My grandmother proposed to my wife months before I did. They’d just met the day before, but Grandma, a no-nonsense New Englander, never wasted time on subtlety. “So Andrea,” she said when I stepped out of the room, “are you ready to join this family?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” my startled girlfriend responded.
“Why not?” shot back Grandma. Andrea stumbled through some kind of non-committal evasion. “Well,” Grandma said, “you’re not pregnant so you have time. . . . You aren’t pregnant, right?”
Grandma’s recent death severed our family’s last living link to our history. But the most important thing about my grandmother’s death is something else.
Ruth Barbara Johnston grew up in Boston, the daughter of a schoolteacher who defended her at every turn. When a pair of high school boys harassed her on her way home, he chased them down, grabbed them by their hair, and cracked their heads together three times. The family weathered the Great Depression in comparative luxury. Like most teachers, her father held onto his position, and her mother turned their home into a successful ten-room boarding house.
Grandma first met Henry Porter Perkins — then a craftsman of custom-built wooden pleasure boats — when he came to the house seeking a place to stay in a driving rainstorm. He looked, according to my grandmother, like a drowned rat. “I was not impressed,” she told me. He was immediately smitten. They were wed on April 18, 1942.
In early 1943 Grandpa joined the Navy and found himself thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. That fall he was granted thirty days leave to see his wife and family. He would arrive in San Francisco sometime around October and take the railroad to the East Coast. Grandma took a train bound for California without knowing if Grandpa was still at sea or might even then be on his way east.
His best friend on his ship lived in San Francisco, and upon arriving she called everyone with the friend’s last name until she found his wife. Never shy, she secured an invitation to stay with the woman until Grandpa arrived. Together they road the railroad back home to Boston, where he stayed for just two weeks before heading back to sea.
Over the next nine months, Grandma carried their first child while her husband sailed further and further away into fiercer and fiercer combat. During the battle for Okinawa a month later, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashed his plane carrying a 1200-pound bomb into his ship, but the bomb failed to explode. A month after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grandpa walked through the destruction of the latter city when his ship arrived there to evacuate prisoners of war.
The Valley of the Shadow
Grandpa began developing Alzheimer’s at the age of eighty-five, though he was not diagnosed until five years later. In those last years his sharp mind deteriorated, and his body collapsed. Grandma suffered through it all beside him, her indomitable spirit unquenched.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death, her sense of humor persisted. She loved to tell stories about Grandpa at the end that were at once funny and wrenching. “Ruth,” he once said, “I have a confession. I’ve been eating lunch all week with a beautiful woman.” “I know,” she replied, radiant —that radiance lit up her face every time she told the story — “it was me.”
That was the delightful, if still tragic, version of the more common and uglier incidents near the end. Grandpa would rant and rage at her, demanding that she stop pretending to be his wife, who was much prettier than this ugly old imposter. Grandma didn’t tell those stories much.
After he passed, Grandma moved into a carriage house apartment behind my aunt’s townhouse in Savannah. There she lived until the last few weeks of her life, undaunted by the challenge of living alone for the first time in her life and the physical difficulty. It was no small feat for a woman in her nineties to climb the steep, narrow stairs up to her apartment.
Grandma loved a good story and an unexpected twist. One of her favorite anecdotes concerned hundreds of mating frogs that once descended on the courtyard she shared with my aunt. The unrepeatable punch line involved a certain alliterative nickname she gave this pack of procreating creatures. She liked to tell it to people she thought she might scandalize — including a dinner to which my father, who works in Christian ministry, had invited his boss.
Like All Deaths
Her death severed the link to our family’s history. And like all deaths, my grandmother’s death primarily severs our family’s link to her: to her wit and humor, her vibrant personality and faithful character, her storytelling, and long memory. But that’s not the most important thing about my grandmother’s death. The most important thing is that it will be undone.
Mark Perkins teaches history at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a postulant in the Anglican Province of America at All Saints Anglican Church and a student at Trinity School for Ministry. “You’re Not Pregnant, Right?” is an edited version of part of an article originally published on The Imaginative Conservative.