My children have always known the Bacon Provider’s mother as Nagymama–literally, Big Mama– which is Hungarian for Grandma. She always lived far away, in the remote land of Floridaba, which is how my husband’s family says it in Hungarian. On birthdays and Easter and Mikulás Nap, Nagymama sent gifts and enormous chocolate bars and fancy dress up clothes, always with handwritten notes in her Old World cursive. She treated my niece like one of her own grandchildren, and sent gifts for her as well; they maintained a regular correspondence: after my niece dutifully sent thank you notes, Nagymama would write back, and the exchange continued past the polite replies.
Once when Nagymama visited, and they were young enough for picture books, my children piled into her lap, demanding that she read them an entire stack. When the came to an old, yellowed, falling-apart copy of the Scholastic book Rabbit and Skunk and the Scary Rock, she read on. Nagymama’s accent, with slow careful diction and rolling all the R’s made this simple story of friends dealing with their feelings about a scary rock, an absolute laugh riot. When she finished, my kids asked for it again. and, of course, she never said no.
On a visit to Florida more recently, my eldest son found himself sitting next to Nagymama during a meal and had the opportunity to ask her about her life in Hungary before, during, and after the Second World War, and he had the presence of mind to record some of the conversation on his mobile phone. Again, she spoke slowly, with carefully pronounced words, a few, “Well, you know…,” about her mother trying to find enough food for her and her siblings, and about being so cold they picked up discarded paper from the street to line their shoes.
As my mother in law, I accept that I may not be good enough for her favorite son. Who ever could be? She always had a lot of praise for my skills as a mother. This I always have taken as a true compliment. Nagymama magnificently stubborn: if you gave her reason to have a bad opinion of you, she would no longer speak your name. Nagymama famous for her almost infinite capacity for saying yes to children: yes, I will read the silly book again; yes, you can have my pen; yes, we can light the fancy candles; yes, tell me about your dream.
There were years when we were in graduate school when a note in our mail from her on the fancy stationery would probably have cash–several bills, and not twenties. She had not had an easy life, and she understood how lovely it was not to have to have the cheapest things.
For many years, she spoke of wanting a dog, but she hesitated to get one. She felt it would be too hard to outlive a beloved pet. Eventually, she got for herself a pumi, a small, quirky, Hungarian shepherd, with a curly coat like a poodle. The dog was very devoted to her. To forestall the grief of ever losing her, she got another. It was this dog, the second pumi, who was there for the decline.
Sometime in the past few years, she began to re-read her many books, and they were suddenly beautiful and completely new to her. She was delighted. To family it was an ominous sign.
More recently, she began to be diminished by the ravages of dementia, yet absent other serious heath issues. The lucky little dog followed her everywhere, and got breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, late lunch, tea, and dinner, and any other meal she could imagine. The dog grew dangerously stout. Then, Nagymama started to forget the dog. The dog at her heels became a trip hazard, and a new home had to be found for her. Just one of the many, small emergencies in her decline. My husband’s youngest sister took complete responsibility for her care, an enormous, difficult, heartbreaking, time-consuming job.
When we saw Nagymama in July, on a lark, she seemed frail but not doomed. She was bedridden after a fall. But she smiled. Surely we would be able to see her in a few months. and next year.
Last Saturday, we were out walking the dogs, waiting for Eggi’s labor to start, heading around the corner from our house. My husband had the easy-to-walk Captain and I had the other two dogs.
As we walked and talked, my husband seemed distracted, but he has been working on an app, and has a lot on his plate work-wise, and he’d heard from his sister that his mother was near the end, so he had a lot on his mind. A group of cyclists came down the hill towards us, and from my side of the road I could see there were quite a few of them, so I said bring Captain over here– to my side of the road–and I guess he was lost in thought and didn’t hear me, and the lead cyclist had to shout, and Captain had to be yanked, and nothing happened, but it was a close call.
As we headed into the woods, we spoke of the close call, and I thought about how hard it is to focus on any one thing in these pandemic times. It was Saturday. I had been counting the days until Eggi’s whelp date. How was this weekend going to play out? I wasn’t paying attention when my husband stopped and took his phone out of his pocket to answer it. So I was many steps ahead when I realized he wasn’t with me. Turning, I knew by his words, his posture, his face, that it was his sister calling. That it was the news. That it was not unexpected, and not welcome. That it was the news that Nagymama had died.
She’d gone peacefully, at home, in the care of devoted daughter and the hospice nurse. The sister who had always taken care of her mother, who had refused all babysitters as a child, who had returned to her home town after medical school and training, who led a life not altogether separate from her mother’s, she saw the thing through, and now her mother was gone. A nightmare.
We finished the dog walk. The dogs were good. I tried to convince Eggi to spend that night in her whelping box. I slept on the floor next to the whelping box, and of course she preferred sleeping next to me.