The morning of my grandmother’s funeral, I woke up at 6 a.m. to a haze of white outside my window. Not sure what was happening, or if I was still in some half-asleep dream state, I closed my eyes and went back to bed for an hour, finally easing myself out of bed sometime around 7:15.
It turns out that haze of white was snow–an inch or two of it, to be precise. It was both magical (so peaceful and untouched) and worrisome (I was planning on wearing a skirt, ankle boots and tights) to this Sarasota girl, who in true Florida fashion owns hardly any real winter clothes and barely knows what to do with real-live snow. I knew I’d need to borrow a heavy coat from my aunt if I wanted to be even slightly warm, especially at the cemetery, and I filed that thought away for when it was time to leave the house.
I moved through the next forty-five minutes in a state similar to the one I saw outside earlier that morning: Hazy. I felt like I was on auto-pilot, though I think that’s to be expected on a morning like that. I was staying at my aunt’s house–my grandmother’s only daughter–with one of her lifelong friends, who’d come in from New York for support, and I know we talked to each other but I can’t for the life of me remember what was said. Even coffee didn’t help much. Because of that–and, I think, because of our reluctance to head to the funeral home–we ended up running about five minutes late, and I didn’t remember my little mental note about needing a coat until we were practically out the door.
“Just grab one,” my aunt told me, gesturing to the rack in her kitchen where a bunch were hanging up. “Any one you want.”
My grandmother was born Veronica Genevieve Rita Hopkins, but everyone called her Jane (except me–I called her Nana). She married my grandfather, John (Jack) McDonald, a brigadier general in the army, and had two children–my dad, John Jr., and my aunt, Linn. She had three sisters; together they were known as the “Fearsome Foursome.” She lived in Scranton, PA, her whole life. When my grandfather passed away in April 2008, they’d been married for 66 years.
Nana was the consummate hostess: She wasn’t a particularly wonderful cook, as I recall, but she had a knack for making anyone who walked through the doors of her house feel welcome. Growing up and visiting during summers and at Christmas, I remember that house being the gathering spot for her friends and family. During the summers, especially, she liked nothing more than to sit on her big front porch, drinking iced tea in the afternoon and whiskey sours–always with a slice of orange–in the evening. On Fridays, I always remember various family members joining her there for pizza night. It was tradition.
Whenever my mom, dad, brother and I visited Scranton, I stayed in her bedroom. She and my grandfather had kept separate bedrooms forever; she blamed that on his snoring. So I slept on a foldout sofa in her room from the time I was six or seven until the last time I saw her and my grandfather in their house, sometime in 2007. They moved to an assisted-living facility that year, but to this day I remember the squeak of the leather sofa as we unfolded it; the sound the mattress springs made when I climbed into bed. I would stay up late, laying on that sofa and telling Nana about what was going on in my life until she finally, gently, told me she had to sleep. Especially during my tough middle-school years, when Scranton became an escape from the awfulness of adolescence, those nighttime talks meant everything to me.
My brother and I were Nana’s only grandchildren, and I know she loved us unconditionally (even when I was a horrible teenager, rolling my eyes and talking about boys nonstop). And we loved her back, and I think–I hope–she knew that, too. Towards the end of her life, she developed Alzheimer’s–an awful, soul-crushing disease if ever there was one–and the last time I saw her, in 2011, she barely knew me. I think that’s why I hadn’t been back to Scranton before this week. I didn’t want to remember her like that, to see her decline. I wanted to remember her the way I always think of her: Sitting on the front porch and smiling at the rest of us.
I let my eyes scan the coats, finally settling on a heavy-looking one with a small plaid pattern. My aunt, a ballet dancer since the age of four, is a tiny woman with narrow shoulders; mine are much broader so I wanted to make sure I found a jacket that fit. This particular one looked like it would, so I took it off the hanger and put it on. It was perfect, from the fit of the shoulders to the length to the buttons, which fastened seamlessly. And it was warm, too. It’s strange to say, I know, but it felt like a hug.
“I found a jacket!” I said to no one in particular, and turned it over to look at the tag, wondering if the coat was new or one of my aunt’s vintage finds. What I saw made me stop and catch my breath.
The label on the coat was there, of course. There was no size and someone had written on it in Sharpie so it was hard to tell who’d made it. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the piece of fabric that was sewn into the coat right above that label. It had two words on it.
I had picked up my grandmother’s coat without even knowing it, on the day I was getting ready to say goodbye to her.
I’m not a religious person, despite 10 years of Catholic school and more Sunday Masses than I can remember, but I do believe in a higher power and I like to think that he/she/it looks over us and our loved ones and sends us the occasional sign that everything is going to be OK. Unknowingly picking up my grandmother’s coat didn’t make going to her funeral any easier, and I still tear up whenever I think of her because I miss her terribly and can’t imagine not missing her every day. And I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking that it was just a random coincidence, not some act of divine choreography. But you know how I wrote that wearing her jacket felt like a hug? I like to think it was Nana’s way of saying, “You’re going to be sad, but you’ll be OK. I’m with you.”
It helps to think of it like that. She’s with me, and always will be.