by Matt Hinckley
It was early morning on Christmas Eve. My wife filed for divorce nine days earlier. My kids were angry and confused. I had to euthanize my cat in November. My life was collapsing. Then the phone rang. My mom was calling. My dad’s mom, Mimi, had died just after midnight. She was 97. She had broken her hip six months earlier, and after a lifetime of stubborn independence in which she spent more years as a widow than a wife, she had willed herself to death once it became clear she would never leave the nursing home. She outlived all of her siblings and all but one of her friends.
Some say a man cannot be a feminist. I understand that point of view but ultimately still proudly wear the label. My commitment to social justice comes from study of history but perhaps more importantly from the influence of two strong women: my mother and Mimi.
My paternal grandfather died of a ruptured appendix at age 34, leaving my grandmother to raise four boys – ages 6, 4, 2, and 1 – alone on a farm in Galesburg, Illinois, while she also worked full time as a nurse. While Mimi, a full-blooded Italian Catholic with a razor-sharp wit to match, and second eldest of eight siblings raised in Des Moines, had a gift for exaggeration; when she considered her own role and significance, she had the exact opposite of “delusions of grandeur.”
When I was 11 and particularly recalcitrant, I talked back to my parents, intending to say, “In honor of the Fourth of July, I plan to declare my independence.” Before I could finish the second part of that phase, Mimi interjected, “You’ll blow up?” Once she fired off an epic rant about her church taking a second collection to support a Vatican-sponsored charity called “Peter’s Pence,” asking, “If he wants to feed the poor, why can’t the Pope just sell a jeweled chalice to a Saudi sheik?” Another time I walked into the kitchen just in time for her to ask my mom and my aunt, “What does PTA stand for? Pussy, tits and armpits?” (I’m not sure who was more embarrassed.) In 2004, we took her to see “Fahrenheit 911” at the theater and asked what she thought of the film and George W. Bush, Mimi replied, “That dirty dog.”
On rare occasions, Mimi spoke of what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression. “For us, there was no Depression. We had an orchard, so we always had food.” Likewise, food was abundant at Mimi’s holiday gatherings. Countless Thanksgivings, Easters, and Christmases featured at least two among turkeys, hams, pork shoulders, and beef tenderloins. Another meal the day before or after would include lasagna, stuffed shells, and/or spaghetti and meatballs. At least two kinds of rolls, two kinds of potatoes, wild rice, green beans or another vegetable, salad, and cakes, cookies and pies weighed down the buffet. Pies were works of art, some adorned with perfect pecan halves, placed just so. She would label the spot for each dish on the buffet counter; sometimes we even had assigned seating. She would begin working at least a month in advance to prepare for each holiday, as a smattering of her sons, their various wives, and sundry grandchildren would arrive to consume enough food “to feed Coxey’s Army.” Never once did she complain about the effort she expended, regretting only the massive amount of food sent home with each family member as leftovers.
But it wasn’t because her food was so good (which it was) or because her house was immaculate (which it was) that made her strong. Life had dealt her some pretty shitty cards, but she only had one complaint. When confounded by the marvels of modern technology, such as FaceTime conversations with her great-grandchildren on the iPad, Mimi often would lament, “I was born 100 years too soon.” I disagree. She helped make her generation “the greatest.” She didn’t march for equality. She didn’t demand it. Long before Nike trademarked it, she just did it. She dealt with more than I ever did or will, and the memory of her resilience triggered by her death during my own darkest hour was the kick in the ass I needed to begin to climb out of the funk and rebuild my life.