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On Elephants and Loss

I’m having a hard time writing today. I just found out that my grandmother passed away on Saturday. It was surprising and not surprising. Not surprising because she was 91 years old. Surprising because I saw her less than a week ago for Thanksgiving and she seemed happy, healthy and upbeat.

We talked about elephants.

Grandma Yoder at our wedding last year

You see, my grandmother loved elephants. Loved is an understatement. She was an elephant lady the way some people are cat ladies or horse people. For as long as I can remember her house was overflowing with every size and shape of elephant imaginable. Elephant figurines, elephant throw pillows, elephant coffee cups and elephant shaped potted plants. At Christmas she would have a small tree with nothing but elephant Christmas ornaments. A lot of them had been gifted to her (she was a popular lady) and some of them came from around the world.

Why did she love elephants so much? I never thought to ask her. It was just one of those immutable facts of my childhood: Grandma Yoder loved elephants.

Two weeks ago I was in Sri Lanka, watching elephants in the while. We took open topped jeeps deep into Kaudulla National Park in search of the wildAsian elephants that live there. It was really fun, bouncing in the all terrain vehicles through deep mud and high grass. When we finally arrived at an open grassy plane filled with dozens of elephants milling around in small groups, it was icing on the cake.

This was the first time I’d ever seen an elephant in the wild, not in a zoo or trained to carry tourists in Thailand. It was pretty amazing. The mostly just munched grass, impervious to the paparazzi of bloggers snapping away like they were Angelina Jolie. A couple of babies of different sizes frolicked behind their moms and an amorous looking couple entwined their trunks playfully.

I thought of my Grandma of course. She would think this was amazing. I don’t know if she ever got to see an elephant in the wild. I don’t think so. She traveled quite a bit: to Central America, Israel and Palestine, across the US via train, but I don’t think she ever visited anywhere with wild elephants.

I didn’t realize it until fairly recently, but she was a lot like me. She was a voracious reader, she liked to cook and she was a writer at heart. For many years she wrote professionally: a cooking column for the newspaper, but also church histories, scrapbooks, family histories and more. She was on Facebook and she loved to read my blog.

She was an adventurous lady too. When my Grandpa declared his traveling days were over and he’d rather stay home, she simply left him behind and went traveling without him. Last summer, despite mobility issues, she came down to DC for my wedding and, by all appearances, had a terrific time. This August she repeated the trip for my younger brother’s wedding. After my grandfather died last spring (after 65 years of marriage- a feat which is amazing by itself), she held out for one last adventure: she moved clear across the country from Connecticut to Portland, Oregon to live with my aunt.

That’s where I got to see her last week. I showed her the elephant photos I had taken in Sri Lanka, she thought they were wonderful. We spent a good half hour going through my phone, looking at the baby elephants, the lone bulls and the big mama elephant that charged at one jeep. I had a small stone elephant for her, that I had bought in Negombo, the smallest I could find since I knew she didn’t have a lot of space.

The tiniest elephant I could find

It was a great bonding moment, and as it turned out, our last one together. Less than a week later she was done from kidney failure- a total shock to everyone. She was so vibrant, full of smiles and full of life even at 91. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

My grandmother loved reading this blog; she loved hearing about my travels. She would print out my best pieces and past them in a scrapbook so they could exist in the temporal world, not just the digital one. Now that she’s no longer of this world, I had to put some memories of her here in this space.

I’m not trying to be sappy, I don’t know what happens after we die, but I am positive that she’s reading this somehow, somewhere.

So Hello Grandma! I will think of you every time I see an elephant.

46 Responses to On Elephants and Loss

  1. Erin | No Ordinary Nomad December 8, 2014 at 4:02 AM #

    So sorry for your loss. It sounds like she had a rich and fulfilling life, and it’s great that you got to spend some time together talking about what she loved in her last days – I’m sure she really valued that time.

  2. Bill Yoder December 8, 2014 at 7:16 AM #

    Thank you Steph. A beautiful tribute. She did love your blog and was incredibly proud of you. And I will never forget her delight when you presented her with what turned out to be her last elephant.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:49 AM #

      Love you Dad!

  3. Backpacking Bella December 8, 2014 at 8:02 AM #

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss, Steph. Your grandmother sounds like a wonderful, remarkable woman. I have no doubt she would love this post and will continue to support you on your adventures, wherever you go.

  4. Amanda Kendle (@amandakendle) December 8, 2014 at 8:34 AM #

    So sorry to hear of your loss, your grandmother sounds amazing. And kind of like mine. Mine inspired my blog title so even though she passed away eight years ago I think of her every time I sit down at my desk. Hugs and all my sympathies to you and your family.

  5. Bill Hughes December 8, 2014 at 9:56 AM #

    Amazing story for an amazing women! Great story Stephanie, brought me to tears.

  6. Dalene December 8, 2014 at 10:05 AM #

    So very sorry for your loss Steph. Having lost my Grandma I was very close to just a couple of years ago (still feels so fresh!) this post brought tears. She sounded like a very remarkable lady, and also a lot like you. 🙂

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 12:04 PM #

      I only realized it in the past year but yeah, we were a lot alike. I inherited many things from her!

  7. Chuck Connell December 8, 2014 at 10:44 AM #

    This is a very nice tribute. I grew up with your dad in Norwalk and knew your grandmother well.

  8. Judy Yoder December 8, 2014 at 11:06 AM #

    Heart-felt and beautiful.

  9. Emily Schlesinger December 8, 2014 at 11:28 AM #

    Beautiful, Stephanie. You are a wonderful granddaughter, and the best kind of writer — to write as you speak.

  10. bemytravelmuse December 8, 2014 at 11:34 AM #

    I knew when I saw the headline that I’d really identify with this. The last thing my grandmother ever said to me was, “you know, I really think you ought to write.” This was before I started my blog, but I know she would be so darn proud of me, as your grandmother is of you. In about a week it will be the 3-year anniversary of her death. Just like your grandmother, she was independent and traveled solo as well. I still look up to her and have chills right now after reading that.

    Around the holidays is a particularly hard time to lose a loved one – not that any time is a good time. What helped me so much to work through the pain (and still does) was feeling gratitude for the chance to know such a wonderful woman, and for having her in my life in such a major way. Shedding a few tears as I write this but they’re not bitter ones. They’re happy ones because not everyone gets to have such a wonderful, positive female influence in their lives, and we both got to have that.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 12:10 PM #

      Oh wow that is really nice. Looks like we will both carry the legacy of our grandmothers. Thanks for the kind words.

  11. Kerwin December 8, 2014 at 11:46 AM #

    I love your write up here. The cool thing is that you remember the good times as your grandma would as well. Warm regards to you and the family.

    You see Stephanie, she was waiting for you to see the elephants…

  12. Jaume Marin December 8, 2014 at 11:48 AM #

    So sorry about your loss. This post is so full with 3motion, nice memories and really important and meaningful thinfs in life. Your grandma will read it with proyd. Thanks for sharing and a big hug from Costa Brava.

  13. Beth Collins December 8, 2014 at 12:42 PM #

    Beautifully put. Love you Steph

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 12:11 PM #

      Love you too Beth!

  14. Erin December 8, 2014 at 1:13 PM #

    So sorry to hear about your Grandma, Stephanie, but what a beautiful tribute. I’m glad you had that last bonding experience with her and got to share something so special with her. Your post resonates with me because my own Grandma and I used to talk about travel, long before the internet. Her dream was always to see the statue of liberty in person. My goal was to earn enough money to send her there. Sadly, she died long before I ever reached that point in my life and certainly before I started traveling. The first time (and only time) I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty, it was a bittersweet moment for me. Your post brought me to tears remembering all that. Thank you for reminding me of these important moments and the special times we have with loved ones.

    My condolences to you and your family. xo

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 12:13 PM #

      Thanks for the kind words Erin. I’m sorry about your Grandma too.

  15. noelmorata December 8, 2014 at 1:37 PM #

    What a wonderful tribute and woman, thanks for sharing this with us and my deepest condolences to you and your family.

  16. Katrinka December 8, 2014 at 1:51 PM #

    Sorry to hear about this, Steph. I’m glad you got to tell her about the elephants, though– what a lovely, special thing. Much love to you xo

  17. Sky December 8, 2014 at 2:11 PM #

    Such a beautiful piece, Steph. Reading this made me cry, thinking of my own grandma. So sorry for your loss.

  18. rebecca gammons December 8, 2014 at 2:19 PM #

    What a wonderful memory. She treasured that time and was so glad she got to visit with you (me too, but that’s another story)….

  19. Tawny of Captain and Clark December 8, 2014 at 5:24 PM #

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Steph. Your grandmother seemed like an incredible woman and I’m so glad you got to spend last week with her. Love and condolences to your family. xo

  20. Carina Chung December 8, 2014 at 6:20 PM #

    Lost my grandfather to cancer 5 days ago, i understand the sadness.
    may your grandmother rest in peace, and my prayers are with your family.
    This post is such beautiful tribute to her, and may the sight of elephants bring you wonderful memories of her. <3

    X, Carina

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 12:21 PM #

      I’m sorry for your loss as well. It’s never easy.

  21. Colleen Brynn December 8, 2014 at 7:18 PM #

    She sounds like quite the lady! I too have a great love for elephants and played with a baby elephant in Nepal earlier this year. It was such a touching experience. I can completely understand why anyone would love the animals! They are special, bright and wise spirits. It’s great that you had the chance to share your experience with your grandmother. It’s a strange, serendipitous outcome, that timing would be thus.

  22. Joya December 8, 2014 at 7:20 PM #

    So sorry about your grandma. I think it was meant to be that you took that trip to see the elephants and show her your pictures before she passed.

  23. Lorry December 8, 2014 at 10:05 PM #

    What a wonderful tribute to your beautiful grandmother. I’m sure she’s beaming with pride right now. She was always so proud of you, your independence, and your creativity. I know she always saw parts of herself in you and through you she lives on. Like you, I will never see elephants again without thinking of her sweet spirit.

    The website http://www.shamanicjourney.com says “Elephant’s medicine includes strength, royalty, connection to ancient wisdom, removal of obstacles and barriers, confidence, patience, using education opportunities, commitment, gentleness, communicating in relationships, discernment, intelligence, compassion.” Sure sounds like a fit to me.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:56 AM #

      Thank you Lorry, that is really touching.

  24. Kiersten of The Blonde Abroad December 8, 2014 at 10:17 PM #

    It’s never easy to lose a loved one, but it’s clear she left an incredible mark on this world. And how special to have been able to share your travels with her. Thanks for sharing this- reminds me that I need to go visit my 94 year old grandpa now xo

  25. chantae December 9, 2014 at 1:48 AM #

    Thank you for telling us about her and sharing your memories. What a wonderful last memory to have together – each of you sharing your loves 🙂 Travel and elephants sure do go well together! What an adventurous lady, I’m sure she will live on through you!

  26. Elizabeth December 9, 2014 at 4:52 AM #

    I’m so sorry about your loss. This was a beautiful piece to read and I’m sure she is reading it happily.

  27. herheadache December 9, 2014 at 12:56 PM #

    What a lovely travel article and beautiful tribute. So sorry for your loss. My grandmother has been gone nearly 10 years. She died long before I started writing my blog, she was always so supportive of my writing. This made me sad for you and made me wish she could’ve seen my blog.

  28. exploristanl December 9, 2014 at 1:06 PM #

    I’m sorry to hear this. It actually reminds me so much of my own grandmother. I think of her on every trip I take, how much she would’ve loved to see all of it. It’s a comfort, in a way. Coincidentally she loved elephants too, although not nearly as much as yours did. I’m sure she will be with you every step of the way. And I’m sure this piece you just wrote would become the cover of her book with your articles. She would be proud.

  29. UrbanBilingual December 10, 2014 at 5:11 AM #

    This was so touching Stephanie… tears, tears and more tears… I am sorry your you and your family but I think you were also very lucky to have her in your life… she sounds like one of these unforgettable persons and your relationship was previous, I can tell! I had a similar relation ship with my grand mother and I just wanted to confirm that yes, she is with you… they do stay with you, no matter where you go. It’s been more than a year now that she passed away but I can still feel her warmth and she still sends me happiness, smiles and love… and ideas! Not sure where from but I receive them! Big hug to all special grand mothers!

  30. Candice Walsh (@candicewalsh) December 10, 2014 at 11:30 AM #

    This post completely had me in tears. I love how you’ve described your grandmother — it sounds like she had a huge personality. I’m so sorry for your loss, but it’s amazing you had such a heartfelt final memory together. 91 years of living! Yowza.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 12:12 PM #

      I know 91 years! We should all be so lucky.

  31. Christina December 10, 2014 at 10:42 PM #

    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman who had a very full life with a loving family and many adventures. This was really a beautiful tribute. I’m sure her memory will be with you on all your journeys.

  32. paulfarrugia December 11, 2014 at 11:04 AM #

    Hey Steph, so sorry to hear your loss. I am sure you are right and as I write this, she is with elephants all around her. This was a beautiful post. x

  33. Jessica - Notes of Nomads December 12, 2014 at 3:49 AM #

    So sorry to hear of your loss, Steph. This was such a beautiful tribute. I’m sure these heartfelt words have found their way to her. x

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:51 AM #

      Thanks, I think so too!

  34. daniellemlloyd23 December 13, 2014 at 6:34 PM #

    Beautiful Post. I’ve never read anything by you before and this happened to be the first thing I clicked. I identified with it so much. My grandfather taught me to read and sent me books for every birthday and Christmas until he died ten years ago. The smell of books old and new reminds me of him. He lives on in the dog eared corners and bent spines of my well loved books. I hope elephants bring you happy memories of her like books have done for my grandfather and me.

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:27 AM #

      Aww thank you so much! That is a really nice memory, really nicely put.

  35. Frank December 14, 2014 at 4:26 PM #

    So sorry for your loss … your grandmother lived a full and long life … I’m sure she is proud of you and will be looking out for you from this day forward!

    • Steph December 15, 2014 at 11:20 AM #

      Thank you!

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