Gone and Not Forgot

Ever have those moments in life, when something so devastating happens and then everyone seems to in unison ask, “How are you doing” or “Are you okay”?

Okay, you’re right… it was a rhetorical question because everyone knows that is by far the most and worst commonly asked question you can ask and further, is impossible to answer.

If you’re like most people, you grit your teeth, do a half-cracked smile out one side of your face, and as you pretend to be okay, somehow find a way to spit out, “I’m fine”. Truth is, being okay is the farthest thing from your reality.

In late 2019, life as we all knew it was about to change. The sad thing is that we never knew that the jolliest time of the year, Christmas, would be the start of the downfall of what many of us saw as a normal life that was coasting along, one day at a time.

While it seemed like an eternity, it was really only a few short months of watching one of the most precious women I’ve ever known slip into the abyss of eternity. It was mid-January when I got the call that it was time to come see my mamaw while I still had an opportunity on this side of the Golden Stairway.

I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do, so without hesitation, I drove “home”. While I did not get to spend much time with her in this visit, I captured one of the most precious moments, that I will always cherish, and will forever have etched in my mind. Upon leaving, I temporarily came up with a plan to return in a few short weeks, and so I did.

Back to West Virginia, I went with my husband and two kids in tow, on a mission to be there for my grandmother. I wanted her to know that I cared. I cared enough to press pause on my life and show her that nothing else mattered more than her in these moments.

During this visit, I learned that she had essentially stopped eating. Her body was beyond tired and malnourished. I spoke to the hospice nurse who had long since been brought in, who informed me that she wouldn’t eat for anyone and she was concerned that she had not had a bowel movement in days. If you knew me, you’d know there is no mission I’d not accept, especially if I thought I had a chance. I picked up the spoon and a small cup of pudding and commenced to talk to my grandmother as if she could cling on every word I said.

Mamaw, can you hear me?

Mamaw, it’s Nancy Marie.

Mamaw, I hear you’re being a bit difficult. You know you need to eat.

All I knew to do was talk to her in hopes that something would get through. If not the words, certainly she would find comfort in my voice.

Mamaw, can you eat? Can you eat for me?

I know this is hard, and I know you are tired.

Mamaw, if you cannot eat for me, then do this….

Mamaw, will you do it for yourself?

There are so many things that I think about from my childhood that are centric to the time I spent with my grandmother, and while there are many that stand out, there are two things I gravitated to, and just could not get enough of.

Maidenform factory line of women at sewing machines

In the prime of my grandmother’s life, she developed a passion and skill for the craft of sewing. At one point in time, she was employed by the very well-known women’s undergarment brand, Maidenform, where she built a lasting career and stayed until retirement. This stood out to me, not because I remembered the years she worked, but because she carried her passion with her all the time.

When I consider what it takes to find a career that you are in love with and truly enjoy, the person that immediately comes to mind is my grandmother. You see, even when she wasn’t working, she sewed. She used to tell me, “I’m going to do some stitching” and then disappear into her small back bedroom where she had an old Singer that folded up and collapsed underneath so that while not in use, you can close the top and have a usable surface.

My skill will likely never stack up to that of my grandmothers when it comes to stitching, and while I don’t aim to be a master seamstress, I learned through watching her that I should remain focused on my own strengths and demonstrating passion and commitment in whatever it is that I was called to do.

It’s okay Mamaw, I’m here.

At a complete loss and feeling of hopelessness, and not even sure if she knew I was there, I asked God what I was expected to do at that moment. Not really knowing what I was supposed to do, or if just being there was enough, I felt lost.

What happened next left me to this day in disbelief.

I have some absolutely amazing memories with my grandmother, from of course learning how to sew under her guidance, to making cherry tarts together, clipping the famous flowers that lined the side of her house, to snuggling up with her on the sofa to look through old photo albums as she named the individuals and shared stories throughout, to my personal favorite of listening to her speak to Jesus as a part of her evening ritual.

Despite these heartwarming moments in our history together, my final memory on this side of eternity left me with one of the most profound experiences that at times, still leaves me breathless.

Mamaw, it’s Nancy Marie, I am here. I don’t want to, but I need to leave, and I’m having a hard time. I’d feel much better if you could just take a single bite of food for me so that I know you are okay.

With a heart full of emotion and tears streaming down my face, I knew the time with our family matriarch, and most amazing woman in my life was soon going to come to an end. I called for the children to come into the room and begin their goodbyes as we had a long trip ahead of us to return home.

Saying goodbye to Mamaw was always hard.

I remember when I was just a child, after staying the night, and getting ready to leave, she would always ask, “Won’t you just stay with mamaw one more night?” When I hit college and had to return to Morgantown, while knowing I had to go back to school, she would still stop me at the door after a long set of hugs and goodbyes and ask, “Won’t you stay just a little longer, let mamaw make you some lunch?”

The hardest was after I got married and moved off with my husband, as I knew in my heart visits would become a bit more sparse. Then to compound the difficult goodbyes, when we introduced great-grandchildren, my heart would ache each time she kissed them and begged for us to stay just a bit longer.

Both the kids and my husband came into the room. It was such a somber moment for all of us, but when I reached over and gently grasped my mamaw’s hand, and the children pulled in closer so they could be near her, kiss her a final time, and say their goodbyes. At first, I thought I was imagining it, but then realized that Mamaw’s eyes were fluttering.

Could it be?

Was there actually a chance she would wake up?

While only for a few brief moments, her paper-thin eyelids raised as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her brow to release them. Her eyes were as gray as an afternoon sky billowing with storm clouds, and while her face made no expression, you could see joy as she released a tear while looking at all of us.

While it was brief, it was the moment I had prayed would come.

When she again closed her eyes, my husband and kids left the room so that I could say my goodbye, but anyone who knows me well, won’t be surprised at what follows.

I used to think my mamaw’s mission was to turn us all into butterballs. She was in her happy place when she got to prepare, cook, and serve food – all of the time! One of her favorite things to make was cherry tarts; I can still taste them today! My husband actually took to these cherry tarts pretty quickly, and my mamaw sure noticed! One time we went to visit and she offered him one, then when we got to leave she offered him to take one for the road, and ended up putting a whole plate of them together for him to take home!

Mamaw was never one to give up, and she was so pushy at times, you would just give in after the tenth time she offered to make you lunch so you’d just stay and eat, despite the fact you were going to be eating dinner just two hours later.

I won’t say I am stubborn, but I will admit to my lack of desire to ever give up. This moment was no different for me, minus one exception, I had help. I had divine help.

It is hard to explain, but I had this weird feeling come over me as I almost felt a gentle push in my back. I grabbed her hand which I had released moments before, and again felt as if someone nudged my shoulder. I turned around to see no one behind me.

Mamaw, I’m going to give you a bite to eat. I need you to eat it, and after you do, I’ll get my hug, and then get out of your hair.

I turned to grab a small cup of soft food with a spoon, took a tiny scoop, and raised it to her mouth. She slightly moved her lips, and I snagged the only chance I felt I had and snuck the spoon into her mouth at the right time! Her facial expression changed, and she moved her lips again as if waiting for another bite. There it was, one bite after another, I saw a miracle, and before I knew it she had eaten about 4 tablespoons of food, which I learned afterward was the first food she had eaten in a few days.

I stood up, while holding her hand, leaned over, and snuck some cheek sugar sugar, as she would call it.

Mamaw, I love you so much! You did so wonderful; I won’t ask of anything else of you.

The kids as toddlers used to run away from Mamaw in a playful manner hoping she would chase them, and she no doubt did! I can hear her now, “Come here little raskal, mamaw’s going to get her cheek sugars”! I refer to the kids here, but I’m not going to lie, even as an adult, when she would follow me to the door and say, “Give mamaw some cheek sugars” I’d turn to a puddle of mush and lean over with my cheek pointed in her direction.

Know that I love you mamaw, and that while we will all miss you, it’s okay for you to take your rest.

For the last time, I held her hand, kissed her goodbye, etched her face in my memory, and walked out the door knowing it would be the last chance I’d ever get to tell her goodbye.

“Go at your own pace” she would say, as she showed me how to apply pressure to the pedal and then release. I sat down, and the quick takeoff of the needle down the fabric at the young age of 8 got me so excited, I remember one time pushing it to the floor, the needle zoomed so fast across the fabric, that I started getting scared, and in a panic, forgot to remove my foot from the pedal, and attempted to simply pull the fabric away. In doing so, I nearly took a needle through the finger! My mamaw who had been around the corner, heard the commotion and ran quickly to my rescue!

I’ll never forget how she gently put her left hand on my knee, her right hand on my back, and quietly whispered, “Shhhhhh, it’s okay, do not be afraid”.

All of a sudden, I quit crying, took my foot off the pedal, and simply looked at my mamaw with tears billowing in my eyes.

At that moment, she knew all the right things to say. Mamaw looked at me, then looked a the bunched-up fabric and said, “Well, isn’t that something, it looks like you’ve invented a new stitch”! She always had an amazing sense of humor but at that age, I’m not sure it stuck right away, but what did, is what she said, when she straightened out the fabric and released it from the machine.

There is nothing to ever worry about, because mistakes happen, and as long as we learn what made your stiches crooked, we can always fix it when you try again; everything is fixable.

Hazel Marie Duncan

This was the first time, I had been introduced to the magic of a seam ripper, and wow, what a lifesaver that tool has been to me for the more than four decades that I’ve been sewing. It is pretty funny how much that memory impacted me, as without fail, I flashback to that moment when she told me I could fix it when I try again, and in some ways, even when it is a mistake unrelated to sewing, I am reminded that I can always try again.

I got a few steps outside her bedroom doorway, I paused for a moment and thought I’d return to the room, but when I looked back, a peace flooded over me when I saw her old singer sewing machine closed up and stored away.

Maybe it will sound silly to some, but I felt a sense of calmness in knowing that while she may have made her last stitch on that machine, she was a long way from truly making her final stitches.

Forgive me for being nostalgic here, but this was one of the most important moments of my life. I’ve lost a lot of people in my lifetime, that meant a great deal to me, but nothing quite like my grandmother. My grandmother gifted me immeasurable knowledge, and while she layered in some awesome sewing and baking tips along the way, the lessons she imparted to me were most valuable on the softer side of life. My mamaw was the woman who taught me what true compassion looks like, what being a good Christian woman looks like, and also the one who taught me what being a good wife and mother is and should be.

My grandmother was truly an inspiration to me, as I know she was for many, but the way she has touched my life not only helped me become the woman I am today but inspired me towards the woman I want to be.

Each time one of my kids gets sick and needs a dose of medicine, I am the first one to grab a spoon and fly over to them joyfully saying, “Down the hatch”!

When I screw up (trust me there is plenty of this), or when one of the children makes a mistake I find myself saying to me and to them that it’s okay, because we will learn from it, and can work to mend the repair.

When I walk by a picture in the house and just start talking to the kids about a memory I have about where the picture was taken or who was in it just to share a story.

When my kids ask me to snuggle and I cuddle up at night to tuck them in and say, “Right after you give me some cheek sugar”.

When I’ve had a difficult time, no matter the topic, I remind myself that it’s completely fine to fall to my knees and just talk to the Lord.

I’ve heard many people over the years say their matriarch is the glue that bonded the family or the cornerstone that propped everyone up, but to me, my grandmother was the thread woven throughout each of our lives that was stitched together through years of experiences, stories (including some pretty tall tales), and memories, bound together with an immeasurable amount of love.

If you’ve read to this point, I am grateful, but I’d be more grateful if you take the time to reflect on who in your life has left such a mark. Who is it that has touched you to the core to the point that they influence your current behaviors, thoughts, and actions? Who is it that has inspired you to be a better person, and who is it that you think of when you envision who you want to be?

Now, ask yourself, “Do I make them proud?”

Losing a loved one is always hard, no matter how much you feel like you’ve mentally prepared yourself, there will always be gaps and things you did not consider, but I’d encourage you to reflect, make time for those moments that help you remember the marks made on your life by that special someone, and allow yourself to feel peace. Often, you will find peace without much effort if you just turn and simply look for your closed-up singer sewing machine moment.

Credit where it’s due:

Guide to the maidenform collection, 1922-1997 – smithsonian institution. (n.d.). https://sirismm.si.edu/EADpdfs/NMAH.AC.0585.pdf

Titchmarsh, Alan. “Alan Titchmarsh: How the Dahlia Shrugged off Its “Too Common to Plant” Tag — and Thank Goodness It Did.” Country Life, 1 Nov. 2020, http://www.countrylife.co.uk/gardens/gardening-tips/alan-titchmarsh-how-the-dahlia-shrugged-off-its-too-common-to-plant-tag-and-thank-goodness-it-did-219648.

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