A belated gift

There’s a box of beauty items in our master bedroom. I packed it when we first moved to Atlanta nearly two years ago. The items used to reside in a white cabinet I bought at Bed, Bath & Beyond, but there was no place for that cabinet in my new bathroom, and its current location in the master closet doesn’t quite lend itself to storing beauty items…so the box has remained mostly untouched all this time.

The other night I went looking for some cuticle oil I remembered owning. I never did find it, but seeing the box again inspired me to go through it some more today. I started to sort, pulling out things I might still use, tossing out things I’m not sure why I kept. A row of lotions emerged. Two bottles of sunscreen went under the sink. A perfume tester went next to my bottle of Sensuous Nude. And then I opened a white Beauticontrol eau de toilette box, and discovered a wad of $20 bills wrapped around the bottle.

Oh, Grandma.

My grandmother had this habit of slipping us cash whenever we’d visit. A $20 in the hand here, another in a purse or pocket there. One time a check while apologizing profusely for not having any cash.

She also kept and parceled out beauty items, canned goods, organizers, and any other treat she thought the people she loved might enjoy. Her stairwell was a treasure trove.

I knew when I found the eau de toilette that it was from her, even before recognizing my name in her handwriting on two sides of the box. I was excited to have one last present from her, and never imagined that she’d slipped another gift inside.

That’s so you, Grandma. Thank you.

I miss you.

Grandma Aubrey 1919-2010


I last saw Grandma three weeks ago, on the final day of my most recent visit to Kentucky. She seemed…like Grandma. Perfectly lucid, dressed nicely, smiling, happy to see me. She gossiped about her neighbors and talked about gardening just as she’d always done as we sat at the patio table in her backyard with my mom and Uncle Steve.

Yesterday, unable to do anything for herself, she was admitted to hospice care, and this morning, she passed away.

I was on the treadmill at the gym when I saw Mom’s note to me on Twitter: “Call me this morning.” It was 7:49. I spent the next hour in a kind of Schrodinger-inspired denial. As long as I didn’t call, there was a chance Grandma was still alive. I finished up on the treadmill, went for a dispassionate swim, came home and took a shower. Throughout these mundane activities my mind whirled with tangential, fragmented thoughts: things I wanted or needed to get done at work, what I needed to do to get home for the funeral. Finally, at 8:47, I called.

“You probably know what this is about,” Mom said.

Eula Florence McCormick Aubrey died at the age of 91 with her daughter Evelyn at her side. She was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. She was preceded into death by her parents, her brothers Bill and Lewis, and her husband Walton, and is survived by daughter Evelyn, sons Ronald (my dad), Stephen and Jeffrey, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Grandma grew up on a farm in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky with her two brothers. She did farm chores and cooked and cleaned and secretly wished her mother would let her sit on the nice couch reserved for guests. Eventually she moved to Lexington to go to school, taking out a room at the YWCA. After marrying my grandfather, who served in the military, she lived in Texas for a time in a white shotgun house. Later the couple moved back to Lexington and Grandma took an accounting job at Bryan Station High School, where she worked for decades.

Grandma was unhappy as she entered her 90s. She was used to doing everything for herself: writing checks, tending to the garden at the very back of her long yard, cooking Sunday dinner. As the years passed she lost not only the ability to do those things, but even the strength to get herself around the house. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for such a self-reliant person to be so dependent on others, and how strongly she must have felt like a burden on her children. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” she told my uncle Steve despairingly. She was independent and strong to the end, her mind perfectly clear as long as her heart was pumping enough oxygen, and she knew she was ready to be done with such frailty.

I will always remember my grandmother as a sweet, kind, gentle woman who never raised her voice. Any time she had to scold my brothers and me as children, she did so in a strong but caring voice that evoked sorrow at disappointing her rather than terror. We always felt we could snuggle into her arms.

As children, my brothers and I spent a lot of time at Grandma and Grandpa’s. One of my strongest memories is Grandma gumming at us, “No teeth!” She’d lost her teeth in her 20s, and usually wore false ones.

My brothers and I inherited the habit of humming thoughtlessly to ourselves from Mom, and Ben still does it to this day. But when we were kids, having dinner around Grandma’s table, and we were all humming different melodies to ourselves at once, it was Grandma who suggested that maybe we shouldn’t hum at the table. It was only then that I even recognized I was doing it; I was so embarrassed that I’ve been conscious of it ever since.

When I was quite young, I had an insatiable sweet tooth, and one day while staying at Grandma’s I snuck a large spoonful of sugar from the sugar bowl she kept on the table. I’d just finished licking the spoon clean (and placing it back in the bowl!) when I heard Grandma behind me.

Guiltily, I turned, head lowered, eyes downcast but flicking up every now and then to gauge the expression on her face. She gave me a gentle smile.

“You don’t need that,” she said. “You’re sweet enough.”

I’m glad you thought so, Grandma. I hope someday I’m even a tenth as sweet as you.

Click here to see a collection of photos of Grandma from 2001 to 2010.