My Gram was one of the best people I know. She was a storyteller. Gram could make a trip to the buffet line sound like she had just noshed at a five-star restaurant in Paris.
I hung on her every word when she told me about her trips to New York City with her best friend Lil. In their early twenties the duo made the trek from Massachusetts to the Big Apple in a convertible. Mind you, she was born in 1918 and I'm guessing two single women bombing down the highway with the top down was frowned upon.
On one trip to the city she was asked to share a table with the Dorsey Brothers, the equivalent to my daughter eating with Taylor Swift and Rachel Platten.
She met my grandfather, whom she was married to for almost 60 years before his death, at the roller skating rink at Whalom Park in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. Her initial response to their introduction was, "eh." She made him chase her for three years before finally agreeing to go on a date with him.
During the Depression she shared the disgusting truth about how she and her sisters ate tar from the roof, pretending it was bubble gum. During that time she also skipped two grades and went to work, helping to support her family.
In her late 60's my Gram dressed up like a belly dancer for my Great Uncle Ray's birthday party. Her belly button fully exposed, she shimmed into the party with a black wig and make up that left her unrecognizable. Uncle Ray looked terrified and turned beat red as she danced around him. Her infectious laugh finally gave her away.
In her 70's she colored her white hair jet black. Again, she looked like a stranger and turned the heads of all that knew her. She got especially funny looks when the hair dye turned green. She didn't care, and left it that way until it grew out.
I used to tickle the nape of her neck, which would send her into a gale of giggles. I often wonder how she handled a boy kissing her neck!
My favorite meal that she prepared was her chicken fricassee. She would slave over the hot stove making it for me, complete with mashed potatoes drowned in butter.
When she suddenly died in February 2007 my thoughts traveled to the last time I saw her. I had driven to see her one weekend with my then two-year-old son, Dexter. Her gray hair never looked out of place, even when wearing her blue robe and slippers as she was that day.
We ate our lunch and caught up. I then left because I was hosting friends that night.
As we pulled out of the driveway I saw her. She was standing in the big window in the living room. Her hand up in the air waving goodbye. I suddenly was overcome with emotion. I heard a voice telling me to turn the car around and go back into her house. Yet I didn't.
The last image of my Grammy is her literally saying goodbye.
Her death brought me to my knees. She, and my grandfather, had a hand in raising me. My Gram was my stability. I knew, no matter what that someone had my back. Someone was praying for me. Someone cared about me. Someone loved me.
She was the type of grandmother who hit a boy with her pocketbook upside the head when he spit on my cousin Mike.
I can only recall one time when she appeared sad. Typically she found joy in the simple things. But we all have our sources of pain, and hers was old age.
She once told my mother with sadness, "When I look in the mirror I don't recognize myself anymore. It's like I'm looking at a stranger."
It's funny, I never thought she looked old. I always saw her as beautiful. A source of comfort and my safe place. To me, she sparkled. It wasn't until I looked at older photos of her that I realized what she meant. She was a beautiful young woman. She had stylish jet-black hair, green eyes that I happily inherited and what she would describe as a "nice figure."
So many times over the last eight years I long for her guidance. When I gave birth to my daughter. When I won my first writing award. When I had a hysterectomy, and a year later an appendectomy. When I got divorced. When I went on my first date post-divorce.
After her death I realized I didn't have her chicken fricassee recipe. I was devastated. One day I drove over to her house to collect some items I requested to remember her by.
Sitting on top of the pile was a recipe card. Doubt, happiness and chills went through me.
As I got closer I could make out the words. "Gram's Chicken Fricassee."
Later that year I put on one of her aprons and followed the recipe. As the familiar smell of the meal cooking filled the air I began to cry. No matter how hard I tried to stop, the tears poured out of me as I followed each step and didn't stop until the meal was complete.
With bittersweet emotion I served up my favorite dish to my family. I haven't been able to make it since.
We all want to matter in this life. Some might call it a need for validation. Not everyone is going to make a huge impact, like the Pope or President. Not all of us will become world known like Oprah.
But for me, Mary Louise Gillis certainly left her mark.
My daughter, Vivien Joie, is indirectly named after her. Her name means "Joy of Life" and that's exactly how Gram lived hers.
She may not have been world famous but the lessons she taught, they carry me through in her absence.
Laugh a lot.
Leave the dirty dishes in the sink once in awhile, especially if you get an invitation to do something fun.
It's okay to take shortcuts when making "homemade" food.
And most importantly, to have faith.