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.

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