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I remember

My grandmother, Eloise Sadler Hills, would have been 95 today.

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We grandkids called her Gammy, and she called us Gammy’s Lambies. She was always fond of lambs.

She died September 15, 2001, after a long life full of love and family, friends and acquaintances, good times and bad. The ups and downs of a life that spanned the amazing changes of the 20th century: Two World Wars; the Depression; the Baby Boom; the astounding social and economic progress of the post-World War II era and into the 1950s; the even more amazing social change of the ’60s; the cultural insanity of the ’70s and ’80s; and the winding down of a century and a life well lived in the ’90s.

Gammy was 62 when I was born. (I’m named for my grandfather, Donald Lynn Hills, who died before I was born.) I remember about the time I was 6 or so, she was so vigorously alive—enjoying her daughter and her grandchildren, her friends and extended family, the daily activities that filled her life. She lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia then, so it was a really special event when we’d pile into the car for the overnight drive to visit her. We usually spent a week or two, made a visit to Disneyland each trip, had so many wonderful times with endless happy memories that still warm my heart.

My grandmother experienced many hardships just in the final 20 or so years of her life, those years I most clearly remember about her. In the mid-1980s Gammy’s husband Bob died, and she moved to Salt Lake City to be closer to her daughter (my mother). And then Gammy ran into other troubles.

She endured a series of medical problems—cancer and its treatments, an intestinal blockage, a few other things—and eventually she began slipping into the initial stages of senile dementia. She could no longer live alone, so she moved into my parents’ house. Mom went to extraordinary lengths to make sure Gammy felt at home there. When she first moved in, she was the vibrant woman we’d known our entire lives, a bit worse for wear but with the light of life shining brightly still.

We were fortunate for that. She’d tell us stories of life in Salt Lake City “back in my day,” of life in the greater Bay Area (Menlo Park, Pebble Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea) and the Los Angeles area (Santa Ana!). We lived those stories with her as she reached deeply into her memories to bring them to life for us.

But she slipped further from us. Eventually she needed more care than we could provide. Then came another medical emergency, and it was time to find an extended-care facility where she could go after her latest hospital visit and where she would receive round-the-clock attention from professionals who did the work because they had extraordinary passion for it and were damned good at it. We searched for several days and eventually found Highland Care Center near 4500 South on Highland Drive. It was a godsend.

By this time Gammy spoke but rarely. When she did talk, as often as not it was to tell whomever was with her that she didn’t know where she was, or who was with her; she needed to get home right away, she didn’t recognize this place. She had starkly vivid memories of life on 1100 East in the first half of the 20th century and she retreated into those memories, taking comfort from the images of a life that existed only within her own consciousness, 70 or more years in the past.

Of course we had trouble with it. It was difficult to watch this vivacious woman slowly waste away and withdraw further into her own mind. Sure, she had lucid moments—she always recognized my mother, and pretty often she knew me because she held on to the name association with my grandfather—but other faces she knew only sometimes, never predictably.

We always assumed she was suffering, and I suppose she was in some discomfort now and then, but we overlooked the fact that in her retreat to memories of her life so long ago, she’d found a part of her life that was well worth reliving.

She was enjoying a moment forever.

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I’m sorry to say that I stopped visiting Gammy regularly after she moved into Highland Care. I’d been the most adamant about finding a good care center, and I did the research and asked all the questions when we visited the place the first time. Once that was done, I stepped back and became shamefully reticent about visits. Oh sure, I visited regularly, several times a week at first, but over the next several months it became an occasional drop-in and the regular visits for birthdays and holidays.

It was hard for me to see my grandmother changed so much from the smiling, talkative, warm woman of my youth to this quiet shell of a person, the suggestion of recognition flickering only occasionally across her face when her family visited.

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In September 2001 I traveled to Chicago on business. I flew into O’Hare on September 10. The next day saw the terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Maryland; and the day after that marked the start of my grandmother’s descent toward death. Mom called me Wednesday to tell me Gammy wasn’t doing so well, might not survive much longer, and three days later Gammy was gone.

I couldn’t get back to Salt Lake until the 16th, by which time my sister, my aunt and cousins, and other family members had come together.

We held no funeral. Instead we gathered on September 17 for a long dinner at a beautiful restaurant, Tuscany, where we cried and laughed and told stories and toasted the memory of a woman who had brought so much joy and love into our lives through times good and bad.

Gammy wanted to be cremated, and in October 2002 we made a trip to the Bay Area to realize her wishes. We scattered her ashes in Monterey Bay and drank a toast to her memory at Coit Tower, in remembrance of her trips there with my grandfather and my mother, when they’d offer a toast as they gazed out on the city from the top of the tower.

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It’s funny how our emotions reveal themselves as time passes.

I made my peace with Gammy’s death a few years before it happened, for she had long since ceased to be the person I’d grown up knowing.

She was still physically there, certainly, but the emotional process of grieving the loss was already complete.

Now, as I finish writing, I feel a lump in my throat and a tightness in my face, and I’m surprised by them. But now I know even more the strong effect she had—still has—on the people, the events, the places that made me who I am today.

I take my name from a man I never met. The name was a true honor for me long ago when I’d heard stories and seen photographs and had some sense of the history of my mother’s family, but the honor is magnified immeasurably now, for my name became the most solid connection I had to my grandmother in her final years.

My mom would say, “It’s Donald here to visit you,” and Gammy’s eyes would light up like the sky at sunrise.

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Happy birthday, Gammy.

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