My grandmother died today. It was strange, in a way, because I had just witnessed by first-ever live birth, racing my sister’s contractions in my red Subaru the two-plus hours to Moscow. I saw the baby’s name for the first time inked on the whiteboard and my eyes got a little misty: Norah Katherine, keeping the tradition of having family names as middle names. Norah followed Chloe Ann (after her paternal grandmother) and Elaina Halcyon (after her maternal great-grandmother).
My name is Katherine Heline Botkin. Heline is my grandmother’s maiden name, because my grandmother’s brothers died before they could pass on the name. Perhaps it was this, or perhaps it was the many other reasons that I thought we were alike, but I always felt a keen kinship with my grandmother. She had stories — so many stories, from so many places, especially given the time period. She loved her stories, and she used to tell me: make memories, because they will keep you company when you are old and blind. In the end, even her memory failed her, but until that point she was cheerful and happy — blithe, my grandfather called her.
She told us stories about growing up on the farm in Iowa, the depression, about the war, about going to the city and to carefully-chaperoned dances with soldiers. She told us about working in the fashion industry in New York, and how it was not quite as glamorous as she expected. She told us about going to Europe after the war, and staying there to work for two years. She told us about zipping around Paris on the back of a moped, about traveling the ocean by steamer, about galavanting around the United States and then getting married in her 30s and having four children in quick succession. She showed us the gowns she designed and made, using silk given to her by one of her suitors before she married. She wrote letters to the soldiers, many, many letters — among them her brother, who died, and the man who became her husband and eventually my grandfather.
Before I was old enough to be interested in her stories, she showed me how to sew, how to make paper dolls, even how to drink beer — she gave me my first taste of beer, which at the time I thought was horrid. But most of all she showed me kindness and love, and I used to sit on her lap and trace the veins on her hands, look at her turquoise rings, push at her wrinkly skin. She let me do all this, smiling at me. She wrote me letters, many, many over the years, and I saved all of them because I knew one day she would be gone, and all I would have of her would be our memories.