This Life of Hers

The month we learned of my grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis was December 2005. Three months before, Mimi’s hometown––and mine––was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In the months that preceded and followed her diagnosis, our family, and our beloved city of New Orleans, was in recovery. But then my grandmother moved to hospice, and we watched our city slowly come back to life as our matriarch withered away. 

My grandmother Mimi was born in 1919 to Victorian-era parents of means. Her family was proper, and private, and had a strict don’t-share-your-feelings policy. She didn’t speak of herself very often, never spontaneously burst into story. Yet I was enthralled by her classy beauty, her aura of mystery. She had grace and style, but kept her inner self behind the veil. 

I moved away at eighteen but visited home often. I’d drop by Mimi’s St. Charles Avenue home and drink a Diet Coke from her bar fridge, but not once did I ask her about her life. Stories about her past were shared by my mother, my aunts, and my uncles, but I never had the nerve to ask my grandmother to tell me her tales directly. I pictured her eyes fluttering, her hand shaking along with her head––“No, no, we don’t go there.” So I didn’t. 

When she was dying of cancer, I visited Mimi with my newborn. She loved babies and I knew it would buoy her. And I knew I needed to see her in this state, this place of vulnerability. Every day several of us would gather around her four-poster bed, painted the glossiest white. We’d rub her feet, something I could never have imagined doing before, and Mimi told stories.

One day she told us about her sister Malcolm, and how they’d gone to Chile together. 

I casually said, “Oh, I didn’t know you did went there.” Maybe there was even a touch of excitement in my voice, knowing she’d traveled to South America. 

“Well,” she snapped, “you never asked.”

Mimi’s eyes were fiery. I was taken aback. 

Her words stung with truth.

I hadn’t asked, and she’d noticed––she’d possibly even wished I had. I’d been stuck all these years wishing for a grandmother who had a big bosom and gave bear hugs, who baked cookies and told me stories that imparted hard-earned wisdom. And all the while she had tales to tell, but wanted to be asked. 

With her passing, I was left with a commitment to find a fun and lasting way to help people ask their parents—or grandparents, or loved ones—the questions that might be hard to ask face-to-face, while also allowing the writer to leave a record in their own words. Memory can’t be taken for granted; at age forty-eight, I find I already easily forget details about my family history that my mother has told me. I’ve even forgotten many of the specifics of my children’s first years, and am grateful I kept baby books to remind me and, one day, to pass to my girls. Thus arose the idea for a workbook to be filled out toward the other end of one’s life – a Baby Book for adults! – to record the events, decisions, stories, and preferences of a life well lived, to gather the sum of all my parts into one beautiful, tangible whole. This Life of Mine: A Legacy Journal, with illustrations by Sarah Trumbauer, is that book come to life.

Anne Phyfe Palmer