Dearest Grandma Berber,

You died tonight. You were 89.

I was told you looked nothing of your old self; your nails were long and unruly, your hair unkempt, and your body frail and tiny beneath a cotton gown.

We found out Friday you had a heart attack late Thursday. Last night you had a stroke, then we found out it was even more severe... then you were gone. Just like that.

I was going to fly out this weekend as soon as someone could watch Hollis. Though without any real hope of seeing you alive, I still had hope I could be there in some way that you might know. But you had other plans.

The last time I saw you I said Good Bye and not just in our parting ways, but in my heart. I knew you were already gone, a shell of the woman I once knew and loved. I am so sorry that it ended this way. Your worst nightmare, really. Alone, scared, and ancient to your own memory of yourself. You probably didn't know yourself in the mirror any more. Maybe you were at peace with that. More likely you just didn't remember to mind.

But at least there was relief in that, your memory. For you had almost none left. What you remembered was whittled down by time to you noticing the bright sky outside your window and that you were always so, so tired. Phone conversations befuddled you and lasted 30 seconds. Your warbled words fading as you clicked disconnect. You had long since stopped any written correspondence, an art form of connection you had relied upon for decades.

I remember when I first realized you were changing. It was before Dad died - before I even knew Dad was sick - and you didn't send me a Christmas card or present. At first I thought you must be mad at me for not talking to your dearest son, your baby, but I soon realized it was because you had simply forgotten it was Christmas. And to think, just the year before you had painstakingly embroidered two identical pieces for Gabby and me, had them framed, and mailed to us for Christmas. An image of a young girl with a frilly cap, herself carefully embroidering. How quickly things changed.

Did you know that it's because of you that I ever endeavored to cook or entertain? Your stories about beef Wellington for an average Wednesday night dinner inspired me. Your fine china, and pretty "entertaining" room taught me that it's the littlest things in life that can make you feel special in your own home, or that can make a stranger feel welcome.

I remember that you quit smoking your single afternoon cigarette the day the surgeon general said that smoking was bad for you.

I remember that you used to dry your diapers on the line even during brutal, arctic Chicago winters and that you'd have to crack the ice off of them to reveal a mostly dry diaper.

I remember that you called Great Grandma Ursula a "slut" and wouldn't let her and her "man friend" stay the night in your house and how proud of yourself you were for that. (Even now imagining you calling anyone a slut makes me laugh.)

I remember that Pa told you he would turn the car around on the way to the church to marry Grandpa Ray, but you were too determined to get out of the house to admit you wanted to.

I remember that you didn't know until your wedding night that men had other things besides just a penis and how hard we laughed at the absurd naivete you'd had.

I remember the bright yellow dress you made for me and the matching baby blue one for Gabby that we wore on Easter.

I remember your kitchen, every inch of your house, every knick-knack, even where every painting and photo was in your house. I could probably draw the insides of your makeup drawers even today.

You were always the epitome of old school feminine regard, never without lipstick and a kitten heel, never without your hair done, always with a quick hello and how-do-you-do, you were the master of small talk.

I never really understood why so many people turned their backs on you over the years, but you never let them shut the door. You always persevered and won them back. Those mean ladies at bridge in Oak Park? You charmed the pants off of them anyway. Church ladies who thought you were judging them? You invited them over for lunch. You made friends when you were 6 and never stopped loving them. What a remarkable thing that is.

And Grandma, I am so sorry that you lost Ring and Dad and that Randy and you had such a complicated relationship. I'm sorry that you lost your baby brother all those decades ago, your own 9 day old baby girl, your mother when you still so desperately needed her, your Bob, and then your grey-haired baby sister. All you ever spoke of when you could still tell stories was of them and how much you missed them all. I've never known anyone who lived among the dead so passionately as you.

I could write for hours about you, Grandma Berber. I really could. When I finish this I'm going to go and lay down and think, "Shit, I forgot about the time: we colored Easter eggs and drank copious amounts of white wine; cleaned your river rocks for hours and hours one by freakin' one; went to the senior country club and we couldn't figure out why we were the only ones not having to ask for more champagne then realized it was because I was the only one under 60 in the entire joint; we ate tiny, crust-less sugar sandwiches with our teeny tiny tea cups; went to Rawhide and drank a yard of beer together and got our old western pictures taken; or the time when I called you crying because I was with Grandma Katie and she was so sick and dying herself and I didn't know what to do and you hugged me through the phone with your sweet voice and strength and told me that no matter what I did Katie would know I loved her." Thirty-four years of loving memories, Grandma... that's pretty awesome.

I hope you always knew how much I loved and adored you. Tricking you that day to get you into assisted living was one of the worst things I've ever done to anyone. Gabby and I were appalled at what we were doing, but also knew it was the best way. A little Valium, a lunch out, and The Devil Wears Prada later and you had a new home a la Jessie and Gabby. You were never even mad at us, just scared. Thank you for that. I never would have forgiven myself had you blamed me... but then again, you were beginning to leave us then, so maybe you just couldn't remember how you ended up there.

I will always remember you in your doorway, hunched just a little, small and silver, with a bright smile on your face with the love you felt for us, waving goodbye. I'm not sure you remembered our names this last time, but it didn't matter. You recognized our hearts, even the newest one we introduced to you. - What a remarkable meeting that was to witness: the old and the new, both in a place of innocence and dependence just from two different places on the circle. Did you even realize how comforting it was to see us all together like that?

Sweet Grandma Berber, I trust you are finally at peace with your family. You will always be missed and always loved. Thank you for being you. Thank you for loving me.

Your loving granddaughter,

Barbara Janet McDowell Warner Schrader
July 9, 1920 - November 23, 2009

Your kitchen & Anthony, Easter 03

Easter 07


  1. aww I'm sorry for your loss. She sounded like a great lady.

  2. I am so sorry for your loss. That was a great post. Take care of yourself today.

  3. i am so very sorry for your loss, jessica. what incredible women in your family; both your grandmother and you. you honor her so beautifully with your memories and your words. you have such a special bond with her that not even death can break it. i hope her presence and spirit bring you peace as i'm sure you are heartbroken. and i am heartbroken for you.

  4. What a great tribute! I'm stopping by from IComLeavWe, have never been here before, and I have tears in my eyes just reading that. My sympathies on your loss.

  5. I loved your post. Condolences to you and your family. Your grandmother seems like an awesome woman.

  6. What a beautiful, touching tribute.

  7. My grandma died 4 years ago, on my birthday. That just brought it all back. At least you have some wonderful memories.

  8. I love those pics of Hollis playing piano and looking at her. And I'm honored that even in the midst of forgetting her whole life, she remembered me and the rock garden. Sweet dreams, Grandma Berber.

  9. I'm so, so sorry for your loss.

    I'm wiping tears from my own eyes, now. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman, and this was an amazing tribute to her.

  10. What a beautiful tribute you've written to your grandmother. I'm sure she feels the love. I certainly do.

  11. She sounds like a lovely, wonderful woman, who lived a fantastic life. Your love for her is so very obvious. I'm sorry for your loss.

  12. incredible post...i hope that someone remembers me - 60 years from now! with such respect and insight!