My grandmother, Joan Hildegarde (Hecht) Sober, passed away peacefully last night at 8:34 p.m. at a Hospice facility in Arizona. She had three of her six children with her, and two daughters-in-law. By all accounts, it sounds like she had a good exit; dignified, quiet, without pain or lots of chaotic (and fruitless) medical intervention. She had a good, long life and would have been 90 in December.
My brother and I were lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time with both of our grandmothers growing up, and, though our visits got more infrequent once Josh and I moved away from Michigan, and Grandma moved to Arizona, we front-loaded our time together pretty well. Today, as she’s so heavily on my mind and the memories are coming fast and furious, I wanted to document some of them, in no particular order. Partly so you could get some idea of who she was, and partly to help me memorialize this strong, funny lady who loved us so much.
Grandma lived in the same three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment at Knob Hill in Okemos, MI, for as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure she was there for 40 or more years, just paying rent, month over month. I don’t know if she ever thought about buying a home. Maybe it seemed overwhelming, and then the inertia of time took over. I don’t know what she paid, but I think she was grandfathered(mothered?) in to probably an insanely good lease for the space. The apartment had gold carpeting that crinkled under your feet. It also carried a lingering and constant scent of gravy.
Whenever we came to visit her, we had a standard ritual. We’d knock on her door with “shave and a haircut,” and then run and hide down the hall until she opened the door.
Grandma loved visiting Sanibel Island and gathering seashells. Her apartment was dotted liberally with shells in baskets, in frames, sitting in the bathroom. I think she even had a shell mobile. I remember going through her shells with her — she’d tell me the names of each of them. I think there was one called a Turkey Wing.
She had six children, and cross-stitched a beautiful detailed birth sampler for each of them. They hung on the walls around her apartment.
Grandma worked for many years at Mason-Abbot residence hall at Michigan State University. All the kids knew her and loved her. When we’d go have meals with her at Mason-Abbot in the cafeteria, it was obvious we were sharing her with a hall full of kids who also needed a little Grandma in their life while they were far from home, and that was okay with us. They called her Joan and gave her lots of hugs.
She had this thing for orange cats. She adored our cat, Andy, and would catsit for him when we’d go out of town. She made a photo album of pictures of him, and included a poem that compared his purr to a diesel motor. Later on, she got her own orange cat, Bucky, a huge, long-haired furry boy who would drape himself languorously on one of these two awesome gold armchairs Grandma had. I wish I had those chairs now — they were fantastically shaped, kind of dramatic. They would have made a fun reupholstering project.
After Bucky died, Grandma got a big orange cat stuffed animal. I think she named him Bucky, too. He was laying on her lap in the last picture my Dad sent of her, resting comfortably in her Hospice room.
I can’t count the number of afternoons we spent at the apartment complex pool. I remember the pool seemed so huge, but it’d probably look tiny now. Grandma had these two float rings that were covered in some sort of woven fabric or fiber. I think one was pink and one was green. Josh and I would each claim one and spend hours in the pool while Grandma sunned herself on the pool deck.
She was a smoker, and then she wasn’t, and then she was again, but in secret. I don’t have lots of memories of her smoking around us, but she probably did.
Grandma was married twice; first to a man named (or nicknamed?) Guy, with whom she had one son, also named Guy, and then to my grandfather, Erwin. She had five more children with Erwin, but the two of them weren’t a good match, and divorced. Guy, on the other hand, was a lost love. He died in an accident and, if I recall correctly, never got to meet his child. It was pretty obvious she never quite got over him. One of the more poignant moments Josh and I spent with Grandma was sitting at the dining room in her apartment, listening to a CD of an old reel audiotape or record of Grandma and Guy singing together at a piano. She had this faraway look in her eyes and a little smile at the corners of her mouth. There was such a sweetness there, it brought tears to my eyes. Even though Josh and I wouldn’t be here if Guy hadn’t passed away, I think we both left feeling kind of bowled over by the love we heard coming through that old audio recording, and felt sad for Grandma. She went through some stuff in her life, that’s for sure.
She had a fantastic collection of Desert Rose china, which we used at every meal. She would light taper candles, and we’d eat and talk until they started dripping wax on the table. While I remember occasional meals of pizza eaten on the couch in front of her small TV, more often dinner was an event, to be done at the table with no distractions. I have quite a bit of Desert Rose from my maternal great-grandmother and, if any of Grandma’s goes unclaimed, I’d love to add a piece or two of hers to my collection.
As she got older, she loved dinners from Boston Market. I mean, it was like you’d presented her with a gourmet meal. She would positively gush over how good it was. Same thing with poinsettias. If you brought her a poinsettia, she’d act like you’d brought her a rare orchid, and would tend that plant as long as she could after Christmas was long gone.
She had an upright piano in her living room that was perpetually out of tune and had bits of ivory chipped off the ends of several keys. She would play it like it was a perfectly tuned concert grand, though. Mostly Rachmaninoff. She loved Rachmaninoff. She’d sing along, “Da, da-da-da-da.”
She is the original source of the beloved Christmas morning tradition of crisscrossed streamers on children’s bedroom doors, and a trail of nuts and oranges out to the tree. I can’t wait to do this with The Colonel. It’s positively magical.
When Josh and I would stay over at Grandma’s apartment, she would put me in her bed, and Josh in the other back bedroom, and she would sleep on the small twin bed in the crowded third bedroom (which was more of a storage room), or out on the couch. When we visited, we were her royalty.
There was a serving cart in her dining room that was full of beautiful teacups and saucers. I don’t recall her ever using them; I think they were just for show. But I also don’t remember ever seeing that they were dusty.
She wrote poetry. She had a wicked sense of humor. She occasionally had a dirty mouth.
A favorite story was from one Thanksgiving, when Grandma had just finished baking a pumpkin pie and had set it on the table to cool. Josh and I were over, and Josh was bouncing this big rubber ball around her house. He said, “Grandma, look!,” bounced the ball in front of her, lost control of it, and it bounced up and landed in the freshly-baked pie, splattering it around everywhere. I don’t remember how she reacted at the time, but she got the biggest kick out of it after the fact. She even drew a sketch of the whole event, which she shared with friends.
As she got older, she somehow turned into a stereotypical worried old Jewish bubbe…except we’re not Jewish. Travel was hazardous, and it devastated her when we would get on a plane or have to drive more than 15 minutes anywhere. She would repeatedly ask me, “Now, how far apart are you and Joshua?” Josh lives in Milwaukee. I’m in Madison. I’d tell her, “It’s about an hour, Grandma, not far.” And she would get a pained look on her face and say, “Oh, I wish you could be closer. Why does everyone have to live so far apart?” One of her great dreams was that my brother and I would decide to move to Arizona to help my Dad and stepmom run their payroll business.
She was a huge Frank Sinatra fan. I mean, HUGE. Literally multiple copies of each of his CDs. Fell asleep to his crooning every night. She’d have you listen to Frank with her, and she’d just be enraptured, even though it was the billionth time she’d heard that particular version of that particular song. She’d look at you and shake her head and say, “Oh my God. Isn’t he just amazing? Can you believe how wonderful?” She had the vanity plate in Michigan for “SINATRA.” I’m pretty sure somebody kept it. If there’s any justice, Frankie was one of the people there to greet her when she passed. “Hey doll, I’ve been waiting a long time for you. Come and give me a kiss.”
I love you, Grandma. Enjoy your peace. I will miss you.