On Life and Death: Mildred Ornellas

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Note: Ten years ago my little family and I were caught in a whirlwind (pun) of ‘life and death’. In the course of just a few short days, I learned that my wife was pregnant with our third child, visited my grandmother for the last time, flew to Houston just hours later for a wedding that occurred during Hurricane Ike and came home just in time for her funeral, then celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary two days later.

Below is a slightly edited and updated version of the eulogy I gave back then. I was 28 years-old at the time. I’ve tried to leave it in its original state as much as possible, focusing instead on making it readable, as opposed to notes for a presentation in front of an audience. Whether you knew grandma or not, it’s worth a read as so many eulogies and obituaries are, yet this one comes with extra… umph. – J.

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September 16, 2008

I don’t really know what I am supposed to say here; my experience with funerals is fortunately limited.

But, I was asked to give and I wanted to give some of my thoughts and memories concerning my my maternal grandmother. I had to prepare this on a whim last night at 3am (with mild jet-lag) so bear with me… I’m working on two hours of sleep, and the last many days, as you will see, have been… intense.

I have few childhood or teenage memories that don’t include my grandma. Indeed, I was very close to her. I feel lucky to have been able to really have two mothers in my life; blessed to be counted among her extended children.

These childhood memories do not go back far enough to remember any other home of hers than the trailer she lived in down by LaCamas Lake in Camas, WA—a very humble home; one that would act as my second for over 20 years. It was a home that I entered into too young to understand the social stigmas that come with the ownership of a ‘house’ that has wheels underneath it. It was in this home, with this woman, that so many of my memories were created. It was there and with her that much of who I am was formed.

Grandma loved to give. It must be where my mother gets it from. But, Grandma’s presents were very humble—she had very little, and lived on a meager income. I remember very little if any of the gifts she ever gave me. Yet, because of that, she was able to give something that is often hard for people with money and ties to material things to give: herself—her time, her attention, her love, her presence. She embodied the idea that it didn’t really matter what you gave, but that you gave yourself.

If I needed anything and my parents were not around, you could be certain that Grandma would come to the rescue! It could simply be that I had a few bucks and wanted to go to the 99 Cent Store or—for the old timers—Sprouse-Reitz or Benjamin Franklin in Washougal. She would take me. She rarely ever said no.

My brother and I spent a lot of time with her in that trailer park. Sometimes Mom and Dad would go out on dates… or maybe it was after school… or times when my parents were both working. When we walked in the door the first thing that she would say is, “Hi, baby”, or “helloooo…!” in a sort of hi-pitched voice that slowly waned at the end. You had to hear it!

Then she would immediately follow her greeting with, “There are Popsicles and ice cream in the freezer” or “food in the oven”.

Yes, she kept food in the oven: chips, cookies, etc. It would take many years for me to truly understand how unusual it is for somebody to keep food, aluminum foil, and other supplies in the oven. That was Grandma!

And I might add that this open-oven policy in her house was her’s, not the creation of her grandchildren.

Some in the extended family seemed shocked that Josh and I would just grab what we wanted and when we wanted it. I (fondly) remember my Aunt Linda once scolding my brother and I for just helping ourselves. Grandma didn’t have a lot of money and it was rude, after all, for children to just help themselves to whatever they wanted. But that is what Grandma wanted! To deny her the ability to extend to us this freedom would have been to deny her the gift of self. In fact, she would buy certain things for us, then call mom and tell her that she had “such and such”, just in case we wanted to come over. This was how she operated. This is how we operated. Some people just didn’t speak our “language”.

Grandma had the most bizarre diet and it is a wonder that she lived as long as she did, especially as a smoker. I remember her favorite foods being Popsicles, peanut butter, cheddar cheese, Lender’s Bagels, Pop-Tarts, Coca-Cola and Cream of Wheat, bologna—oh, and really cheap packaged junk food (Swiss Rolls, Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, Nutty Buddies and the like).

What is more unusual, however, is the manner in which she would combine these foods.

The classic example would be a chocolate Pop-Tart with peanut butter and cheddar cheese. An instant classic!

I know what you’re thinking. “She might have done that once or twice”. Nope. This was a staple at Mildred Ornellas’ four-wheeled home (maybe it had more than four wheels… I don’t know…).

To this day I can’t go through the grocery store, see one of those ingredients and not think of Grandma. [Note: this happened just the other day when I was at the grocery store–I didn’t buy the Pop-Tarts, but I stopped and grabbed the box and thought of her, though it has likely been 19 years since I last enjoyed this seemingly ill-advised combination…].

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Grandma and me at my high-school graduation from Camas High School in 1999.

She loved Coca-Cola so much that Josh and I gave it to her many times for her birthday or Christmas. I remember one year when I went all out and bought her four six packs of glass bottled Cokes—she loved Coke in a glass bottleand I poorly wrapped them all in a brown paper bag. It looked terrible. Of course, she appreciated my gift of “self”. Slippers were another regular, as were muumuus—her standard attire around the house. Slippers, muumuus, eye-glasses and hairspray-stiffened hair. That was Grandma!

She didn’t really cook; at least not in my memory.

But her favorite thing to make (and my favorite thing to eat) was Cream of Wheat with a toasted and buttered Lender’s Bagel. And it wasn’t just any ole’ “Cream of Wheat”. She manipulated the cream—it was “Grandmatizied”. I know the secret recipe and very few could convince me to give it to them.

We watched a lot of TV together. Among her favorites were the Golden Girls, Matlock, the Twlight Zone, The Jefferson’s, Murder She Wrote, Cheers, Different Strokes, Alf and Happy Days (etc., etc., etc…). She also loved game shows, such as Jeopardy, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Price is Right. This all explains how someone like myself, so completely detached from much of modernity, can so ironically understand pop-culture from the 80s and early 90s.

She loved comics, especially Archie, and for many years you could always find new copies in the bathroom—always. Along with bars of soap that were so damn old that they dried up and cracked. Oh, and this tiny fingernail brush in the form of a whale. Why do I remember these things?!

She was into word games like Scrabble and crossword puzzles.

She loved and hated her dog, Gorge. I think there are some in the family that shared this love/hate relationship. But she loved him more than she hated him. They had an interesting relationship; after all, they spent 24 hours a day together. I’m fairly certain they could read each other’s minds.

When I was really young I remember her being in a bowling league. It is sad that Riverside Bowl is now closed—an icon of “old Camas”, before it transitioned into a ritzy town. I spent so much time there!

My brother and I used to mow her lawn with her electronic lawn mower. I don’t know if you have ever tried mowing a lawn and watching out for a power cord at the same time, but it isn’t very much fun. This was an upgrade, mind you, from the basic old-fashioned, non-mechanical push-mower that she once owned. We stepped in a lot of Gorge’s gracious piles of ‘lawn-fertilizer’ while helping her out.

When I was really little she had an old clock that would flip numbers. Grandma and I used to love to watch the “time change” together. She often reminded me of how unusual I was—that I was entertained by the simple flip of a clock. Even if there wasn’t a clock flipping numbers in front of me, time spent with grandma was always a blessing. How did I become so complicated when I was once entertained by the change of time?!

I fondly recall Josh and I washing Grandma’s car once with mud. She never really got the stain off. Mind you, she encouraged this activity!

And speaking of mud, we would regularly take her hose, attach a straight spray wand on the end and turn it on full blast then stick it in the dirt to make “mud caves”. She didn’t mind a bit that her garden beds were a mess, especially considering that we also loved to clean off her patio and driveway with the same hose! So it all worked out in the end.

When we would stay the night at her house we would always expect to be woken up to her singing, “When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin along… there’ll be no more sobbing when he starts throbbin’ his own sweet song… Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head, get up, get up get out of bed… Live, love, laugh and be happy…” She had an interesting manner of singing…

One of my most precious memories is of laying my head in her lap and letting her stroke my hair. She did this from the time I was very small, all the way through my teen years. And every once in a while, even after I was done with college and was married with my own children, I would sit at her feet and have that same moment with her again—mind you, I was almost two feet taller than she was, yet we still have this connection. It was a silent thing. No words were needed. It was her loving me. Sometimes she would get tired, but I would grab her hand and put it back where it “belonged” as a mild joke. She loved that I did that—she would admit it if she was here with us right now.

Her loss of hearing was gradual.

Many here no doubt remember having to yell into the phone for her to hear what we were telling her, and having to say yes twice if we meant ‘yes’, and once if we meant ‘no’: apparently the number of syllables helped her understand.

Some of it was funny… and I can say that because she would laugh as well.

For example, if I asked on the phone, “can I come over,” she might respond by repeating my question as, “you want a four-leaf clover?”. Never mind how absurd the guess was! How torturous it would be to go deaf and yet she always seemed to carry that burden with humor.

I think she gave a little bit of that gift to me.

Spending the amount of time with her that I was able to, I had the opportunity to go grocery shopping with her for Father Ron Belisle or for herself—for around, what, 20 years or so she was the cook and maid at St. Thomas for the priest. When you would get the checkout counter and the person asked how she was doing today, Grandma would respond, “Plastic!”, thinking that they were asking if she wanted paper or plastic. They would get a strange look on their face and I would have to tell them, “she’s deaf”.

Her nickname for me was “Jackass”, and my brother was “Poopy.” I can’t remember where the nicknames came from, but both names still seem appropriate—there are many people who would agree that I am still a jackass. I am uncertain as to whether my brother is still “poopy” and, frankly, I don’t want to know.

I remember being fascinated by the elastic nature of her skin. You know… old-people’s skin. The kind that you pinch and it sort of stays in that formed position. I loved that! And pushing on the veins in her hands. She didn’t seem to mind at all!

Grandma was among the last of the story-teller generations—an art that we are now loosing. [Note: it’s worse now. Mind you, when I wrote these words there were no smart phones and there was no social-media]. She was a great story-teller, always having tales to tell and others to be retold. It seemed that she could easily recall events and conversations from 20, 40, 60 years ago. I really wish I could have spent time recording some of those stories before she was gone and took them with her.

She was in many respects like a child. She had an advantage that most of us don’t have: I was about 10 years old when I was the same height as her. She was quite the short lady! I suppose that being deaf could also be a sort of aid to the childlike nature.

But it wasn’t these that made her childlike. It was, rather, the way that she told her stories, the way that she laughed—the ridiculous nature of her jokes. She found the jokes on those Popsicle sticks to be really funny. She could usually tell you the answer to the joke before you finished your Popsicle. I don’t know if that is because she ate so many of them that she had the jokes memorized or if that was just part of her sense of humor—as if she was tuned into really lame, lighthearted jokes. This was part of her personality and you couldn’t help but think of it as an endearing trait.

Grandma’s faith was, in many respects, like a child’s: very simple. She taught me much in that regard. As somebody who has now spent ten years actively studying theology, her simplicity was a check and balance for my natural tendency towards “headiness”.

Grandma was also known for being a worrier.

I always remember her calling to see if mom got home safely if she was out. And she did the same thing when my brother and I were teenagers. In fact, she never stopped. If we were coming home from college, she would have to know when our plane landed so she could put her mind to ease. Maybe it was providential that she died on the day that me, Sia and the kids went to Houston during a hurricane! Had she known, she would have probably worried to… death (sorry… couldn’t resist)! I am sure that mom would have received many phone calls asking how we were.

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It’s ugly, but its evolution and story isn’t. I still use the haphazard afghan I manufactured out of her used yarn some 21 years ago.

She made a lot of things out of yarn for people in the family: hats, blankets, etc. When I was about 17 or 18 (I think) I was over at her house and decided that I wanted to learn how to crochet. But I didn’t want to just crochet anything. I wanted to use the unused portions of her yarn—the yarn that she used to make things for others—and turn it into an afghan. And I only wanted to work on it at her house. The idea was that it would be a reflection of my time spent with her, as well as an embodiment of the work that she did for others in the family (which is why I would only use leftover yarn from her other projects). It took a a couple years, but I continued and I am glad that I did; every time I see it I think of her and the symbols woven into it.

When I was finished with that, I made another one for my wife, Sia, while we were still dating. In fact, I made most of it in December of 2003 when we were broken up. My goal was to send it to her for Christmas. Next thing I know we were married. Thanks Grandma!

In the last two years, especially the last many months, our conversations became more sporadic and the time that we spent together grew more and more silent. It wasn’t a silence that was lacking in love, but a silence that two people can have together when they are truly comfortable with each other—when people don’t need to fill the air with empty talk about the weather or gossip about the family. We watched my kids play. She would occasionally tell a story. I would look up and smile at her, briefly glancing away from my newspaper.

Simply being with her was special and it was never wasted time.

When we moved back here, Sia took to her immediately. She visited her every week, usually on Fridays. She loved their conversations together and Sia even started taking notes about a year ago of all of Grandma’s stories. We will have to go through them one of these days…

I can’t think of the last many years, and especially the last couple, without thinking of my mother, Tracy.

There are few who truly know how much time my mother has spent with Grandma almost every day for the last 30 years and especially in the last many weeks. Over night stays, etc. My mother has embodied the Christian ideals of charity as her mother’s primary care giver. While it has been hard on her at times, my mom loved Grandma very much and she has long sacrificed her spare time, time with her own children and grandchildren, to love and honor her own mother on her dying bed.

Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy says that “… if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. If this is a mark of the Christian, then God is proud of my mom. And I am too.

+ + Life and Death + +

Last Wednesday night I got the call when I got home from working a 14 hour day that Grandma was going to die; that there was something different about this time; different than the other one-hundred times that “she was going to die”. It was about 9pm. I was very tired, and we had to leave the next morning for Texas. But Sia and I decided that we would put the kids in the car and head off to see her.

As I was in my library getting ready, I could hear the footsteps of my oldest son, three-years old at the time, walking up the stairs. He came into my library and said, “papa, we have another baby”. I looked at him puzzled. He continued, “there’s a baby in mama’s tummy”. I then realized what he was announcing. Less than an hour before I went to see my grandmother die, I found out that Sia and I would be blessed with our third child. When I heard this news, I had literally just gotten off the phone having learned of grandma’s imminent death.

What a cycle of emotions!

The interplay of “life” and “death” couldn’t have been more prevalent than that, could it?

When we got to Grandma’s hospice-care room she was in a deep sleep. I sat down beside her bed and took her old, frail hands into mine, hoping that she could at least open her eyes. After shaking her a bit, she opened them one last time, greeting me with eyes my own had long known. She knew I was there. She couldn’t really produce an expression, but her mouth moved a bit, yet carried no sound. “I love you”, she said. And with that, she closed her eyes and drifted back into a sleep from which she would never awake.

I sat there with her for a long time, placed her hand on my head for one long last time, and prayed. I thought of what a blessing she had been in my life and what things I would miss. I thought of how this was going to affect my mother and how I had never seen somebody die before.

I said goodbye at midnight.

We went home and fell asleep, only to be woken up three hours later with the news that she truly had passed on. And only a couple hours after that Sia and I had to get ready to go to Houston, Texas for a wedding with two toddlers in tow.

The interplay of “life” and “death” were again before me.

Friday evening, the night before the wedding, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston/Houston dead-on. The wedding went through the next day. There was no cake, no electricity, they were missing two bride’s maids and two groom’s men. The reception was cancelled. The bride’s parents didn’t come. Only a few people out of the 150 that were invited.

Yet, it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

Stripped of everything, it was about two people becoming one: my good friend and college roommate Michael and his bride, Katerina, entering into a permanent and irrevocable covenant with each other and God, surrounded only by candlelight and a few of those who loved them both.

The destruction of the Hurricane, amidst the beauty, and love, and newness of the wedding was ironic.

Again, the interplay of “life” and “death” were before me.

Finally, we got home at midnight just last night, only hours before the grandma’s funeral, who had died just hours before we left!

Thursday is my fourth anniversary, and my brother’s second is today!

“Life”… and “death”…

All of these events, wrapped up into one week, have been food for thought and prayer.

“Life” and “death”… learning that Grandma was going to die only minutes removed from learning that I was going to have another child; then heading to a wedding which took place during a hurricane; coming back to celebrate our anniversary, yet first heading to a funeral.

Grandma will be missed.

Mom asked me to choose the readings for the funeral mass, and I chose the ones that speak of the rest that God gives to those who are among His own when they die.

I especially liked the one from the Book of Revelation:

“For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the thrown will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”.

God has wiped the tears away from Grandma’s eyes and He extends to us all the same invitation. We need only to cooperate. It brings me much peace to think of her with God… no more breathing problems from her emphysema… no more deafness… no more pain… no more tears.

And, yet, I am sad for more selfish reasons.

I wanted my children to know her and to learn to love her in the way that I did; I wanted that strong structural support for our extended family to survive.

But God’s ways are not our ways and I accept His mysterious will.

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I will miss her when I want to be with somebody that can extend love and understanding to me with words or in complete silence; when I need the understanding that only a long relationship like that can bring.

I will miss her when I see lame jokes on Popsicle sticks and when I see chocolate Pop-Tarts.

I will miss her when my kids start asking on Fridays why they aren’t going to see her and find the same cheap candy in a metal tin or cheesy piece of crystal like I did when I was their age.

Grandma will be missed in innumerable ways.

She was unique, like us all; she can never be replaced. She was my second mother and she always will be. And my life will forever be different without her there.

Love you, Grandma. So much…

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I haven’t read this in ten years, finding it only by accident on my computer when recently sifting through unrelated notes. I wept working through it—not simply because of the memories or those many days of “life and death”, but in light of my own words and how much they still mean today, especially with the changes I have gone through in the last few years. A lot can happen in the span of a decade… or even a week. I suppose that what I would tell others and, more importantly, tell myself having read this and reflected on it in light of the last decade is this: even if it is hard, try to live intentionally and fiercely love those you have with you—you have no idea when they will be gone forever. Indeed, Grandma’s death came so gradually that it didn’t hit me that she would be gone someday until she was.

Every time I long for the familiarity of another person who loves me—loves me and knows me enough to simply be silent with me and give their “self”—I think of her.

And I always will. +++

J.


Justin writes about head things, heart things, the essence LaCroix and anything else he wishes from some humble 70’s ranch just outside of Portland, Oregon. He hates cute author-blurbs like this and he can be found on Facebook and Instagram or reached directly by email at justinaugustinelee (at) gmail (dot) com. Feel free to say hello or send hate mail. Veritas odit moras+

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