Posted in Blog, Family life, Featured, Just for you, Life as a mom, Shawna


My grandmother had two matroshkas that she kept on a shelf in a tiny bookcase in her bedroom. I bought them for her 10 years ago in St. Petersburg, one a silvery city girl with 18th century Leningrad landmarks etched on her front, and the other a country lady, with a strawberry on her dress and a kerchief on her round head. Each nesting doll is a wooden mother inside a wooden mother inside a wooden mother, and so on, until you reach the tiniest wooden girl at the end, and she doesn’t open; the baby. A matroshka seemed like the perfect gift for my grandmother, my own nesting doll, two mothers bigger than me, the baby.

Six months ago, my grandma moved into an assisted living home. Even with the help of the hospice nurses, my grandpa couldn’t take care of her at home any more. A few days after she moved, I brought Quinn to visit her. Her room was tiny, with her little bookcase the only furniture she’d brought from home.

I was getting big, pregnant with Ruby, and unsure what to do with Quinn in that tiny room. We pulled the matroshkas off the shelf, and Quinn had fun pulling them apart and putting them back together, sitting on my grandma’s lap on the hospital bed as we grown-ups alternated talking and playing with Quinn.

My grandma had gotten smaller, more patient, quieter. She pulled a thin blanket around her waist and called Quinn “Quinnlet.” She sang “twinkle, twinkle little star” in her wavery vibrato, closed her eyes, savoring, when Quinn hugged her goodbye.

We visited about once a month, and always Quinn would ask for the matroshkas, would happily sit on my grandma’s hospital bed and play with them. She didn’t notice the tubes, the smells, didn’t seem scared that things were a little different every time we went. Some days she would be at my grandma’s feet on the bed.

Other days, when my grandma was feeling well enough to sit in the chair alongside her bed, Quinn would line the matroshkas up along the bedside, biggest to smallest, sometimes holding the baby matroshka curled in her little palm, or handing it to my grandma to hold. My grandma always reminded us that those matroskas would go to me, to Quinn and Ruby, when she was gone. I always said I hoped that wouldn’t be for a long, long time. We both knew it would be soon, though.

My grandma said she was staying alive for Quinn, and to meet Ruby, who was due far later than we originally thought grandma would live. When we would visit, my grandma would ask again when Ruby was due, and then would ask hopefully whether Quinn was early or on time.

“Remember grandma? She was two weeks late,” I’d say. She’d nod solemnly.

Ruby was born June 3, on her due date. I wanted to bring her right away to meet my grandma, but of course there were a million other things to do. Finally, when Ruby was four weeks old, I brought her. My grandma was tired, more irritable. But her arms were strong when she held my newborn. Quinn dropped all of the matroshkas on the floor and then threw a temper tantrum. I stood up, not knowing where to put the new baby, who was also crying. My grandma reached for her instinctively, patted her on her shoulder, called her Rubylet. I wish I hadn’t, but I put up my arm to steady her. She who had raised five babies of her own, and survived more than two decades of cancer, dozens of chemo and radiation treatments over the years.

We left in a rush, both babies screaming and me harried and overwhelmed. I kissed my grandmother quickly, perfuntorily, told her I loved her, that we would be back soon. She held my hand, told me not to worry about the matroshkas scattered all over the bed, that the nurses would pick them up and put them back together. She told me to come when I could, assured me that she knew how crazy life could be with two little ones. That was the last time I ever heard her voice.

On Saturday, my grandma was moved into the hospice at Evergreen Hospital. Her lungs were full of fluid and would just re-fill when they were drained. I was out at my parents’ cabin in eastern Washington when my grandpa called and told us how sick she’d gotten. My husband and I woke up the next day, threw our clothes into our suitcases and the babies into their carseats and drove to the hospice.

We told Quinn her Gigi would look different, that she wouldn’t be able to talk. That I wasn’t sure if she would have her matroshkas or not. We arrived just a few hours before she died, and it was very clear that she was near the end. She looked so different and was beyond speech or even movement, but Quinn leaned forward to kiss her, joined me in singing to her, giggled happily and asked about all of the owies on Gigi’s arms. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, having my babies at my grandma’s deathbed, but decided we needed to be there, that it was alright.

I found myself stroking my grandma’s hair and singing to her, reassuring her in the simple, sweet language that I use with my babies. I thought of her soothing her own babies, of my mother soothing me. A mother in a mother in a mother. I thought of that tiny baby matroshka cupped in Quinn’s palm, and I felt grateful.

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  1. Oh Shawna. That was a wonderful and beautiful post to read about your grandma. I am sorry for your loss. But thank you so much for sharing this with all of us.

    We love you!

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I lost my grandmother two months ago. I was so grateful she got to meet her great grandson (her first great grandchild so far) and hold and kiss him before she passed. So sorry for your loss. *hugs*

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