My grandmother, Julia Elizabeth Van Kerckhove, passed away on October 17, 2014. She recently celebrated her 92nd birthday on October 11. The following is what I shared at her service on October 22, written earlier that morning.
So the story goes that after the performance of the Greasepaint Players’ production of Deadwood Dick that I saw when I was 3 going on 4 years old (that I also fell asleep during), I went back stage to greet Grandma and declared that THIS is what I wanted to be when I grew up. After several school plays, a theatre degree, and my current job running a national arts organization for children’s theatres, I’d say I’ve kept to my word.
Our girl Julia was many things to all of us: sister, cousin, mother, aunt, grandmother, great grandmother, friend. The kind of friend you can navigate through various disagreements with—from simple things like taste in music and the spice level in your dinner (note: she liked absolutely zero) to deeper, more ideological issues—and then keep going with the grounded, positive relationship that you started with. We all have our ins with her. In my case, theatre, art, and to some extent writing (dibs on her vintage typewriters!) are mine.
Here then is a montage of things she is to me, and as these moments wash over you, I invite you to riff on your own.
Julia is waking up early and eating blueberry pancakes around the chrome sided kitchen table at Bedford, and then driving to the Detroit Institute of Art—either solo, or with Steve, and sometimes Mark across the street—where we’d roam through galleries of paintings, jade sculptures, and suits of armor, and also touch the bronze the donkey.
She is practicing her Art in the Schools presentations with us in the Bedford dining room. And driving across town for sessions with MY 4th grade class, and letting ME run the slide projector.
She is late night stories around the same kitchen table, lit by the glow of her Blessed Mother nightlight—our own Virgin Queen campfire. Including the book about the little ghost where the family, whose house he haunts, one day decides to oil all the doors in order to silence this mysterious search of a new house to haunt, only to discover they are already taken by other ghosts.
She is cold meatloaf sandwiches on white bread with butter; she is carrot Jell-o and Raisin Bran.
She is watching Murder She Wrote and scandalous 1980s miniseries. And asking me if the TV show The Facts of Life is about sex.
She is asking me if Michael Jackson is “the one with the nice personality” while questioning my love of Prince and Madonna.
She is my silver sequined sparkle vest she made for one of my dance recitals, where she sat with Mom and Dad in the audience on metal folding chairs across Redford Township.
She is “Graham Crackers” a nickname that probably came from the classic snack of graham crackers and butter.
She is insisting on my washing my hands before heaving thinking of touching her piano–or doing anything really. (And any neuroses I have in this area is all her fault!)
She is saved Quaker Oats canisters recycled as Star Wars action figure fortresses and pencil holders wrapped in brown contact paper; birthday cards with newspaper clippings; and tubs and tubs of previously unpublished photos.
She is bonding with my husband Ernie over the musical Gypsy.
She is a cookie tin filled with colored foiled stars; she is a shouted “FRANK!” echoing throughout the house.
She is “Judy” as Grandpa called her, which of course made me think of Judy Garland cos that’s how I roll.
She is asking about school and grad school and my writing and work, and giving me her pride and support up until the very end.
She is a million other things I’m not thinking of at this moment in part because the house is a whirlwind this morning and cartoons are blasting from the downstairs TV and live goes on, but I know they will all come to me in the days and months and years ahead. As they will for all of us. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to forget such a present, powerful, inspirational, and downright stubborn force in my life. For real.
So, Thank you, Grandma!