Kay Fesenmeyer, 1918-2019

My grandmother passed last week, my mom’s mom and the last of my grandparents. It’s been an intense week and I have a lot of things that I’m not quite sure how to say, but I wrote and read the following at her service yesterday, so it will have to suffice


When I was about 10, I came down the stairs at the Bon Ton in tears. I had been reading Bridge to Terabithia and, having gotten to a particularly upsetting part, had sought out comfort. Gram asked me why I was crying, and I explained that one of the main characters had fallen in a river and drowned. Gram replied “Well, that’s what happens when you play by the water.”

That was Gram for you. Unsentimental. Matter-of-fact. Not a fan of the water.

She wasn’t a Hallmark grandmother. Delicious treats, yes, but warm hugs and fun adventures? Not really.

Gram was competent and resourceful, storing up that drawer full of odds and ends for the rainy day when we really would need all of those twist ties from bunches of greens. She had a method and a place for everything and god help us if we didn’t follow it, whether it was hospital corners on the bed, moving one of her piles, or recycling even one of her enormous mayonnaise jars.

She was the consummate hostess – or so it seemed to me as a little girl, fingering well-worn decks of cards and tiny tubes of lipstick in the buffet drawers, hints of what seemed like a wildly glamorous social life. Dishes and glassware and recipes for every occasion. Meals with friends at the Outing Club. Records on the kitchen stereo from way back when. Strawberry sodas for the grandkids. The elegance of shrimp cocktail and a relish tray frequently refilled.

She cared about her friends and family, even though she didn’t always show it. When you called the Bon Ton, both Gram and Gramp would be on the line, even if you just needed to talk to one of them, and even if it made it hard to have a conversation. I can’t remember a single meal with them that didn’t involve a litany of news and gossip about this patient, that neighbor, the other acquaintance.

She was a proud woman. Proud of her accomplishments, like being head nurse on the fancy ward at Harper Hospital, where she out-ranked her doctor husband. Proud of her children’s achievements, like Nanc touring with the Highlanders, Mom doing synchronized swimming, Tom performing with the University Marching Band. She may not have said so at the time, but she paused to tell these stories to me again and again when we looked at photos during my visits. She was proud of her in laws and her grandchildren, too – Mark’s musical abilities, Jenn going to school to become a nurse, Victor off to college. But also the sort of proud that holds on to hurt like armor, reminding us of times when we – or life – let her down. She never finished her degree. She left behind her career to raise a family. Her husband was always busy. Her children grew up to be teenagers and then adults with lives and choices she didn’t always agree with. Her grandchildren got tattoos and divorces. Her body failed her.

As people have expressed their condolences this week, I have said: it’s complicated. She was complicated. And I’ve spent a lot of this last week thinking about that, and how I want to remember her, the wonderful and the complicated.

I don’t remember, for example, the time she spanked me with a pie scooper. I don’t believe it happened, but Mark does: perhaps we have chosen to remember differently. I remember lying across the custom cutting board over the kitchen sink while Gram washed my hair, the cold acidity of the apple cider vinegar she used as a rinse, my legs dangling off the end of the counter.

I remember crackers from the bowl on the kitchen table, and games of cribbage after dinner. Playing dress-up and grocery store with things she’d set aside. The beauty shop on Fridays, and her nails carefully shaped with a file from her red zippered pouch. Sending me out into the backyard to pick raspberries for breakfast, the grass still wet with dew. Signing into AOL to check her stocks, tracking them carefully in her notebook. Taking her rings off to make pie dough, her wedding band paper thin from decades of wear.

I remember her hands resting on Gramp’s shoulder the summer he had his bypass surgery. She opened his collar to show me the top of his scar, and then lingered there behind him, one of the few shared moments of genuine tenderness I can recall. She was from a family and an era that didn’t show affection easily; her love language, like mine, was acts of service. Her love for him – and for her family – was expressed in hundreds of thousands of shirts ironed and eggs poached and pies served. At his services, she patted his bow tie in an approving way, later telling us that she would miss him, but not the way he was at the end.

I don’t think I understood that, not really, until last week, when I saw how frail she was, her body ready to be done. That’s not the Gram I’ll remember.

I’ll remember her in her house slippers and slacks, attending to her piles, the queen of her castle. Or turning on the radio in the kitchen when it was time to go.

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