100 Years: Kathryn Isabel

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My grandmother’s kindergarten picture, c. 1922

Today would have been the 100th birthday of my grandmother, Kathryn Isabel.

She was a shining beacon of love in my life—I was her first grandchild and held a special place in her heart. My memories of her are deep and vast, and she is associated in my subconscious with safety, love and softness. I lived with her when I was very young, while my also-very-young mom got her feet under her and our lives stable. She was flawed and imperfect in a million ways, but she was also a place I always knew I was safe, and she is woven through the years of my life in strong and visible threads.

There are reminders of her everywhere in my home and in my heart. My entire adult life I have kept a key to her back door on my keyring, even though the house is long gone. On my dresser sits her black leather jewelry box, opening in a tri-fold of soft velvet red. It still smells of her Jean Nate and Coty powder. She loved carnation pink lipstick, the color yellow, and a real Coke poured over crushed ice. She taught me to play Canasta, cribbage, rummy, and poker. She made the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the world, and she would let me squeeze in her rocking recliner with her while we watched M*A*S*H. She told me to always tell the truth, that way “You never have to remember what you said.”

I also understand now with adult perspective that her life was hard and complicated, neither simple nor easy. She was an only child who grew up during the great Depression, raised by a single mother in the days where that wasn’t simple or easy. She is part of the Greatest Generation, and she lived that fact out in every facet of her life. She was a model for the Red Cross during World War II, then married a soldier, my grandfather, who was one of the first wave landing on the beaches at Normandy on D-Day. She had three daughters, who she ended up raising mostly alone because Korea followed quickly on the heels of WWII and military wives do what they have always done.

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Jack and Kathryn c. 1950

I wish I knew more about her everyday life—how she felt, what she imagined, what she hoped for, the challenges of raising three daughters alone while grandpa was overseas, and then how hard it was when he came back and we didn’t have words for PTSD. One of the reasons I started writing this blog so many years ago was because I wished for a daily journal of my grandma’s life. I figured if no one else cared, maybe my children or grandchildren would be interested. She isn’t here any longer for me to ask her those stories; it’s a loss that simply cannot be recovered. (Abigail has a near-daily journal of her entire life, and she won’t ever wonder what her mother thought or felt. Maybe that’s good? It will be up to her to decide.)

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GG Alexander, grandma Kathryn, holding my newborn mother with my aunts at her feet.

She moved to San Francisco in 1967, just in time for the world to change and for my aunts to embrace the ethos of California. San Francisco, while her adopted home, held a special place in her heart. She had original paintings by local artists of San Francisco landmarks and photos of the Golden Gate in her home. She loved her City and never moved again. This is the world into which I was born.

I don’t have many photos of her in her later years. She didn’t like having her picture taken, and she was vocal about hating growing old and the aches and pains that plagued her. She was fond of saying “Growing old ain’t for sissies.” Her hair never went salt and pepper, but instead turned perfectly snow-white. Despite her complaints, I found her soft skin and tender hands beautiful. It would appear the adage about mellowing with age doesn’t apply in our family, because grandma certainly didn’t… she had a necklace made of gold that said “Oh Shit” much like some people wear their names. She wore it all the time, and was known to flip people the bird in traffic, her white hair and pink lipstick flashing through the open window of her little blue Volkswagen.

She died in 1999, shortly after David and I were married. I took her surname when David and I divorced, wrapping myself in the safe security I felt with her. It’s another one of a string of sorrows that she never got to meet her first great-grandchild. She would have utterly delighted in the fat, bouncing, redheaded boy I produced. She loved chubby babies, and a redheaded boy would have tickled her pink.

When she died, she had long-prior made all her own arrangements, and didn’t want services of any kind. She wanted her ashes scattered at sea, and the day her boat went out under the Golden Gate Bridge, my mom and brothers and I gathered pink roses and walked out across the bridge. We scattered the bright pink petals to the brisk Pacific winds that sung her to sleep each night, and that finally helped carry her to her final resting place.

Happy birthday, Grandma. I still miss you every day.

p.s. I named my daughter after you. You’d love her, too.