Over the weekend, my Grandmother, Millie C. O'Toole peacefully passed away. She was 90 and had a long, full life.
She was not a conventional Grandmother by any stretch of the imagination. I have no memories of her baking cookies or telling bedtime stories. My recollections are of her jumping on my cousin’s motorbike- and then promptly flipping over the handlebars. She had a knack for gambling and would come home from the dog track and count her winnings out in $100 dollar bills with great dramatic flair in front of me and my wide-eyed brothers (“100 dollars, 200 dollars, 300 dollars…).
She loved fireworks and would gather us around on the 4th of July to set things alight. Her crowning moments: the year the bottle rockets tipped over and shot straight towards everyone huddled by the deck, and the year she and my uncle blew up a grill cover with an M80.
Her version of kissing skinned knees was brushing you off and putting you right back on the horse. To cheer me up after getting stitches in the back of my head (from an incident with my brother + a golf club, which he claims was an accident BTW…) she took me to Payless to pick out my first pair of jelly shoes- white with circle cutouts. Surely, that's to blame for my rampant shoe obsession.
She was a wicked bowler and wasn’t afraid to strap on a pair of roller skates. It was not uncommon to see her bras and other dainty lady things (at least one of which was leopard print) hanging to dry on tree branches in front of the house for all to see.
To this day, I adore combing through thrift stores and flea markets looking for second-hand treasures- a love born from sitting at the kitchen table early Saturday mornings with her and my Mom, circling garage sales in the paper with red ink where we thought we could find the most magic.
She’s the only Grandma I’ve ever known who would cheat against her own grandkids at cards- if only to teach us valuable lessons about “breasting” our cards. Many of those nights we would have to bet at least a nickel on the game- she said we’d play better if we had something to lose. And I’ll be damned if she didn’t empty our piggy banks on a regular basis.
I marvel when I hear stories about her getting married and having her first child at 16.(!!) She says it's what they did then when their boyfriends were going off to war. And then, delivering her second in an upstairs apartment (after said boyfriend/husband had been killed in said war) with only her hysterical sister and drunk downstairs neighbor to assist. She couldn't have been more than 18 or 19 at the time. I can't imagine doing that now at 41.
But for all of the fun, games and crazy stories, she also taught me devotion. She loved my Grandfather with all her heart, and 25 years after his death, she never so much as dated another man. She had found the one, and that was that. If a friend or family member were in the hospital or nursing home, she would swing by without fail to check on them, cheer them up, and share a bit of gossip- no day was ever too busy not to make time for them. When my mom was diagnosed with MS and couldn’t get out of bed for many months, she was there. Helping to keep the house and 4 little kids in order while my Dad was at work.
She didn’t talk much about God or religion, but she rarely missed mass, and would frequently volunteer to take the late shift at the chapel for perpetual adoration. An extrovert to her core, it may have been the only time- aside from sleep- she ever sat alone in silence. Actually, I swear she never slept. Catching her peacefully sleeping when I visited during her last days at the nursing home may have been the only time I’d ever seen it.
She was always, always, always on the go- a ball of energy and mischief. And all of us were grateful to catch the tail of her comet and go along for the ride.