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(Steve Adams for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

My link to the past is gone Add to ...

A grandchild's love can keep a grandmother alive for a long, long time. I know this, because I've seen it.

But recently, my love lost its power.

Last month, my 98-year-old grandmother Verute began to fail. One morning a priest came to give her the last rites, and she died later that afternoon in her sleep.

With her death, I lost the woman I loved most in the world.

When she was around 3 or 4 years old, her family fled occupying armies in Lithuania for Kharkov, Ukraine's second-largest city, where they stayed until the end of the First World War.

There she sang and played school with the neighbour's little girls who taught her Russian. I once took a friend from St. Petersburg to meet my grandmother, and struggled to understand as they spoke. "It's a lovely village accent," Yana said. "She sounds like she comes from another era." Which, of course, she did.

Everyone in the family calls my grandmother by the diminutive Verute, never Veronika, her formal name, which she never liked. Even in her 90s, Verute suited her. Soft and gentle as it was, with a whiff of the past.

Born in 1911, she witnessed the world transform and remap itself again and again. Childhood exile prepared her for adulthood, when she would flee once more, this time with her own daughter.

A decade ago when she was hospitalized for a few weeks, I thought it was the end. She had stopped eating, and her formerly mild Alzheimer's symptoms had worsened with the stress and change. The hospital stay had disoriented her, and she lay listless and confused when I arrived to see her each day.

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To bring her back, she and I practised naming all eight children in her family in their order of birth: Vale, Justas, Aleksas, Maryte, Zose, Stefa, Verute and baby Jonukas, who died in infancy. Using this map of the past as her guide, she began to return to the present.

I visited her every day at dinnertime and, as she ate, read a book aloud to her. As we read, I slowly spoon-fed her. Distracted, she ate without noticing and began to regain her strength. She returned home to her condo shortly thereafter.

As a teenager, I often spent Saturday nights at her place. My grandmother sewed all her life and made me exquisite clothes. A night owl, she would be working on a hem or buttonhole when I came home from the movies at midnight. Over Sunday breakfasts I loved asking question after question about her family, her many siblings and their fates.

My grandmother liked telling the story of how she met my grandfather. She (a nurse) met him (a lung specialist) at the hospital where they worked. One afternoon he asked her out to the milk bar to enjoy some soup and dumplings at the end of the day.

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The conversation, my grandmother explained meaningfully and with a light laugh, had taken place in the venereal disease laboratory. The invitation had surprised her, and later, a colleague warned her against "getting involved with that one" - "He's always got a new girl on his arm. He'll only break your heart."

She ignored the advice. Almost 70 years later, she told me, "He was so handsome, everyone liked him, and he chose me - me, with my thin hair and invisible eyebrows. It was meant to be. There's no other explanation."

This story has two possible meanings: On the one hand, the laboratory warns of the dangers of love for the incautious and promiscuous, but on the other, the meeting is a charmed one. The venereal disease laboratory is, as its name suggests, the realm of the Goddess of Love.

Verute knew there had to be some divine intervention. Venus was the only possible explanation. Unafraid, she and Vincas married shortly thereafter, in 1934, and had a daughter. They were married 52 years until his death at 80.

When the three of them left Lithuania with the German front in 1944, bombs were falling and my grandmother covered my mother with her body, willing an explosion to kill them both rather than leave her daughter an orphan.

She never complained, never lamented the things she'd left behind, not even the cherished dress she'd buried under the stairs outside her house for safekeeping until her return. So many families hadn't survived intact, and Verute counted her blessings for making it to the other side of the ocean with her small family whole.

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By the time I was a teenager she'd lived long enough to know that nothing was stable. She never criticized my teenaged penchant for wearing black all the time. "Whatever is in fashion," she would say, "is beautiful."

Ideas change. Life moves. Stuff happens. She knew this better than most.

Now, through my sadness, I listen for her voice that says to me: Life is here, life is now, count your blessings.

I will try.

In her honour I will sing incantations of my ancestors' names, all her siblings in their order of birth. Making a map of our past to navigate the present, I will try to live according to her example: to love my partner deeply, quietly and with gratitude that he chose me, with all my imperfections.

I will ignore those who disparage love and tell me to be wary. I will remember that life shifts and that what is beautiful now is good enough. I will accept the blessings of Venus in my life, even when bestowed in unsavoury surroundings, and hang on to my own small family, remembering that as long as we remain intact, the rest can come and go as it will.

Finally, when it is my turn to be an old lady, I too will drink in the love of my grandchild. A grandchild's love can keep you alive for a long time.

I know this, because I've seen it.

Julija Sukys lives in Saint-Lambert, Que.

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