The passing of my Mimi Dorothy

Dorothy Maxine Lambie Avery, the last of my grandparents, passed away yesterday evening at the age of 93 in Lexington, Kentucky, not terribly far from where I was was born 50 years ago, and where she lived for most of her adult life. She was one of my favorite people in the entire world, and I will miss her for the rest of my life. [That’s her as a toddler above, likely in Swedish enclave of Galesburg, Illinois, when she grew up. It looks to me like she sniffing a turkey foot, but I’m guessing it’s a flower.]

Her life was not an easy one. There was tragedy, to be sure. But she handled it gracefully, as she did everything in her life. She was always in control, and knew what she wanted. Or at least it seemed that way to me. When it was time to sell her modest two bedroom home in Lexington and move into a retirement community, she knew it. I seem to recall feeling bad about it at the time, like she should have held out longer, but she was right. She was tired of keeping up a house, and decided it was time to make a change. So she did her research and she moved. No one had to tell her. And she did the same thing again when it came time, after battling cancer for about two years, to move from her apartment into assisted living. I guess you could say that she was decisive. When she made up her mind to do something, like to give up bowling, which she’d always loved, she just did it without complaint. She didn’t bemoan the fact that life was changing. She just assessed the situation, made her decision, accepted it, and moved on. And, while I wouldn’t say that she made a conscious choice to pass away when she did, she confronted the prospect of death in the same matter-of-fact way, calling her three living children together and telling them that she was ready to go.

Her passing, while not sudden, was relatively quick, for which I am grateful. While she fought head and neck cancer for the past few years, she was still somewhat active and engaged up until this past Monday, the day after Mother’s Day. It was then that she slowly started fading away under the care of her hospice nurses, my mother, and my aunts, who stayed by her bedside for several days, talking with her, playing her favorite music, and reminding her of the terrific family that she’d managed to build and hold together these past several decades. [This winter, thanks to my youngest cousin Shane and his wife Samantha, she’ll have two more great grandchildren – her ninth and tenth – something that gave her a great deal of happiness these past few weeks of her life.]

We should all, I think, be so lucky as to keep our faculties until the very end, live into our 90s, and be surrounded by our loved ones when it’s time for us exit this world, on a lovely spring evening, with the birds chirping just outside the window.

Here she is a few years back, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, surrounded by her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

At some point, I’ll try to do a better job of telling her story. Somewhere around this old house of mine, I’ve got a video that I shot over a decade ago of her and her sister Marilyn telling the story of their childhood, growing up among the old Swedes of Galesburg, cracking eggs into their coffee and cooking eels. [As I recall, they told me that a guy came to town once a year with a giant sack full of eels, and they’d run upstairs when they were cooking, hanging their heads out the window so as not to inhale the terrible smells of the old country.] I do, however, want to at least mention my grandfather, as, according to my mother, she was calling his name prior to passing, as though he were in the room with her… His name was Robert Arthur Avery, and he died when I was 12 years old, back in 1980… Here he is as a boy, along with his sister Betty.

Again, I’d have to find those old interviews to know for sure, but I want to say that my grandparents met while rollerskating somewhere as high school students, somewhere in between Galesburg and Beardstown, where he grew up, which was about 80 miles away… As people did at the time, they married young. I’m not exactly sure how old he was at the time, but, given that they married in 1944, as my baby-faced grandfather was headed off to fight Hitler in Europe, she would have been about 19. Here’s the wedding photo, followed by the telegram they sent to my great grandparents back in Galesburg. I hadn’t seen it until my last visit, when she asked me to get it out of a box for her, along with some other photos.

By my calculation, my grandmother was just 55 when my grandfather passed, just five years older than I am right now. I’m having a difficult time processing that… It just doesn’t even seem possible.

While, over the past decade, the radius of her daily activity continued to narrow, she never stopped living her life. She stayed active, playing cards, watching University of Kentucky basketball games, and keeping tabs on her half dozen grandchildren, of whom I’m the oldest… Speaking of things that I’m having a difficult time processing, when I was born, she would have only been 43, which is amazing to me now, being that I was older than that when my son Arlo was born.

Here’s another photo from the family archive. I’m not sure of the year. The man on the left is my great grandfather John Lambie. The infant next to him is my mother, who was his first born grandchild. And the woman on the right is my grandmother, who looks way too young to be raising a child.

Thankfully, during my last visit to see her, which was just about three weeks ago, Clementine was with me, and my grandmother was just a sharp as ever. We played games, talked about family history, went through old photos and telegrams like the ones above, and made the rounds through the assisted living facility where she lived, meeting her friends and the nurses who cared for her. By that point, her hearing and her eyesight were fading, probably due to a reoccurrence of the cancer, which she’d decided to stop treating some time earlier, and she’d lost the use of one of her arms, but she didn’t complain… I know I usually don’t show pictures of the kids here on the site, but, as I think she’d want me to share this, here’s a photo of her and Clementine taken during that visit, just after they’d eaten their milkshakes.

I can’t begin to convey what my grandmother meant to me… It’s difficult to find the words… Although I was a very nervous and shy kid, I always felt incredibly safe around her. She was always unbelievably kind to me, and accepting of the various phases that I was going through, whatever they might be… with one notable exception. I can recall her asking me, after seeing video of one of my bands perform, why I wanted to stand on a stage and “be an asshole” in front of people? She said that on the day that I graduated from college, standing in the living room of the house my friends and I rented at 502 Catherine Street in Ann Arbor. Looking back at the video, it was a fair question. It stood out at the time though, as I don’t think she’d ever questioned anything that I’d done prior to that. There was just overwhelming, unconditional love from her. I don’t want to suggest that others in my family didn’t support me. They did. But she had my back in a way that seemed different. And I will miss her greatly and think of her often. Everyone should be as lucky as I was. I will miss making chicken and noodles together and playing cards. I will miss driving down to Lexington to see her, and telling her about what I’ve been up to. But I will try my best to keep her memory in my heart, and remind my children of her, and the example she set for everyone in our family.

I was fortunate in that I grew up with five great grandparents. She was the only great grandparent, however, that my children ever knew, the only person they’ve talked with at length, for that matter, who lived through the great depression and World War II. She was our link to family history, and now she’s gone. And I feel unmoored. Adrift. She was always this constant in my life. No matter what, I knew that she was out there. And now she’s not. An entire generation of my family is now gone.

What does a family do when they lose their matriarch? It’s something that I’ve been wondering about. Without her, I wonder, how will we hold the family together, as us grandchildren grow up and raise families of our own… It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot these past 24 hours, as I suspect my sister and cousins have as well. With her passing, we’ve all taken a step forward generationally-speaking, and with that comes increased responsibility… Hopefully we’re all up for the challenge.

Here, before I sign off for the night, are two more photos of her and I together. In the first, I think I must be playing dead as she checks my pulse. [Either that, or I’ve been knocked out, probably by my Aunt Nancy, who was only about a decade and a half older than me at the time.] In the second, we’re together at the cemetery not too long ago, visiting my grandfather’s gravesite.

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15 Comments

  1. Jcp2
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry for your loss.

  2. Jean Henry
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Lovely.

  3. Demetrius
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    She sounds like a remarkable woman, who lived a long and interesting life.

  4. Sad
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your memories and feelings about your grandmother.

    It’s so great that you had someone like her.

  5. Kristin
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    This was so great, Mark, I’m sorry for your loss. I really miss the old people in my family, and have a hard time realizing that my parents are that generation now. I have been shocked at how often I think of all my grandparents, still, wishing we could go on a drive together, or thinking about how much one of them liked a particular time of year. I’m sure you’ll feel the same, you really do keep them with you.

  6. Lisa Dengiz
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    This is so touching, Mark. Sorry for your huge loss. She would have been so proud of this loving legacy.

  7. Julie Long
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Mark, thank you for this absolutely beautiful tribute to our Grandmother. She was so loved and will be so missed. The room was full of love when she passed and it was so very peaceful but of course, true to her character, on her terms. Love to you, Linette, Clementine and Arlo.

  8. Moncia
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Dot and Bob: ¡presente!

  9. Linda white
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I am so sorry for your loss mark. A wonderful tribute for a grandmother so loved. RIP Dorothy

  10. Diane Gass
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    A beautiful tribute to your grandmother. She would be very proud. I am sure she is as she is looking on you with love.

  11. Arika
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Sorry to hear of her passing, but lovely to hear about her life. She will definitely live on through your memories of her and those you share and re-tell among your family!

  12. wobblie
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    MM, Sorry for your loss. I did not know you have family roots in west central Illinois. Beardstown, is now a majority (or nearly so) Hispanic community. Always loved the little bar between the bridge and the grain elevator. Have not stopped in there in probably 30 years though. Your grand folks are about the age of my aunts and uncles. My aunt Serena lived to be 102, we buried her just a couple of years ago. We buried her husband, my uncle Thomas, the same day as the Mayaguis incident in 1975. Not unusual for that generation to have woman who were widows for 25 or 30 years.

  13. wobblie
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    “With her passing, we’ve all taken a step forward generationally-speaking, and with that comes increased responsibility… Hopefully we’re all up for the challenge.”

    Demand better of yourself and the society you are apart of. Be the example of what you want your children to become. Never accept the “lesser evil”.

  14. Todd Spencer
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Mark, Sorry about your grandmother’s passing. Your remembrance was sweet and poignant and filled with great historical details, thank you for publishing it. I sent it to my mom, who is taking care of my last living grandparent, her mom, who will be 93 next month and has Alzheimer’s. We also call her “Mimi.” Again, my condolences, and also thanks for posting this.

  15. TeacherPatti
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Awww, Mark! I’m so sorry. You wrote a beautiful article and now she is also part of our memories, although not quite in the same way of course.

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