Death of Milda Heath, my Grandmother

Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. my grandmother died at home at the age of 97. My wife Joy and I leave for Wisconsin this morning; the funeral is Saturday in Platteville, a college town of 10,000 people. Platteville is in the Southwest corner of the state and about nine miles from Rewey, the 200+ person village where my grandma lived most of her life.

Grandma graduated from college at the age of 16 (a teaching certificate took one year in 1924) and began teaching one-room school in a schoolhouse on County Trunk A in Iowa County, Wisconsin about 3 miles outside of Rewey. She taught school for thirty years, interrupting her service to raise two daughters. The last years of her career she taught a combined first and second grade class in the brick school across the street from her little yellow home on Main Street. My grandfather built that home from wood he recovered from an old house he tore down.

Every summer she had each of her grandchildren spent one week with her. This was a big deal for my family – Grandma lived 180 miles of two-lane roads away. How she managed to deal with a room full of little kids throughout the school year and then accept the responsibility of having a kid in her home virtually every week of the summer amazes me to this day.

In the early 60s she did not have indoor plumbing. I remember how scary it was to go outside in the dark to the outdoor toilet before bedtime. The site of that outhouse has now been occupied by a blackberry patch for decades, which in turn have resulted in hundreds of jars of homemade jam.

She was proud of her home, her lawn and her garden and worked in them religiously. She mowed her own lawn and shoveled snow off the sidewalk and driveway into her 90s. Long past the time she should have done so she was still driving the “old” people from her little town to Platteville to go to the grocery store and the bank.

She kept her mind sharp with crossword puzzles and loved to play games. She loved Yahtzee, and everytime I play the game with my children I think about sitting at her dining room table, playing with her, and how years later her played the game with my children.

She kept a white porcelin chicken on a wooden upright desk in her dining room; it was always filled with candy, usually orange slices, for her grandchildren. My wife found me an identical chicken on EBay and I now have my own.

The front door on her home is opened with a skeleton key.

Her husband Roy died over 50 years ago, and to my knowledge she never had a date or any relationship with a man thereafter. His picture was in her bedroom.

I went to college in Platteville and for the first two years when I lived in the dorm Grandma would come on Thursday morning to pick up my laundry and return it the next Thursday (if I did not go to her house for lunch on Sunday after church). Sometimes I forgot she was coming and I would not be there – I am sorry for that, Grandma. I need to remember my forgetfulness back then when my children are forgetful.

She made the best banana creme pie in the country. My mother had the receipe and could not duplicate the result, a fact that frustrates her to this day.

She voted.

Grandma was very ill the last few years of her life and gradually became bedridden. Her daughter Delores was ill, too (and in fact passed away in 2004) so a lot of the responsibility for making sure that she was taken care of fell on my mother who lives 180 miles away. A local woman (Betty, a sweetheart) was employed to live with Grandma, but Mom spent at least half of her time in the last few years in Grandma’s home doing what she could to assist her. No daughter could be expected to do more.

My brothers, sister and I have talked for the last two years that it would be best for Grandma if she could just die peacefully at home. Now she has. The fact that I have known every single day for two years that this could happen any day – and in fact wanted it to happen for her – does not decrease my sadness on this day. That surprises me, really. When I got the news my first thought was “Thank God. She is now at peace.” This morning it hit me that she is gone.

So, permit me to say this: Grandma, thank you for all you did for your family. Thank you for everything you did for me. I am sorry for all the times I disappointed you; thank you for forgiving me. Thank you for the banana creme pies, for your blackberry jam, and sending me back to the dorm with chocolate chip cookies and clean clothes. Thank you for feeding my college friends on short (and sometimes no) notice. Thank you for keeping the chicken full and for buying me Cracker Jacks at Orville Popp’s store. Thank for keeping a sled for us and for having a cool garage. Thank you for introducing me to Yahtzee. Thank you for the great talks we had when I drove you around Iowa County on Sunday afternoons, out through the Welsh Settlement, past the old churches and farm houses. Thank you for keeping me for a week each summer when I was growing up. I will never let my children forget who you were and the wonderful things you did for me and for them.

Goodbye Grandma.