Wednesday, November 24, 2010

We Are All Made of Stardust...Memories of Myrtle

Call it New Agey nonsense (or don't), but literally and poetically, we can, all of us, claim to be composed of the same elements as star dust. 

A few years ago, I told one of my classes to use an idea like that for a college application essay. Consider a prompt such as this, I said: If we are all made of star dust, then what, exactly, does that mean to you? Free write on the topic.

That's what I'm doing here...

For more general info on the famous "star dust question," see here:

"Star Dust," was, apparently, my grandmother Myrtle's favorite song.  There are many versions by a slew of different musicians and singers, and I don't know which is the best, but I do know that Myrtle couldn't get enough of this meta love song. I love that her favorite song was about a song...that's so brilliantly layered and complex and thoughtful. Here's a great cover of "Star Dust," with an informative little Power Point playing at the same time:

Myrtle died a week ago, at age 95, and I was just in Florida for her funeral. 

After the Mass and her burial, the family was at my aunt's house, and my mother handed me a card that had been given to her by the nursing home/hospice where Myrtle had last lived and where she had died.

The home is called The Haven, and seriously, it's a lovely, loving, joyous place. My grandmother probably spent some of the best years of her life there. Every day was a celebration with crowds of friends. My grandmother won a beauty pageant at The Haven (no joke), and was the most photographed resident, I'm sure. She was always in the newspaper, beaming as she trimmed a Christmas tree or laughing, thrilled, as she participated in a square dance.

The card my mother showed me was written by the pianist who visited The Haven every Wednesday to entertain the residents. Myrtle loved Wednesdays; they were her favorite days. She always requested "Stahdust," the pianist wrote, and the musician always played this song for her favorite customer, Myrtle.

I so appreciated that this woman--whose name escapes me--took the time to write a note about her memories of Myrtle. It's wonderful to learn how a relative you've lost touch with--due to distance, age, time, and the vagaries of late-onset memory loss--has also touched others, and to learn more about her from an anecdote that a stranger remembers.

My grandmother Myrtle was the sweetest woman. She was always smiling and laughing--especially at The Haven where she reportedly had a "fella" who loved her back.

There were a pile of photos of Myrtle that The Haven assembled for the family, and among them was one that really touched me, and I regret not taking it (I felt that maybe my aunt or my mother deserved it more, and I hope one of them has it). In this shot, Myrtle is standing on a dance floor, clad in skinny black pants, a plaid blouse, and the cutest pair of navy blue boating sneakers I've ever seen. She is open mouthed with delight and clutching the arms of a young woman who is helping her to dance. They both have on cowboy hats for, I assume, some Western-themed celebration. 

I love the joy on Myrtle's face in this photo. It is reflected, too, in the smile of the woman who is leading her on the dance floor. What I saw in this picture is that feeling of exhilaration you get when you do something that is so much fun and that you didn't even realize you could manage--like a flip on a trapeze or getting up on waterskis. Myrtle was usually in a wheelchair at The Haven, so standing up and dancing must have felt like flying to her.

The look on Myrtle's face and the emotion conveyed in this photo are so special. But it's those navy blue sneakers that I really remember. They are so adorable--so Katharine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer in "On Golden Pond," so reminiscent of glossy wood Chris Craft speedboats and days on the Cape with the Kennedys. They speak of simpler, carefree times, I guess--though Myrtle's last years were certainly carefree.

And that's the way it should be.

My grandmother lost her dad in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919. Years later, her husband was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge while she waited back at home with a baby (my mother).  Myrtle had been a widow nearly half her life by the time she died.

I remember her, when I was a child, as slightly trembly. Nervous. Myrtle drove so incredibly slowly she would get ticketed for that. I remember watching her cause an accident because of her slow driving as she backed out onto a busy road. I am sure the resulting ticket only made her slower behind the wheel, but I also know that she was just  trying to be careful.

I also remember the way she would call me "Dolly," or "Doll." For some reason, when I was a child, I would always show her my teeth after I had brushed them. "Oh, Doll, they're like pearls. Pearls!" she'd say, clasping her hands to her heart and smiling a broad but shaky smile.

I would stay with Myrtle and her mother (my great-grandmother, Elsie) when I visited the family in Florida, and I remember the way they both had false teeth floating in plastic tumblers in the bathroom. There were tablets of Efferdent that they dropped into the water to clean their dentures. I remember the fascinating way they fizzed. 

One night, I probably dropped in two extra Efferdents just to watch the bubbles, and the next morning, Myrtle's teeth were glowing a preternatural shade of white that still makes me laugh when I think of it. She never said anything about it (what would she say? "My teeth are too freaky white! What did you do?"), and I felt vaguely guilty for playing with her dentures, but that's a memory I'll always have.

I remembered all of these things as I entered the church for Myrtle's funeral. The priest at the Mass did not even really know my grandmother, it turned out, and I sort of had a problem with that. The person who eulogizes the deceased should know her or him, don't you think? He even flubbed when he said, at one point, "We are here to pay our respects to Liz..." Wrong name, buddy! That was certainly disconcerting.

Other than the priest, I  thought the funeral was lovely, and, as my aunt said later, "Mother would have found it classy. She would be pleased."

My favorite hymn, "Be Not Afraid," was sung, and the flowers were gorgeous (and I know flowers; I used to work for a florist): feminine arrangements of Irish bells, stargazer lilies, magenta roses and spikes of lisianthus. 

The casket was open in the beginning, however, and I have a tremendous problem with open caskets. I just can't deal with them at all, and neither could my daughter. My grandmother did not look like herself, in my opinion, and while I did not want to be rude and not look, I also couldn't bear to see the heavy funereal makeup and Myrtle lying stiff-lipped, unsmiling. That wasn't my grandmother anymore; I didn't want that view of Myrtle to be the last one I remembered.

At Myrtle's funeral, I was asked to do a reading. There were several Xeroxed choices that I suppose the priest had chosen as standards. I randomly chose something from the Book of Ecclesiastes because it was at least slightly familiar (a selection paraphrased in that 1960s song, "Turn, Turn, Turn" by The Byrds). 

"There is an apppointed time for everything...a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant...a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to seek, and a time to lose...a time to speak, and a time to be silent; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. God has made everything appropriate to its time."

I realized later that this was appropriate for Myrtle. She had had bad times and good times, as do we all (though she had more of them, perhaps, because of her long and interesting life). She had had her time to dance, as well. 

I will miss you, Mama. I know that you were, and are, Star Dust.


  1. Hi Liz,

    so sorry for your loss... I remember attending my godmother's funeral years ago and the priest didn't know her at all either. That was so annoying.

    It seems like your grandmother lived a good life, full of memories for her grandchildren, and we should all aspire to something like that.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Thanks, Aurelie. I have so many seriously elderly relatives right now that the looming specter of all those funerals is getting to me, but Myrtle was my mother's mother, and it's hard to imagine just how painful this must be for her and her sister, too. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. Best, EC

  3. So sorry to hear about your loss....I realize this is late but I missed this.

    Merry Christmas!