
sense of fun.

In return, my sister and I provided Vel with a constant source of grandparental pride. She thrilled at our good grades. She thought we were beautiful. She invited the neighbors over to coo at our sweet, Southern accents. She called us by the endearments Little Sweet, or Living Doll. Even the one time I recall her wanting to fuss at us for sneaking out of bed and staying up late was turned around when she discovered we'd broken bedtime to secretly bake a cake for her birthday the following day. Her disappointment in our behavior was turned to surprised delight in the blink of an eye.

She loved us the way she did everything, big and loud and a little bit unruly. I know neither Sis nor I will ever forget the time we broke down on the side of the interstate on our way to catch our flight home from Vegas. Grandma's one-armed neighbor, Ann, gave us a lift. We stopped at a casino in Mesquite, Nevada for lunch. Vel and Ann got carried away on the slot machines, so we were late getting back on the road. When the car broke down a short time later, in the middle of the Nevada desert in the middle of a hot, summer day, the time crunch made it an even greater catastrophe than it would have been otherwise. But Vel didn't hesitate in her purpose. She knew she had to get her babies to the airport, and so she flagged down a perfect stranger and commandeered his vehicle. My sister and I perched on the piles of paperback books in the backseat of his car while Grandma hopped into the front passenger seat and ordered the man to drive us to Vegas. Damn if he didn't drive us a good hour and a half, right to the curbside dropoff at the airport, never once protesting Grandma hijacking his car and his time.

Vel was proud of my efforts as a writer. When I sent her a copy of Once a Duchess, she locked everyone out of her room at the nursing home while she spent the weekend reading, so she could call me on Monday to discuss the novel. She told me that she showed it off to all the residents and staff.

The author and Vel in 2011. I smuggled tequila into the nursing home to
make her a proper margarita. A fine time was had by all.

She even praised my mundane accomplishments. When the eldest Master Boyce was two months old, Mom and I took him out to see Grandma Vel for Thanksgiving. One afternoon, we left her home with the baby, with a bottle of pumped milk to give him when he became hungry. She repeatedly marveled over and complimented the cream content of the milk, as though I had personally invented the perfect food for infants. Everything I did was really and truly wonderful, and to me, she was every bit as perfect.

Because Grandma Vel lived so far away, visits were always an event. In my mind, Grandma Vel will always be a vacation. She's a special holiday of mutual adoration and affection, smelling of White Linen and dusty, Western skies. She is soaring mountains and horseback rides. Rock shops and bumbleberry pie. She is Good and Plenty candies, licorice nips, and a drawer full of reused aluminum foil. She is lava rocks and zoysia grass, apricots and cherries. She is her wonderful paintings, her extraordinary voice, and her unfettered enthusiasm for living.

My time with Grandma Vel is like a strand of pearls, each occasion beautiful unto itself, but becoming more precious as they are gathered together, becoming a rare and precious heirloom on the silken strand of my life.


  1. Thanks for posting this lovely memorial to your Grandmother. She was obviously a very special person and you are a very special granddaughter. I think the blessings flowed both ways.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. She was one of a kind.

  2. You are adorable, I am smiling ear to ear at that Tequila shot. You win the award for Best Granddaughter. As soon as I saw her I thought "spunky," so cliche, but that's how she looks in every single shot. I wish I had known her, but now I feel that I am a better person for having known OF her.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! She was spunky. And feisty. And loads of other applicable cliches. I'm most definitely better for having had her in my life.