Thursday, January 15, 2015


On January 3, 2015, my grandmother passed away at the age of 98. This is the remembrance I delivered at her memorial service.

.     .     .

Delina May Heiss Wise. Most knew her - many of you knew her - as Delina. But in our family she was "Opie." I was only two years old when I gave her that name, and it stuck.

In my earliest recollection, Opie was a being of mysterious and magical power, as grandparents are, at their best. Her car looked like the Batmobile of the Sixties, only in champagne. Her house was (to me) gloomy, wreathed in shadow, and the bathroom smelled of perfumey soaps. She dispensed weird chalky candies. She could sneeze like nobody's business.

In short, Opie was different. Special. An outlier in the small realm of my brief experience. At that age, I didn't know the half of it.

Opie was born in a different world. One in which a girl might learn to drive herself to school at the age of 12. Or maybe that was just her way, to be ahead of her time. Her bright mind must have been evident even then, as she graduated from Drexel University and did further studies at Duke and Millersville, when women's educational and work options were much more narrowly defined. She became a teacher, and was accomplished in painting, needlework, and sewing. In marrying Richard Wise, she became a mother, choosing to take responsibility for my mother when she was six years old.

Opie was private, quiet, independent. For years after the death of her husband, she maintained their large property on her own. Sometimes I helped with the leaves. One time I hunted birds with bow and arrows. She was okay with that.

Opie collected owls. Later I learned that previously she had collected pigs. This struck me as incongruous, for whatever virtues a pig might possess, surely such a creature was not fit to serve as this woman's familiar. No, the owl was her totem animal. Druidic, elemental, wild. Untamed. Opie was spirited, even if that wasn't immediately obvious. At times she might seem aloof, or bored. It was plain that she took little interest in small-minded talk or gossip. If she disagreed, she remained silent. She was honest, and this is part of wisdom.

And yet: she was so not above pinching a bite of food from your plate at a family cookout. She would do it and laugh with defiant glee.

In her last years, her taste buds failed her, and her natural penchant for sweet things only grew stronger. She liked anything chocolate, and apparently chocolate ice cream featured heavily in the nursing home's dessert rotation. Not entirely a bad thing.

Other things went away, as well. Her memory, her sense of time and place, of the individuals who played significant roles across her long span of years. Bit by bit, as her condition progressed, she shed the layers that seem to add up to what we call personality. But she was still Opie.

Opie was the last of my family's elders. Our elders. The advance guard leading the rest of us in a journey through time, through the stages of life.

When I think of Opie now, I remember her strong hands, with prominent knuckles, arthritic fingers bearing chunky wooden rings. Her stoic wisdom. Her trickster energy. I remember Sundays after church, when she would come up the walk to our house for lunch and be met by our schnauzer, who was beside himself, in utter rapture, greeting the most important person in the world. He knew what Opie was all about. He, like us, had fallen under her spell.

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Blogger steff said...

this was so beautiful it gave me chills

10:21 PM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Thank you, steff!

1:51 AM  

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