I drove south on I-75 knowing that my grandmother had looked at this stretch of interstate dozens of times. She and my grandfather drove to Upper Michigan to visit us, they came to my high school graduation in Maryland, and Grandma was one of the first people to hold my daughter after she was born in Gainesville, Florida.
Grandma had 20-something grandchildren and my brothers and I were the only ones not growing up in Florida. That never stopped her and my grandfather from including us in everything the family did. Despite the hard times, Grandma sent us birthday cards and Christmas presents. I remember I even received a postcard in the mail from "Santa Claus" the summer she and Grandpa drove to Alaska and visited the town of North Pole. The cookies she made during the holidays were divided up amongst all her kids and their families. Even her pastor got cookies at Christmas. Grandma made sure our family received the same cookies - even if she had to mail them to us. They drove from South Florida to be at my high school graduation in Maryland only to turn around the very next day to attend another grandchild's school event back home in Fort Myers.
Grandma made us a special kids room in her house in Suring, Wisconsin. She washed out lots of Mason jars and sent me into the field across the country dirt road, certain that I would come back with an armload of wildflowers and jars filled with butterflies I'd caught. Grandma even canned pickles especially for me - Grandpa and I would sit out on the front porch and go through a jar or two every night. She always made sure that her freezer was full of ice cream sandwiches and popsicles and that our first Christmas back in the United States was more than we could ever ask for.
I introduced all of my friends to my grandparents when I had the chance. Nikki from Milwaukee even had her first taste of potato soup at my grandparent's house in Old Town, Florida. Years after meeting her, Grandma would still ask me how my friend Jessie was doing with her two boys. Grandma never forgot a friend and managed to keep up with everyone, whether they were born into the family or "adopted" in.
She is the only one I ever allowed to call my daughter Bella. She is also the only one I could ever sit at the table with at 4 o'clock in the morning and play Boggle. Grandma was a night owl like me. She always beat me at Scrabble. And she was awesome at crossword puzzles.
My grandmother, Alta Beaber, died on October 26th, 2008. I drove down to Fort Myers on October 28th. I hadn't yet cried, at least not too hard. A few stifled wails in the shower was about all I had let out of me, but I had to keep it together for my daughter and for my mother. Looking around on I-75, I couldn't help but think about all the times my grandmother saw the same cluster of trees in Port Charlotte, or the same billboard in Venice, or stopped at the same convenience store off the North Port exit.
And yet, this was my first time.
All those years, Grandma suffered through Grandpa's driving (it's terrifying!) just to get to us. To get to her grandkids. To see us and hug us and shower us with the attention that only grandmas know how to give! All those hours on the road, all those miles just to get to us.
I had visited my grandparents many times before, when I was a kid. But as an adult, I hadn't once taken the time out of my schedule to go to them. Six hours were all the separated us. Six hours. But it doesn't take that long to lose someone. Grandma was gone after one last breath, in her sleep, next to my grandfather.
I said goodbye to my grandmother this week. I finally lost control of my emotions during the funeral services after seeing my grandfather fighting so hard to keep control of his. He wasn't successful, either. My future sister-in-law held my one hand while my seven year-old daughter held the other. And I cried. I hugged aunts and uncles I hadn't seen in twelve years. My daughter shook hands with her great-grandmother's two brothers, Stony and Rocky, who drove all the way from Texas. My mother cried with her cousins from Wisconsin.
And my grandmother looked down on us from above and smiled at sight of us all together again.