My dear grandmother, Agnes Kathryn Heywood nee Weiler, died Tuesday at noon. In infancy she survived a bomb blast intended to kill her entire family in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but was ultimately taken down by age. She was 97.
Her first memory was of the train-side fanfare surrounding the return of troop from World War I. Until very recently, her mind was sharp and almost terrifyingly complete -- she could recall with perfect clarity the guests at dinner parties she attended in the 1940s. Her love of conversation and genuine interest in people was boundless. Well into her 90s, any event I attended with her ended only after she had made the acquaintance of everyone in the room, learning their circumstances and picking up intuitively on what topics of conversation might interest each, along with what would make them most comfortable. All anyone wanted to talk about after meeting her was how lovely and fascinating my grandmother was. She was a true social animal.
The time we had together was some of the happiest of my childhood. I was lucky enough to spend a few summers with her and my grandfather. My grandmother would send me out to cut flowers from the gardens which we would then spend hours arranging; we would carefully go through all the jewelry in her dressing room, pulling everything from the safe and the secret compartment hidden in the bathroom cabinetry; she would insist I bathe in the sunken tub in her bathroom, using an antique ewer to play with the water; we would polish the silver together, a task I still enjoy because it reminds me of her.
We would visit her friends and on the drive over she would say, "Nicky, compliment Bethy on her ring and she'll show you the rest of her jewels. She has the best diamonds in Omaha," or "On the way to the bathroom, look in the atrium -- she keeps a Della Robbia out there." There was always the feeling of conspiracy to our conversations, and I loved her very dearly.
Her favorite places were beautiful and far away -- Rome and the surrounding countryside, which she used to explore with her driver and good friend Bruno (I still have the pasta maker and Etruscan head he gave her in the 1950s), Los Angeles, which she knew most in the 1930s (before smog, still awash in stars and orange groves), as it was the last stop on the railroad she was a stewardess for prior to marriage, and New York, where she went often with my Grandfather for medical conferences. I never visited any of these places with her, but my own experience in each started with the memories she imparted to me, and it is in these places that I imagine her now.
In some ways I am like her, but not enough.