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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46 thoughts on “On Elephants and Loss”

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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