My grandmother Iris June Bates, or Grandma I as we always called her, died last month. She hadn't been herself for quite some time, her mind so ravaged by dementia, and it was difficult to say goodbye to someone whom, for all intents and purposes, had left a long time ago.
Grandma I was a part of our daily lives growing up, like a third parent. She was the one who taught me how to make bread, frost cakes, and to flip pancakes (though she always called them hotcakes or flapjacks). She was always there, never afraid to be silly, the kind of grandmother who made childhood fun.
She dropped out of high school when she was only sixteen years old and married my grandfather, who had just gotten out of the navy, and they moved to Idaho and opened their own restaurant, which was attached to a casino. The dinners called her "little Betty" and she was famous for her pies. She was an artist. She kept a stained glass studio in her basement, could sketch or draw anything off the top of her head with the best of them, and was a talented seamstress who often didn't even require patterns.
Back in the day everyone says that she was the party girl of the family, the house where everyone gathered, the one always up for a good time. Her's was the door you knew you could come knock on at 2:00 am after you finished up at the bars, because she would likely still be awake, and if not you could be sure that she would happily get out of bed, make you something to eat, and pour you a nightcap.
When I was 8 years old, I was in a production of Bye Bye Birdie through the high school's summer theatre program. One weekend they hosted a fund raising carnival and dessert auction, and asked that each of us bring something in to be auctioned off. The winner of the auction, which is to say the owner of the dessert which sold for the largest amount of money, we were told, would win a t-shirt (the cost of which was probably like $5, but I didn't care... I wanted that damn t-shirt!). In my mind, winning that t-shirt was no small deal, my entire future life's happiness lay in the balance. They gave us several weeks notice, of course, but I dismissed it, and in classic Jacob style waited to the very last minute, until in a panic the night before the auction I asked Grandma I if she could make and decorate me a cake for tomorrow, explaining to her the importance of my winning that t-shirt. Everyone else had looked at me with the (perhaps appropriately) incredulous look of "it's just a t-shirt, calm down," but Grandma I didn't think it was silly, she understood completely. Now, even today, if someone were to order an elaborate cake from me with only twelve hours notice I might laugh in their face, but not her. She simply smiled, offered no complaint, and asked me what flavor of cake I wanted. "Chocolate. Definitely chocolate." "Then chocolate it is!"
The next morning we came to collect the cake. Not only had she made a perfect yellow school bus with the words "Lincoln Summer Theatre" piped on the side of it, the faces of excited little children hanging out of the windows, but she had taken a box, covered it inside and out with decorative contact paper, and affixed a large corresponding silk ribbon around it, with a large, perfect bow on top. The box still opened, but it looked like a giant, beautifully wrapped present. Later, at the auction, there was not a single homemade dessert to be found, as everyone else had just brought in grocery store cakes and pies, and the bidding for their wares had climbed all the way up to $13. I was up (I was asked to auction my cake off myself...which should have told me something about its quality) I nervously stood before the large crowd holding the box, just hoping, praying that there would be someone out there willing to pay a whopping $14 for the cake. I, sheepishly, explained that the cake was homemade, and opened the lid to show them. People gasped, they literally gasped. The cake didn't sell for $14 that day. It sold for $65. And I got my silly little t-shirt. Grandma I simply regarded it as a promise fulfilled.
I had the privilege of caring for her for two years before she finally moved into a nursing home, so not only was I around to hear all of her stories, but I was able to return to her some of the same loving care and support that she had given to all of us for so many years.
I love you Grandma. You will be missed.