Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Friday, December 23, 2011

Passing the Torch

In the midst of trying to scrimp and save this Christmas, I did buy one very special gift for my family.  It's an advent calendar, and a really nice one from PBK.  I am IN LOVE WITH IT.  Seriously - LOVE.

In addition to little candies or trinkets, you can also put a scrap of wrapping paper in a pocket.  The child or children then get to open small gift(s) under the tree that are wrapped in the paper that matches.

When I spied it in the store my heart started racing.  I knew I shouldn't be spending any money and yet I'd had it in my heart for years to procure an amazing advent calendar my children would cherish all throughout their lives.  I'd been gazing - repeatedly - online at the current Pottery Barn Kids "stocking" advent calendar (and checking out stuff on Etsy, too).  I'd been dropping all sorts of hints to my husband about how maybe if it went on clearance after Christmas, he could get it for me for next year's Christmas gift.

So when I saw this one over 60% off I HAD TO HAVE it.  Flush-faced (anyone else have anxiety attacks when they spend money?) I handed over my credit card and signed the slip.  As I carried it back to the car, my thoughts turned to its predecessor.  To "The" advent calendar from my childhood, to the house in which it hung for over fifty years, and to the amazing, vibrant woman who hung it:  My grandmother Margaret ("Peggy") Ellis.
1945:  Her engagement announcement to my grandfather.

2009:  Still so vibrant.

I knew, heading home, that things had been a little rougher for her lately.  While we'd all said she'd live to be at least 100, she'd had a stroke last winter (shortly after turning 90).  Thankfully (and miraculously), she'd made a fairly full recovery - *so* her.  But the week prior to my Advent calendar purchase, she'd had "a fall."  A very stroke-like fall.  And when we saw her in October she just seemed slightly less "there."

Thus as I drove off with my own Advent calendar, my mind was filled with visions of my grandmother's calendar and memories of Christmases spent at a little house in Peoria; my father's childhood home.  The excitement of seeing my cousins, the familiar holiday food, the gifts, the love... I made a mental note to thank her for every time she hosted us and all the work she'd put into it, and to tell her about my own Advent calendar and how hers had so inspired me.  I felt even more a mother and a leader in my family as I plotted and schemed for my own children and grandchildren to have such great memories, and to capture those memories in a calendar that would reproduce those childhood feelings and associations throughout the rest of their lives.

One of those earlier Christmases in the Peoria house.

Reading to me and my cousin Ben.

I certainly wasn't expecting to return home to an email from my father telling me that she had been transferred to the nursing home portion of the retirement center she lives in.  What???  I had assumed she had at least five more years in independent living before she'd *even* go to assisted... how could she possibly be in a nursing home facility???  This is a woman who less than two years ago had more energy and a better memory than my parents... heck, than me!  WHAT?  And the rest of the family had gathered in Peoria for Thanksgiving and reported that she seemed to be doing very well.

I had to write my dad back - twice - and make sure he meant to write what he'd written.  But sadly, yes.  All of a sudden my seemingly immortal grandmother - the one who lived through The Great Depression, World War II, and somehow, the death of her own sweet six year old boy Scott Robert Ellis... the one who kept my grandfather at home and out of a nursing home until his very final months all the while herself being in her mid-80's .... could no longer have conversations much beyond "Hello" and "How are you."  She was... the grandmother that *I knew so well* that *I loved* that *I admired so much*, she was very suddenly, in a very real way, gone.

1945 with my grandpa Jack.

Home from The War and newly married.

I know that from the outside it doesn't seem very sad.  She's still alive, she's almost 92 years old, and she's lived a great life.  Nor can I say I have any regrets; during the 6 years we spent in St. Louis, my husband and I saw more of my grandparents than of any other family members, due to proximity.  Some of my most treasured memories of my husband - the ones that melt my heart no matter what else is going on in our lives - are the memories of how strongly he cared for my grandfather as his health failed.  He *loved* to visit the house in Peoria and we went every chance we could.  He learned how to feed my grandfather (through a tube in his stomach) so that I could get my grandmother out of the house and take her for coffee.  He read to my grandfather, who suffered from macular degeneration (among other things at that point).  He found all of my grandparents' old black and white slides and we spent one of our last afternoons with my grandfather looking at them on the old projector.  Thus he was right there when the chronological pictures went immediately from three little boys on family trips "up North" to two late-high school aged boys and a brand new baby girl.  He heard my grandfather utter "She was the answer to our prayers" when those new baby girl pictures came on the screen.  He even heard my grandfather, a man of very few words, say "It's a strange thing... because we wouldn't have had Nancy if we hadn't lost Scott."  At our very last Peoria Christmas, my grandfather - who didn't even know quite who everyone was - was asking for my husband.  I love this man, my husband, who so loved and helped care for my grandparents.

The Ellis Family:  Peggy, Dick (my dad), Scott, John, and Jack.

The daughter she adores; a woman just as capable as she was.

So I have no regrets in terms of whether I maximized my access to and memories of the amazing woman that my grandmother was.  Still, I find myself with a heavier heart this Christmas.  And a yearning to capture some of our family history in a blog entry.   I love the Advent calendar now hanging on our utility closet door, but so much more than that I love the woman who first introduced me to Advent calendars.  My heart is with her this Christmas.  With her stories of growing up poor in Minnesota with four sisters, and a father who was constantly changing jobs for one reason or another.  With her stories of the WWII home front and a friend who, after receiving the news of her husband's death, later received a letter written by him for their baby-to-be; he knew he was "about to be involved in something big" (the storming of the Normandy beaches) and he had a "bad feeling" about how it would turn out for him - he just wanted to leave a few words for the baby he would never meet or hold.  Yes, my heart is with my grandmother and the colorful yet in many ways typical life she led as an American woman coming of age in the 1930's, born in 1921.  My thoughts are on the incredible strength she's had all these years in living on through the loss of her sweet little boy, and with the intense pride and joy she takes in her remaining children.  Her uncanny insight throughout all these decades, her sense of humor, her love of food, the house she kept for so many years and memories, our late-night chatting, and the breakfasts and lunches she always served.  Grandma, I love you so much.  So, so much.


  1. This is absolutely beautiful, Lisa. It made me tear up. This is something your little ones will read and treasure one day.

  2. Lisa, Thank you for sharing such a special reflection this Christmas. I wonder if Grandmothers realize the profound and lasting ways they touch their grandchildren? It's really quite something. We hope you are making wonderful memories this Christmas with your loved ones.