An Eternal Incandescence

On the weekend of my senior prom in high school, I took an impromptu trip to Chicago with my mother. For reasons not worth recounting here, my situation with girls was complicated, and I preferred to run away from it all. I had a few other things on my mind, too. The month before, I’d received my acceptance letter to Georgetown, a dream fulfilled; within a month, I’d be out of high school, and my parents’ divorce, long in the works, would be final. I was not exactly in my most stable mental state. I needed an escape, and my grandmother’s 80th birthday party provided a retreat into a safe harbor.

At the party, I had a moment to myself with my grandmother. She proceeded to give me the longest, most heartfelt hug I have ever received. She expressed some pride that I was headed to Georgetown—maybe I’d turn out a good Catholic boy after all!—but it quickly dawned on me that she was saying far more with that hug than a comment on college choice. There are a few people in life with whom I feel deeply in tune, fellow observers of the world passing before us whom I can read and who can read me in an instant. A quick look, even when cryptic, could convey paragraphs. Grandma was one of those people, and it was in that moment that I came to understand the meaning of unconditional love.

Her smile was a window unto an eternal incandescence. Her spirit gushed and overflowed and swept us up, making us forget pity, caution, concern, everything but the pleasure of her presence. -Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Grandma was something of an expert on the topic. As the mother of twelve children, she shepherded them all through their highs, lows, and all of the tumult that our sprawling clan mustered. If natality, as Hannah Arendt claimed, is indeed the miracle that saves the world, she brought about that destiny time and time again. It all seemed to come with a certain ease. There were, of course, times when it all drained her; times when wayward members of her lineage led her to shake her head and purse her lips. But she knew that the richness of her creation far exceeded its exhaustions, and by the time I came along, she’d seen it all, and knew what we needed in certain moments.

That innate connection appeared once again when I saw her for the final time this past April. Due to the coronavirus it was our first in-person visit in over a year, and she was moving more slowly, thinking more slowly, steadily slipping away into the mists beyond. We both seemed to have the sense this might be the last time we saw each other. We had a long goodbye, and we shared one final significant look that said it all: we would confront what came next, not without a little fear, but also with knowledge, with a certain faith. That was enough to see us through.

Grandma’s death this past week, at the age of 93, came with a characteristic grace. While there were struggles, she always seemed to slide easily and deliberately through life, and there was never a radical turn. When she lost her husband of 67 years, she mourned but moved on, kept up her joyous spirits, tiring more easily but still ready to be part of the endless family party. Unlike Grandpa, she did not crash with age; instead, it was a slow, gentle fade, tinged by the occasional frustration and uncertainty, but never far from her characteristic good humor. My Aunt Mary Beth took her in for the final four years of her life, an act of quiet heroism that made sure my grandfather’s rough decline in sterile hospitals would not befall her. She eased away with a steady stream of family visits and put up with the chaos of weekly Zooms during her final year. When it was time to go, she went quickly, waiting just long enough for Mary Beth to return from a much-needed trip with her son and grandchildren to Cape Cod, muttering a few final phrases in Polish to come full circle, family by her side as the breaths slid away.

Like her husband and so many of her progeny, Grandma possessed a robust mind. This young Polish girl from the city attended the University of Chicago in the 1940s, a feat whose impressiveness did not dawn on me until late in her life. While she didn’t get lost in intellectual tomes and debates the way Grandpa did, she kept herself busy, always ready to exercise a politely judgmental curiosity, whether over some book or movie or adventure of her offspring or in the complete tour of a giant book on art history that she and I once undertook. In coronavirus quarantine I picked up her crossword puzzle habit; toward the end, when that was beyond her, she settled for marathons of Rummikub, which now threatens euchre’s position as the official family game. If Grandpa was the driving force of nature who made their small empire possible, Grandma was its deep guiding core, her mere presence creating a sense that this all should come naturally.

The family Zooms over the final year and a half of her life gave us occasion to bust out old pictures and gifted me a window into the formation of a suburban Chicago matriarch. There were her childhood ventures to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, an ever-burgeoning clan filling first the house on Ardmore in Villa Park and then the house on Edgewood in Lombard, and later at the homes of aunts and uncles and out in Huntley. The steady string of lifelong friends, couples on a shared journey: Gingers, Gioias, Fanellas, and so on. Catholic masses, chaotic Christmas parties, Cubs games, a few European cruises, a papal mass. Joy filled it all from start to finish.

Grandma fell in love with the Northwoods of Wisconsin, long a family retreat, and I can still see her contented smile on the deck overlooking East Twin Lake. My Aunt Lucy’s transcription of her Northwoods journals early in the coronavirus pandemic were a revelation, a deeper dive into a mind whose contours felt both new and exactly right. Her work inspired me to start a simple journal with posterity in mind, a daily exercise that got beyond the alternating poles of incredible detachment and deeply personal musing that consume so much of my own output, and settled for easy reflection on the passing days. “I try not to feel apprehension — keep telling myself to just ENJOY what we’ve been given,” she writes on day one of the journal. An ethos we can all take to heart.

What I will remember forever, however, is her laugh. It had a full spectrum, from a quick chuckling eddy to a deep, full-throated roller, a cycle of the tides to fit any occasion. It was always ready, sometimes delighted and sometimes resigned, but always able to light up a room. The punches have come hard for us Maloneys in 2020: first an aunt and then a cousin and now the woman who birthed it all. At least now we can all be together again in the flesh to send her off. So I will dust off my suit, pour myself a Manhattan, and prepare one final do widzenia to the woman whose easy delight at the world around her made possible a life in accord with the rhythms of her world. We multitudes who follow all carry that light.