“Though she be but little, she is fierce!” – William Shakespeare
So, last night Joe told me I should write about this and I wasn’t ready but I guess at 4:43am when I’m wide awake, and have been wide awake for the past hour, I’m feeling more ready.
My 94-year-old, incredible, strong, beautiful, smart and fierce grandmother, Olive McIlwain Kerr, passed away yesterday. Her heart stopped beating and then started again at Saint Andrews Hospital in the morning and then after my aunt and uncle and cousins had gone home after being with her off and on for most of the day she decided it was time. The only ones in the room with her were her oldest son and her husband of 73 years who had recently taken to giving her back rubs every night before they went to bed.
When she became a grandmother she always knew that she didn’t want to be called Nana or Grandma or any of the typical grandparent names, so, she settled on Tita. It’s origins are Filipino (as far as I know) and she picked it up on one of her many world travels with my grandfather. “Tita” literally means “aunt” but it can be just a term of endearment or a term someone younger will use for an elder female as a sign of respect or honor. So, Tita she was. According to Urban Dictionary it’s also a term for “a woman of any race who is strong, independent, able to think for herself, and FIERCE in a number of different ways…” Sounds about right. *
Her father was a professor at Bowdoin, Harvard and Princeton and in 1923 he wrote a book called The American Revolution: A Constitutional Interpretation. The next year the book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for History and with the money he got from the Pulitzer, he used it as the down payment for a house on a small island in Maine called Squirrel Island. That house is still in my family and “Squirrel”, as we all refer to it, became my grandmother’s second home and, in turn, has also become mine.
(Brendan Bullock, 2012)
She went to Connecticut College and ended up meeting a handsome Harvard University student, Walter Kerr, at a Brattle Hall dance. They married in 1940 when he was a med student at the University of Pennsylvania. She became the mother of four boys and drove them up to Maine every summer to Squirrel with the family sailboat, the Rijkel, in tow, packed to the gills.
One of the favorite family stories about Tita is the mink coat story. For many, many years, to save money when the boys were younger, she would cut everyone’s hair herself, including my grandfather’s. Then, one year, she added up how much money she’d saved and went out and bought herself a mink coat. Yup, the lady had tenacity.
She was a traveler (she and my grandfather visited almost every continent and had a story about every single country in the world it seemed), a birder (she could identify most birds of North America and beyond by sight or call and used to lead bird walks at Squirrel every summer), a mediocre cook who mastered few dishes but mastered them well (her blueberry crumble was to die for, especially when made with freshly picked blueberries from their blueberry patch in the backyard in Maine) and a box wine enthusiast (Franzia Chardonnay was always a staple in their fridge).
Her older years were harder and clearly her excitement for life waned when she couldn’t be as mobile or hear or see the world as well but she was usually up for a quick peck on the lips from any of her grandchildren and a Red Sox game (when my grandfather brought home their first hi-def TV she demanded that he return it immediately but then after about two weeks exclaimed that she could see each hair on Youk’s chin and the TV never went back into it’s box).
After her taste buds started to go she kept on telling everyone that she could only taste tart flavors so I started bringing her my company’s Lemon Daisy Shortbread Cookies. It became tradition over the last 7 years that I would just occasionally ship her an entire case (6 boxes) or bring one to her when they were still living not far from me in Milton, Massachusetts or when we would stop in for a visit once they moved up to a senior living community in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. A cookie was never more than a reach away. She kept the boxes of cookies tucked away into different bookshelves and cabinets and always had a box of Dancing Deer or a sleeve of Chips Ahoy tucked under the plaid wool blanket she always had on her legs at her constant post on the couch.
I got to have 20 years of being close with all four of my grandparents and that is so unbelievably lucky. My mom’s mom passed away at age 86, her dad died last year at age 97, Tita was 94 and assuming Père makes it to his birthday in August this year he’ll be 97 (Grand-père was too hard to say when we were little so it ended up being shortened. Also? We’re not French or Filipino, but why not?). I know, right?! Genes! I’m aiming for 92 if all goes well.
I got to spend so many wonderful moments over the last 30 years with each of them and for that I am extremely grateful. Tita may not have been the most joyful in her final years but she could always muster up her smile that would wrinkle up her nose when my parents’ labs rushed into the living room to give her wet kisses or she would always make sure to have a quick moment with you to give you a piece of her jewelry or clothing that she wanted you to have and explain the story behind it, ending the moment with a quick squeeze of your hand.
I’d like to think that I’ll age with grace and be skiing until I’m 80 like my Gram but who knows. Starting around age 90 when anyone would ask Tita how she was doing she would often remark “I’m still here!” with an increasingly cranky tone in her voice. And I get it. I would probably be pretty cranky too if most of my friends had already died and if my eye sight, hearing and mobility were all becoming pretty compromised. So, while I don’t look forward to any of those things, I do look forward to hopefully being able to enjoy my life for as long and as much as Tita did.
So, here’s to long life, love, fierceness and of course, Lemon Daisy cookies.
*I read that Urban Dictionary description awhile after I’d written my own description of her so clearly she picked a fitting alternative to “Grandma”.