“Youth is our biological and physiological homeland. There, we know our way. And even if in our nostalgic memories the sun shines where it was actually dark, still we are familiar with the pitfalls and perils of youth. We know how to live in that homeland with good and bad – how to master it, anyway, better than we know how to navigate the foreign country of age into which we are expelled.” –Frederic Morton
I come from men, it seems. From a mysterious Ignaz. And from him, born February 11, 1833 in Holungen, Germany, came my great-great-great grandfather, Johannes Heironiums Ertmer who settled in JoDaviess County, Illinois. He is the one whose name titles a 200-page geneaology of my branch of the Ertmer family. And from Johannes and Elizabeth Goldhagen came John, and from John and Caroline Ortchied came Robert Frank (a first-born son), and from Robert Frank and Mary Ann Clancy came my grandpa Robert Elwood, the fourth of ten, and from him and Alice Mary LaGrand, my father David Joseph who married Peggy Rothermel who birthed me. And I married David Lasuer and gave birth to Alice Joy and Leo David. It’s enough to make your head spin. All these men, all these women. Begetting, begetting, begetting. Then dying, dying, dying. That is most of what I know – when they were born and when they died. Until I get to my grandparents and my parents. Then I know for sure that I have come from women too.
She was the last of her generation, my grandma Alice, when she passed away in Denver, Colorado on November 30, 2016. Ninety-eight years old. We buried her in the ground at Mt. Olivet cemetery on a cold Tuesday afternoon in December. We buried her in a powder blue coffin, with pleats of blue fabric, with crucifixes and a bag of Cheetos, with argyle socks on her feet, and sparkly purple polish on her nails, with her glasses on over closed eyes, her hands resting together on her stomach, a rosary threaded through her fingers. She was thin and light when she died, just worn-out skin covering tired bones. But her hair was the opposite. It was the striking white of the full moon, perfectly poised and luminous. At the funeral home, my Aunt Mary Ann, upon inspecting the handiwork of the mortician, took out a small brush and began to fluff my grandma’s bangs over the bony curve of her forehead. “Mom, don’t you worry. We are going to get these bangs just how you like them.”
The last time I visit Grandma is in July 2016, four months before her death. She doesn’t live in a nursing home, not the kind with the metal beds and mounted T.V.s. She lives in an apartment building for the elderly, with exercise classes, a library and a menu to order from in the dining room. The living room in her small apartment holds furniture from the house on Steele Street where she raised her five children. The brass birds that flew in formation across the wall there, fly here as well. In the corner is a soft, slim leather recliner that she inherited when her eldest son, Bob, died from a heart attack. Draped on the back of that chair is the woven blanket I gave her after studying in Bolivia. In the freezer is the vanilla ice cream, essential for making the root beer floats she offers to her visitors.
When we leave her apartment for the dining hall, she turns to ask, “How’s my hair?” Mom and I reach to pull a few strands over the spot in the back that is flat from where she sleeps on it. She is dressed in black pants with white polka dots, a white sweater, a string of pearls, and gold circular clip on earrings. “Did you see my new shoes?” she asks, leaning on her walker and nudging one foot forward. I look down at her sandals. They have thick, black soles and colorful wide straps. “Very spunky! Are they comfortable?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “Very.”
Grandma speaks slowly and softly, like the words take a while coming to her mind and a bit longer to exit her mouth. At lunch she starts talking but my mom doesn’t hear her and rushes on with her own story. Grandma just closes her mouth and goes for a bite of soup. What was she going to say, I wonder. My aunt and uncle, my mom and dad, we all say too much, too quickly. So I just put my hand on her back and rub it gently. She smiles, closes her eyes and leans forward.
After lunch we walk the hallway to the elevator and I ask, “Do you know your neighbors?”
“Not well,” she says.
“But you have people you sit with at lunch?” prompts Mom.
Grandma stops and looks at us. “You know the other day I went to lunch. And Vera wasn’t there. I asked where she was and they said she’d moved to the fourth floor.” She pauses. “Well, turns out she had died!” At the elevator we see a flyer with Vera’s smiling face, the date of her birth and death and a notice that services are pending.
Death must be everywhere to Grandma, and old age is no stranger either. I’m sure some people arrive at 80 and, like a revelation, discover themselves to be old. But Grandma has had eight years since turning ninety to be old, to feel her body weaken, her mind lose its grasp on the day of the week and the names of her children. Here the halls are populated with four wheeled walkers – bright red and blue – and cheerful nurses. In the library, the hunched form of an elderly lady hides behind an outspread newspaper, her nose almost touching the print. A man with oxygen tubes clutches a walker, his grey sweatpants spread thinly across his wide rear. He speaks some nonsense before singing a cheery, “Hello, Alice!” and stepping into the elevator.
I’m struck by her name, how it’s the same name as my daughter’s, how she too will grow and grow until one day her body will shrink back upon itself and struggle to stand up straight, to stand up at all. If we’re lucky, of course, and don’t lose her before she has a chance to ripen.
And I remember that day in June 2012, when we stood in the hallway of her old apartment to say our goodbyes, my belly full of baby. That was the day I said to her, “If it’s a girl, we’ll name her Alice.”
“I’d be honored,” she said, as she wrapped me up in her bony arms.
“I love you, Grandma,” I said.
“I love you,” she replied.
Two months later, after weeks of drought and 100 degree temperatures, a series of storms roared through Bloomington to break the heat and bring new life. She took thirty-six hours to make her way from womb to world. Ninety-four years younger than her namesake, Alice Joy followed a string of six great-grandsons to become Alice’s first great-granddaughter. It’s not my favorite name: Alice. It took me a few weeks to believe that she looked like an Alice, or that a baby should don the name of an old granny. Some people, like my sister, think of several names and then wait to see the baby before deciding what to call it. But even if Alice wasn’t my favorite name and it didn’t feel quite right at first, there was never a question. She would be Alice because she would inherit the spirit of Alice Mary Ertmer. And indeed she has.
By Laura Lasuertmer, for the Poplar Grove Muse