Eric, Ellie, E.J. and I just returned from a whirlwind visit home for a very sad reason: my grandmother, Rita Baird, passed away late Monday night. The funeral was held on Friday, with a nice, simple service at the funeral home followed by a brief ceremony at Florida National Cemetery, where she is now at rest with my grandfather. She leaves behind her four children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Although we are sad to say goodbye to her, she has been very ill and very frail for a very long time, and as of late she was dealing with far more than just physical failings. In a way, it is a relief to know that she can finally rest. I pray her passing has brought her the peace she was missing for so long.
I realized as I sat down to write this that I actually know very little about my grandmother's life when she was a child or young woman. I know that she was very beautiful:
Looking like a movie star in her youth!
And that she and my grandfather had a World War II-era romance that transitioned from "uncertain" (as my grandfather described it) to happily married during my Papa's service with the Marines:
My grandparents are on the right, on their wedding day
A sketch my grandfather made for my grandma and mailed to her while he was overseas in WWII
And if I'm being honest, my grandmother and I did not have a particularly close, "grandmotherly" relationship. When we would go to her house as children, we would generally go off and play in a bedroom while she visited with my parents. My grandfather helped me plant a garden every year and built me a dollhouse and took me fishing, but I don't have similarly memorable one-on-one experiences with my grandmother. She wasn't very emotionally demonstrative, yet I always knew she was interested in my life, and cared about me, and she definitely loved hearing about and seeing pictures of Ellie (in fact, her visits with Ellie after we moved to Florida were the times I remember her being the most obviously happy in a very long time).
Four generations of Bairds, July 2012
December 2012. I'm so glad Ellie got a chance to meet her great-grandmother, too!
But even knowing all that, overall, my grandmother and I just weren't as close as we could have been.
However, just because she never donned an apron and baked cookies with me while telling tales of "the good old days" doesn't mean that I don't consider her to be one of the great female role models in my life. My grandmother's personality was as vibrant and fiery as her red Irish hair, and she had a plethora of qualities that I find extremely admirable - traits that I hope to embody to some degree myself, and characteristics that I hope to see in my own daughter as she grows:
Grandma was well-educated and even into her final months, continued her relentless search for knowledge. She loved to read and study and sought constant opportunities for learning.
Grandma was well-informed and very opinionated in regards to politics and current events, and was never afraid to share her thoughts on that subject (or any subject, for that matter!).
Grandma loved music, particularly opera.
Grandma had a great sense of style. She was always well put-together and when we were kids, she had the best dress-up clothes! My cousins and I would drape ourselves in her old dresses, sequined pillbox hats and mink stoles and imagine what great parties these fine clothes must have seen (from things my dad has mentioned, it sounds like there were fine parties indeed!).
Grandma wanted the best for us, even if she sometimes showed it in seemingly strange ways. For example, she was angry at my cousins and I when we gave birth in situations or under circumstances that scared her (my HELLP syndrome; my cousin's homebirth). I know she just wanted us to all be okay, and didn't like feeling out of control. I get that.
Grandma was outspoken, even coming from an era when women were generally much less so than today. She could be blunt and often stubborn, but by golly, she would tell you what was on her mind! As an introvert who avoids confrontation at all costs, that is a trait I really wish I had a little more of myself.
Of all Grandma's qualities that I considered over the past week, however, the one descriptor that comes to mind with noticeable frequency is that Grandma was strong. She was strong mentally - smart, sharp and clever. She was strong emotionally - enduring the war with her husband overseas, raising four children, carrying on as the head of our family after her husband passed 16 years ago. She was strong physically - she battled her health for years and years but simply refused to give up. Sometimes her strength (and stubbornness) was to her own detriment, like when she insisted on getting out of bed herself even when she was too frail to do so. That woman would not give up; when she set her mind to something she was going to do it and all you could do was get out of her way. She was one tough cookie, definitely one of the absolute strongest women I have ever known. To me, strength was Grandma's most defining characteristic.
All these things are pieces of Grandma that I hope will live on in her family - in her daughters and sons, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. I pray that we will live our lives drawing from her extraordinary strength and making her proud.
Grandma in the upper right corner, surrounded by just a sampling of her family and very happy about it.
We love you, Grandma.