For my entire life, my grandmother lived in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. When we visited her, we would go to a bar on Hudson Beach. It wasn’t fancy bar or a fancy beach. We would sit out on the big wooden deck and eat nachos and as grownups, drink margaritas in plastic cups. At sunset, they would celebrate by ringing a bell. The sun would glow, pink and red and disappear into the water, leaving a deep blue sky and the sound of waves. When I was nine or ten, I went swimming on the beach on Thanksgiving Day with my little sisters. Local folks thought it was too cold and laughed at us. Last Christmas, the last time I saw my grandmother, we took a break from visiting her in hospice to go to the beach. We had a drink at the bar, celebrated the ringing of the bell, and the darkness covered our drawn and worried faces. On the way to the car, my son and I decided to wade out into the gulf in our jeans and let the warm water wash over our legs. For a moment, time wasn’t linear, and all of the times I had been to that beach with my grandmother and the people I loved were there and I could laugh as my pants got even more drenched.
My grandmother was perhaps the single greatest influence on my life. She was an adventurer and the life of the party. She was always up for exploring the world. She grew up in a small farming town in Ohio and her dad wouldn’t help her pay for college because “women just get married.” But she believed there was a much bigger world out there to explore. She traveled internationally with my grandfather. When he passed away and she was in her 70’s, she took a camel caravan across the desert with her friends. Up until the year she died, she lived an incredibly busy life. She was insatiably curious about the world around her and met every situation and every person with a genuine desire to know more about them. For this reason, she had many friends. In her nineties, she took classes on things like how to decorate her home or how to use the internet. She discovered she loved Wii bowling and would drag her friends into an arcade to play. She volunteered “taking care of the old people” as she called it. I think most of the “old people” were chronologically younger than her.
Still, with everything she did, she always had time for her granddaughters. Even in the hospice, she tried to push herself to regain strength and walk so that she could dance at my sister’s wedding. We told her to rest, that it was ok, but she wasn’t much for taking it easy. I called her all of the time and we would talk and talk and talk. Even though she wasn’t allowed to go to college, she made sure her two sons went to school, that they understood the importance of education, and she taught my father to raise his girls to believe anything was possible for them. She ended up with two granddaughters with PhDs and one with a Master’s degree. She read my dissertation all the way through and asked me questions. Whenever I called, she always ended our conversation by saying “Call anytime Jenny, I love to hear from you.” And that’s what she said the last time we spoke, before she passed away. Even now, when it has been nine months since her death, my first impulse when anything interesting, exciting, weird, funny, or sad happens is to call her.
We will probably never go back to Hudson beach, a small beach in a nondescript area of Florida. We will probably never go back to that beach bar and watch the beautiful sunset, marked by the ringing of the bell. So I’m glad I thought to take some sand, the last time we were there, and then to find a way to keep that with me every day. For this Christmas, my parents and I gave each of my sisters a piece of jewelry. We gave my little sister Lindsay a Dune Jewelry necklace with sand from Grandma’s beach, and my other sister Laurie a bracelet with sand from Hudson and from Captiva Island where her wedding was this summer.Grandma couldn’t make it to her wedding, but the two sands bring those two memories together.
Better still, I had to send that sand to Dedham, MA. I didn’t know I would be sending the sand to Dedham when I ordered my necklace, but Dedham is where my other grandmother, my Nana, lived for decades. It is a town I knew very well, where I spent the Christmases and summers I wasn’t visiting my grandmother in Florida. My Nana was very into history and genealogy and had been very active with the Daughters of the American Revolution. With all of my summers going to the library at the Endicott Estate, Plymouth Plantation, Sturbridge Village, and walking the Freedom Trail, the history of that area made a major impression on me, and I wrote my PhD dissertation about women in the Boston area and their experiences of the Revolutionary War. I did research in the Dedham archives. It made me smile when I saw the envelope. So in a way, my sand necklace actually ended up being a remembrance of both of my grandmothers, and the ways they shaped who I am and to whom I owe a great deal.
This is my story of my grandmother and the time I spent with her on the Florida gulf. Because of who she was as a person, everyone who knew her had their own stories filled with her love, her insightful thoughts, and her mischievous glee. My grandmother’s death has been very hard on my family and on my sisters and myself. More than anything, I would love to be sitting on the dock of that beach bar right now, drinking a margarita with my Grandma, watching the big red sun sink down over Hudson Beach. But since I can’t do that anymore, it is awfully nice to have a bit of that beach with me, hanging around my neck.