Grandma and Grandpa and Karen: Can the thoughtful gesture of a grandfather’s new significant other warm the heart of a grieving granddaughter?

By Alaina Smith

Although I talked to him on the phone and wrote him letters, it had been more than five years since I’d seen my grandfather. Our last meeting had been at my grandmother’s funeral. When my husband, Frank, and I finally found the time and money to fly to Illinois and spend Christmas with Grandpa, I was flooded with excited anticipation.

I envisioned walking through the door of the same cozy house I remembered from my childhood visits, the one Grandpa had built himself as a young man. There would be homemade desserts beckoning from the counter tops. Crunchy, undisturbed snow would blanket the front yard, just begging to be used in a snowball fight. Grandpa had even promised to buy a real Christmas tree.

I could picture every detail perfectly, except for one thing: Grandpa’s new girlfriend.

I’d never met or spoken with her before, but I’d heard the news from family. Her name was Karen, and she was 25 years younger than my 80-year-old grandfather — younger than my father, even. She was living with my widowed grandfather, at least part of the time. I’d found out she’d known him for many years. In fact, before her husband had died, Karen and her husband used to spend time with my grandparents. Despite their age differences, the two couples had clicked. I would be meeting a stranger, but Karen would not; she “knew” me from years of friendship with Grandma and Grandpa.

Despite all the things that might make a granddaughter wary, I had already decided there was no reason not to like her. My grandfather had been married to my grandmother for more than 50 years before she died of cancer, and her death had been devastating to him. Grandpa deserved to be happy again, and from what I’d heard, he was happy with Karen.

When Frank and I arrived inIllinoisthree days before Christmas, Grandpa and Karen were waiting for us at the airport. Karen, who had fluffy blond hair and glasses, gave me a warm hug. As the four of us stood at the baggage claim area and spoke, it was immediately evident how content Karen and my grandfather were together.

Grandpa’s house was just as I remembered it. In fact, it was a little spooky. My grandmother’s presence was everywhere — in her pictures on the shelves, in her homemade afghan on the couch, in her handwriting on the ancient Tupperware. After spending decades in that house with my grandfather, there was no question that her memory belonged there, but it was that very fact that made it strange for me to watch Karen move comfortably among her things.

Warm-hearted and gracious, Karen did everything right. She cooked for us, cleaned, made us feel welcome, and made Grandpa smile. I genuinely liked her. Still, I couldn’t help wondering how Grandma would have felt knowing her old friend had slid seamlessly into the life she had once owned. Would it have been a comfort or a betrayal?

The question bothered me, and I thought about it on and off as I watched Karen and Grandpa together. They snuggled beside each other on the couch, their legs covered with Grandma’s afghan. I thought about my own history and the times I’d felt betrayed. If Grandma could have chosen Grandpa’s future girlfriend, would she have wanted her to be a stranger, someone completely separate from the bond Grandma and Grandpa had shared, or would she have wanted him to choose a friend of hers, someone who knew everything — maybe too much — about their past?

The ability of another woman to remember and discuss Grandma could be a gift or a curse; undoubtedly, it is an element of power. Of course, I knew the question of what Grandma would want was hypothetical. Grandma was gone, and it was Grandpa who would decide what happened next. Karen was a good woman and she made him happy, and for that I was grateful. End of story.

On Christmas morning, I heard whispering. Halfway through our present-opening celebration, Karen muttered, “I can’t wait anymore!” Abruptly, there she was, standing in front of me, looking excited, eager, and nervous. She handed me a large package and told me to open it next.

The label confused me; the present was from “Grandma and Grandpa and Karen.” What did that mean? My first fleeting thought was that Karen had called herself “Grandma” and then thought better of it, but that didn’t make sense. Everyone watched me open the gift.

As I unfolded what turned out to be a huge, colorful quilt, Karen said, “Your grandma saved the material from the dresses and outfits she sewed for you when you were little.”

The quilt was amazing. Framed against a white-and-purple background were bright, cheerful squares of material representing outfits from my childhood, beginning with my birth year of 1972 and continuing through 1980. Embroidery in my grandmother’s handwriting explained each square.

“Rompers, 1 year old, 1973,” was a red, blue, and black plaid peppered with fuzzy white Scottie dogs. The fabric that read “Christmas 1976, blouse, age 4½” was a jumbled mass of flowers, triangles, and staircase shapes in yellow, orange, green, tan, brown, black, and white — very 1970s. One square, also from 1976, was more familiar that all the rest. It was white satin speckled with tiny turquoise dots and tiny tulips. At the top of each tulip’s delicate green stem was a raised blossom of sky blue fluff. The 4-year-old me had loved the blouse made of that fabric. She probably never would have believed that she’d one day give up such cheerful clothes for dark, solid colors that didn’t draw attention.

Karen spoke again. “She had finished all the embroidery and picked out the pattern. I just put it together.” She looked at my grandfather. “Your grandpa chose the border.”

Around the quilt’s edge,Garfieldsmiled his sly grin while Odie let his tongue drool on the quilt squares.Garfieldhad been my favorite cartoon as a girl.

Grandpa said, “Your grandma started that before she got sick, but she never got to finish it. I was just going to throw that stuff away, but Karen offered to finish it for you.”

I ran my hands over the fabrics on the quilt: silky, cottony, fuzzy, and textured. Then, I looked up at Karen’s hopeful smile. I immediately stood and hugged her, holding her tight and thanking her for the quilt. I felt many things — grateful, happy, honored, and most of all, shocked. What shocked me was not the quilt itself or the story of how it had come to be but the realization that my questions had been answered. Suddenly, I thought I knew how my grandmother would have felt about Karen.

There were two very different ways to interpret Karen’s gesture, but my heart knew the right answer. This was not a woman trying to show up my grandmother or take her place. Despite the fact that she now had my grandmother’s husband, had my grandmother’s home, and had even finished my grandmother’s quilt. Karen’s moving among Grandma’s things showed not domination of them but respect.

Karen respected my grandmother enough to let her presence remain, respected her enough not to mind when Grandpa talked about Grandma, respected her enough to know what half a century of marriage signifies. Karen had made this quilt not to outdo my grandmother but to honor her. Her completion of the quilt that Grandma hadn’t had the strength to complete was as much a gift to my grandmother as it was a gift for me.

I think Grandma would approve.

This story was first published in A Cup of Comfort for Christmas.

Alaina Smith is a creative writer in Portland, Oregon. Her true tales appear in book series such as Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chocolate for Women, and A Cup of Comfort.

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