My Grandma / by Michelle Nicola

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Be not afraid... 

On November 16, 2018 my grandma, Marie Hurtz, died. We knew she was on her way a few weeks before, and so when I read my cousin Jessie’s Facebook post, I wasn’t surprised. I had spoken with my Grandma the day before, and a few weeks before that.

“Grandma, this is Michelle,” I said.

“This is Michelle,” she repeated.

“Yes, Grandma, this is Michelle. I just want you to know that I love you. Thank you for always praying for me- I know your prayers have kept me safe.”

“I love you too,” she said.

I told her about how I am living in Mexico, the Fulbright grant, my home back in Portland . . . I don’t really think she understood most of it, but what was important to understand she understood: This is Michelle and I love you.

We ended our conversation, and Grandma confirmed one last time, “And this is Michelle?”

“Yes, Grandma. I love you. Talk soon.”

“Ok. I love you, too.”

My mom was with Grandma when she died, as was my uncle, to witness her transition. Yesterday was her rosary and today is the funeral. My sister and I both decided it was going to be too complicated and incredibly expensive to fly back for the funeral. Intellectually, I know funerals are mostly for the living; they help us put sense and order and ritual to events beyond our ability to comprehend. Still, it’s a decision I meet not without a twinge of regret and sadness. I miss my family. But then I see my Grandma in my mind, how she tilts her head to one side, her hand to the other and says to me, “Well, Michelle, we all do the best we can. That’s OK.” Then she rests her hand on the kitchen counter to support her bad hip and turns and walks away.

I go before you always . . .

Growing up, memories of Grandma were woven in with memories of sweet summers in Wisconsin. Grandma and Grandpa had a farm in the town of Cashton, just outside LaCrosse in southwestern Wisconsin. I must have been around 5 years old when I thought it was a good idea to chase the turkeys. I ran after them, watching their heads bobble, then they ran after me until Grandma came to the porch and told me to quit. “Them turkeys, they’ll bite ya,” she warned. At that time, the farm had baby chicks, which I got to hold, and dairy cows, which my Uncle Alvin offered to let me milk by hand, just to try it, but at the last minute I got too nervous and couldn’t do it. Cousin Jessie tried to convince me that there we giraffes in the cellar who ate my My Little Pony’s tail. And Grandma was always ready to pull out the 5 gallon tub of ice cream from the freezer and make us an ice cream cone.  

Years later I remember sitting on a blanket behind the farm house and calling out to the lightning-charged sky to just rain already! The crops need rain! Somehow that summer I got the nickname Marshy, I think because we were roasting marshmallows and I got myself covered in them? My sister got the nickname Chemicals, and that is definitely because she outright refused to ingest any product that she deemed to have chemicals.  (More Mountain Dew and marshmallows for the rest of us!) Grandma would be in the kitchen doing dishes or cooking, or maybe folding laundry. Grandma was one of the hardest workers I know, but I didn’t hear her complain about all the work it took to raise 10 kids and help run a farm. (Unfortunately this was not something I acquired from her right away- I have another memory of being about nine or so and “helping” my Uncle Arnie pick stones in the field. We kids complained about that. A lot. Sorry, Uncle Arnie.)  Grandma, though, she would sing some of her favorites, “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” while scrubbing a pile of dishes. One time she told me, “It’s good to sing. It keeps your heart happy.”

Everyone has memories of playing cards with both Grandpa and Grandma. I still get the rules confused between Yuker and Pfifer, but what I know is this- both Grandma and Grandpa could take a nothing hand and turn it into something. They would have no trump cards, and somehow would single-handedly win one for the team. And if someone said something funny, Grandma would use her cards to cover her mouth while she laughed.  

Come follow me . . .

A few times Grandma came to visit us in Oregon. When I was about 10 my cousin Candace and I got into my mom’s make-up. Blue eyeshadow up to my eyebrows, huge red circles of rouge on my cheeks and pastel pink lipstick, and still Grandma looked at us and said, “My, my what beautiful young girls we have here.” Grandma never let distance keep us from feeling her love. She’d write us letters every so often, but always on our birthdays. She’d tell us about the weather, how the crops were doing, about her sisters and Grandpa’s siblings. There would always be a dollar included so we could go buy an ice cream cone. And she’d always end the letters saying something like, “God Bless Michelle” underlined or sometimes even double-underlined.

Memories of Grandma . . . of polkas and church music, of hard work and ice cream cones, and of apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar was Grandma’s #1 cure-all. “Michelle,” she’d say, “you know your Aunt Francie and I bought the same shirt one day, and her shirt, the colors are all faded, but I just put a half cup of apple cider vinegar in with the wash and that keeps them colors from fading. You should try it!” One time my brother Jacob had something in his eye and Grandma told him to use apple cider vinegar to get it out!

Grandma truly believed that a family that works together, plays together, prays together, stays together. She had incredible faith in God, and even “dated” some of God’s helpers. I think it was after my Grandpa died that she started joking about her boyfriend St. Anthony. For my non-Catholic readers, St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. If you lose something, you can pray to him, and he will help you find it. I have helped friends find lost bracelets, luggage, parked cars at Costco . . . and it’s all thanks to my Grandma’s boyfriend, St. Anthony.

I am convinced that my Grandma’s prayers have gotten me out of more than a few sticky situations, and continue to help me out even now. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I suppose I should have expected it, but I didn’t. I didn’t expect the sadness that came over me- all my friends and family so far away, eating turkey and pumpkin pie, the realization that my grandma had actually died, that this wasn’t just a pause in between letters and phone calls . . . I felt it. I walked to Casa Azul Hotel, thinking I would just eat a quick gringo Thanksgiving dinner alone and go home to bed. But you know what Grandma did for me? She sent me 5 angels, 5 strangers who are now friends, 5 truly wonderful, interesting and welcoming people who invited me to their table with them. We talked, laughed and told stories for 3 hours, and I went home with a belly and a heart that was full.

And I will give you rest . . .

Grandma, I want you to know how much I love you. I want you to know that even though I grew up so many states away from you, I always have felt your love, your influence, your presence in my life. Thank you for giving me such a loving family. Thank you for teaching me about love and hard work, and patience and Yuker. I love you forever.

Your granddaughter,

MiCHeLLe