A word of explanation for visitors and non-relations: a few years ago, I had the honor and privilege of saying the last goodbye to our family matriarch. This is what happened that day.
The Last Drive
The trees are green, the water soft…
Someone once wrote, “Saying goodbye doesn’t mean anything. It’s the time we spent together that matters, not how we left it.” There’s truth to that idea of living in the Now because, for good or bad, all things do come to an end. Partners split, colleagues retire, shipmates find new oceans, and loved ones die. It is the latter that is on my mind this hot August morning, because my grandmother and I are taking our last drive together.
The pines reach for heaven, stopping short of the clouds…
Grama died on a Thursday in an old folks home in the Bay Area and was cremated a few days later. My aunt from Berkeley brought her back to Nevada and I assumed the duty of finding her final resting place. There was much to consider. Her husband, Grampa, was also cremated when he died in 1988, but in keeping with Grama’s philosophy of living in the here and now, she left the responsibility of final disposition with the funeral home. We do not know, nor will we ever know, where Grampa is. For Grama, it would be different.
There are folks who probably think I beatify my grandmother and I admit there’s probably more than a little truth there. I found it easy to like her. Grama was the original California girl, born and raised in the Golden State, and a member of the Greatest Generation. She made a home, family and career in Reno since the 1940s and was good to Nevada: she was well known and respected throughout the Biggest Little City; she helped find jobs for thousands as a master career counselor for the Employment Office; she used Reno her base of operations as she traveled all points of the compass.
So what to do with Grama? Where could I leave this earthly reminder of her? A hill overlooking her city? Under a bush near where she and her husband had taught eager minds for so many decades? Maybe in the park where she walked so often, valuing every sunrise as a gift?
At my insistence, I drive, but that’s nothing new because whenever we went someplace together, I always drove. Grama was the ultimate tourist and I figure she never got to see everything she wanted to see. Driving took her attention from what was important to her: seeing life lived by others in their worlds. It’s that talent that gave her the empathy to help so many people. So today, I take her on the short tour of her life. It’ll give her something to look at.
The river chuckles as it flows over rocks and branches, gently lapping the banks…
We zoom through Washoe Valley, going north, with Bowers Mansion off to the left. Many times she gathered her family there, trying to smooth the bonds between my mother (her daughter) and me, always hoping we would find a middle ground, yet never finding it. Approaching Reno, we go straight up old 395 and turn onto Foothill Road, passing the ranches and houses that used to be the homes of her cherished, departed friends. We crest the last hill, make a couple of turns, and we pass Classic Residence where Grama spent her last independent years. In my mind, I see snapshots of my daughters playing with her keepsakes from Asia and Africa. Another right turn and we’re on the west shore of Virginia Lake, where the people are pretty and the geese are well-fed.
We pass Grama’s favorite Union 76 at Lakeside and Plumb, and I can hear her in my imagination proudly claiming they were the fairest car mechanics in town. Up Plumb, down Arlington, over to California, and down Keystone, another turn, and we pass the McKinley Center for Arts and Culture. Except that forty to fifty years ago, it was McKinley Elementary School, the workplace of a third grade teacher known as Mrs. Hume to her students. She taught there for a couple of years, but left after an unfortunate disillusionment at the hands of a parent of one of her students.
Across the bridge and river from McKinley are the Booth Street Apartments, where Grama and Grampa lived after they sold their house and one of the last places they spent real time together. Grampa was afflicted by old age diseases and he was losing his grasp on current events. I visited them during this time, which was the last time I saw him, and even though I’m his namesake, there were times during this visit he didn’t know who I was. This was a Stanford graduate who taught at Ivy League schools and was licensed to practice law in Nevada and California. The injustice of his infliction still burns me to my soul. I rest my hand unconsciously on Grama because I know she needs the support as we drive past the apartments. I need her support, too.
The railways on the other side shine in the sun and wait stoically to do their duty…
We stop at Idlewild Park and marvel together at how much is lost. The two-story orange rocket and spaceship/submarine/whatever-we-wanted are gone, and the horses with springs for legs are in the Corral in the Sky. The steel and chains that were my favorite toys have been replaced by plastic. Garish, ugly plastic. All of the corners are soft, the sand is finely groomed and padded, and every place a child could run is tightly controlled like the pens where owboys herd cattle through. There are no risks to be taken here. No imaginations will dare to run rampant and no scabs will be created in this sterile place. What a waste of a perfectly good playground.
Back in the truck and we’re off to the Gold and Silver, Grama’s favorite eating place. She is secure in my backpack as I purposely take the booth next to three officers from the Reno Police Department. The two of us are enjoying this flaunting of authority. Seriously, though, what can they do?
“Sir, what do you have in the backpack?”
“My grandmother, officer. I think she’s getting enough air.”
In reality, they depart without looking at me. As I sip my decaf and wait for my Belgium waffle and fried egg, I open the morning’s issue of the Reno Gazette-Journal. On the front page is the proof that everything that was once old can be new again: “UNR report indicates faculty morale trouble”
I glance at a booth across the room that we shared in this place many years ago. It was there I learned of how Grampa brought down a University of Nevada president in the 1950s. Grama proudly related that Grampa and some of his colleagues had been summarily fired by this jerk without due process, even though all held tenure. The “rebels” took the University to the Nevada Supreme Court (Grampa the lawyer) and won their case. The decision became a widely-followed precedent in higher education and that silly president was gone not too long afterwards.
Birds aloft sing like angels in anticipation…
The next stop is the University and the Frandsen Humanities Building, home to Grampa’s 40-year teaching career. It’s locked on a Saturday, but no matter. I let Grama out of the backpack near the window to her husband’s office, hoping that they are picking up on each other’s vibe, like two people do when they’ve been married for over half a century. We leave and go up Eleventh Street and onto Bon Rea Way for a last look at the old home. The neighborhood and the house are not even close to what they used to be and the changes made by the present owners don’t mesh with memories of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so many other good times like introducing my new bride and, later, our new daughter to my grandparents.
As we drive away, I realize that this is the last leg of our last trip. I could take her to other places: good friend Edith Holmes’ house up on Sierra, the Gorrell’s old homestead a block away, Park Lane Mall, the Indian colonies in Nixon, a couple more parks. But it is time to say goodbye. Down Eleventh to Washington to Gear, left on Keystone, across Seventh Street, onto Interstate 80, past Boomtown and Verdi, and heading towards and into California. We take the Fared exit and loop around so we’re going back to Nevada. Still in the Golden State, I pull over at a wide spot next to the road and park the truck. I pick Grama up, and as we open the door, we can hear the Truckee River.
The trees are green, the water soft…
This quiet, warm place will suit. It is California, where Grama was born, and the river here flows through Reno and Sparks, and washes by Idlewild Park and the Booth Street Apartments, and many other favorite places. The Truckee ends in Pyramid Lake, the enchanted Washoe body of water where the Humes spent many a summer day. Grama’s tiny atoms will be touching all of this, all at the same time.
I open the box and bring Grama out into the air. For all her love, memories, travels and experiences, the essence and last earthly remains of this woman who touched so many people is summed up in something that looks like two or three pounds of flour. I open the bag and let the Truckee welcome her as an old friend. My only thoughts at that moment is that from the Cosmos we are made and unto the Cosmos we return.
I say goodbye and walk away without sorrow.