Sunday, September 13, 2015

Loss and love: Grandparent's Day

Let me preface this by saying: I lost 3/4s of my grandparents at a very early age. I hardly knew the lot of them.

My maternal grandmother Adelina, whom I named after, suffered a stroke before I was born and never really came back from it. I spent a majority of my younger years visiting her in a nursing home, wishing she could respond to me. My two older cousins had wonderful memories of her, taking them for walks, allowing them to indulge on chocolate cake for breakfast, and much more. My memories revolved around her in a bed, trying to speak but words were lost behind cry-like sounds.

They had memories of sharing hugs with grandma Zgainer, but I did not - nor would I ever. She passed away in 1999.

My maternal grandfather Edward, terrified me. When I was really little my mom took me to the nursing home to visit him, and my only memory of our relationship was him shaming her for taking me to a place full of sick people. He passed away in 1995.

Dr. James A. Stewart, Jr.,  my paternal grandfather, was an inspiration to many. I only wish I could have known him the way many did.  In 1974, he was the recipient of the Fred C. Klutz Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Health. He was a 2002 Honoree for the Spirit of King Award, which was established by the Kingsley Association, the Pittsburgh Pirates & the Port Authority. He founded the Alma Illery Neighborhood Health Center, which became the first in a series of community-based clinics of its kind.

We lost Dr. Stewart very early on. I didn't know him beyond his accomplishments.

My paternal grandmother Ethel, was the closest relationship I had with a grandparent. To this day, she is one of the most influential people in my life. She stuck around for a long time, and I spent many days and nights at her house as I was growing up. Some of my fondest memories were sitting beside her in her king sized bed eating candies and Trefoils (her favorite Girl Scout cookie). I enjoyed sitting in her little red car with her as we went to visit old friends, other family members or go to the grocery store. She would make me sandwiches for lunch but would always forget that I didn't like Miracle Whip or bologna, but I suffered through those Miracle Whip and bologna sandwiches without batting an eyelash because my grandma made them for me. She was a brilliant pianist and I found myself picturing her playing in Carnegie Hall or the organ at an old church, instead of watching where her fingers hit so I could mimic her playing. In her younger years, she was an English teacher. One of the best.

Despite my years of schooling, I would never have a better teacher than her.

Watching Ethel suffer from Alzheimer's disease was like watching an ancient artifact crumble to the ground. It didn't happen over night. One minute she was fine and the next, we were driving through the streets of Pittsburgh trying to find the street she had lived on for over 60 years. It only got worse. One day I was looking at photos in her room and came across one of myself when I was five years old. She walked up to me and said, "That's my granddaughter Adele. She's five." I was 16 at the time and could feel my heart shatter. She had no idea who I was, the teenager standing directly beside her in her bedroom. I would never be older than that five year old in the photo to her.

When my father, her son James Stewart III passed away in 2007, she asked me if I knew Jimmy. However, she sat next to me at the funeral and held my hand through the entire ceremony. A little piece of her still recognized and understood that we shared a connection with him, with each other.

I lost the only grandparent I have ever known a few days before my high school graduation. It was a great loss to me, but I knew I had lost her long before that.

Although I never knew Adelina, Ed or Dr. Stewart the way others have known their grandparents, I'm grateful to know they brought my amazing parents into the world.

I know have received gifts from all four of them:

1. Adelina's humor and ability to take over the kitchen.
2. Ed's stubbornness but hardworking attitude and devotion.
3. Dr. Stewart's passion for success and for others.
4. Ethel's creativity, brains and leadership skills.

My grandparents have given me all of these gifts and more, and although they are not physically here, I am aware of how much love they continue to give me. I wouldn't be half the person I am today without them.

Happy Grandparent's Day to my four inspiring grandparents and to yours, too!

My cousins John and Edward, Grandma Zgainer and myself

My Grandfather Zgainer, my cousin John and baby me

Grandpa Stewart and I

Ethel always made sure to keep me classy.

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