A Eulogy: My Grandmother
For Geraldine Tallent Smith Paramore, 1932-2022
I’m Gerry’s oldest granddaughter, and I spent nearly half my childhood with her. In a very real sense, she helped raise me, and I’m honored to speak about her life now, as I know she wanted. I’ll try to get through this without crying, not least because Gramma insisted that I shouldn’t cry when she died.
When I last saw her, she gave me one of her too-tight hugs, her chin tucked under mine, and reminded me that she would pass and that I wasn’t to be sad about it.
I’ll try to do her justice, but as you all know, Gramma was a force to be reckoned with; she was so much bigger than her five feet.
When I was little, Gramma used to take me by the hand and lead me into her kitchen, to the second drawer in the middle, on the opposite side of the counter that was often covered in snacks, trinkets, brewing coffee, and the radio tuned to a talk show. She’d whisper, “I’ve got Reese’s for you, honey.”
She knew the candy I loved, just like she treasured all the unique details about her grandchildren. She once made my brother Oliver a sandwich entirely of blue cheese dressing because she knew he liked it—when he was in kindergarten. It would be years before he could eat blue cheese again.
She loved to talk about her family, to all the rest of the family, or the whole neighborhood, or whoever she ran into at the post office. She’d talk about my sister’s printing business [“she can do anything!”] or Brigitta’s singing voice, which she’d heard when Brigitta performed in The Sound of Music when she was 6. She always remembered Casey’s love of animals, and loved to recount how John got an F in Algebra that one time, but it was because he was really an artist.
She’d tell us how Jessie knew to take her baby back to the doctor when he was sick, or that Patrick would forget he was pouring a glass of milk halfway through pouring it. She’d often say just how much she loved Clara’s middle name: “Clara Rose,” she’d repeat, with relish. [Of me, she’d say, “you’re so diplomatic,” by which she meant, I wouldn’t debate politics with her.]
Gramma wrote all 27 of our names, painstakingly, on envelopes every Christmas, filled them with a five-dollar bill each, and pinned them to her bulletin board. We had to come in person to get our envelopes. As the years went by, and some of us moved away, that meant it could be July until all the envelopes were claimed.
My grandma was fierce from the start. She was born on a cold, snowy day in 1932, deep in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, to Elige and Virginia Tallent. It was so cold in the tiny town of Darby, tucked down at the south end of the valley, that Elige’s brother, JC, had to light a fire under the car to warm it up enough to drive. They wound their way on the dirt road to the lone area hospital in Hamilton, where the family later moved.
She liked to say that her mother couldn’t decide what to name her: it came down to Geraldine or Marguerite. “She let my sisters decide,” Gramma told me, “and I’m glad, because I’m no Marguerite!”
She was raised by her mother, Virginia, and her grandmother, Carrie, who they called Gran. She was the youngest of three sisters, Connie, Lou, and Kay. They grew up in Hamilton, Montana in the heart of the Valley, with the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east.
Her father, Elige, was a barber who gambled away his money, “though my daddy was a sweet man,” Gramma would say.
Thus, she was raised in a household mainly of thrifty, capable women. Virginia would sew all of their dresses, even from the lining of old coats; she’d rewire her own iron and take her canning thermometer to be tested once a year at the Ravalli County courthouse so she could be sure nobody would get botulism.
Her grandmother, Carrie, they called Gran, though she was also known as Aunt Cad when she traveled up and down the Valley keeping track of her late sister’s large brood. She’d read from the Saturday Evening Post and Ecclesiastes in the evenings.
“Ecclesiastes is the book of wisdom, and she was a wise woman,” Gramma often said of her Gran. There’s no one that my grandmother admired so much as her Gran.
Gramma recalled her childhood with tenderness. She’d recount running barefoot and free, climbing trees, swimming in the Bitterroot River, and getting into mischief. She got in trouble for playing strip poker at age eight, for instance. She was sitting in a circle of other kids in the tall grass, but her Gran discovered them before they got further than removing her socks.
Another time, she found someone’s horse and rode it home, bareback, much to everyone’s surprise. Once, she played cards in plain view of her great-grandfather, an early settler who frowned upon card playing [“because he was a Methodist, you know.”]
I was able to take Gramma back to Hamilton in 2018, which she kept referring to as her “last hurrah!” She said this to everyone, from the barista to the bookstore owner to the grocery store clerk.
She walked around town recalling every detail, from the lilac bushes alongside her house at 709 W. Main, where she loved to daydream, to the big coal stove her Gran lit in the winters, to the smell of Gran’s homemade bread, which she made once a week to last to the following.
They shared the home with Carrie’s father, her great-grandfather, to whom they brought strips of cooled bacon fat to snack on. “And he lived to be 93!,” Gramma often said.
In Hamilton, she pointed out the creamery where her mother worked at the lunch counter, and her father’s barbershop, where he gave each of his young daughters an identical short bob because he didn’t otherwise cut women’s hair.
She recognized the apartment where her father had lived, and died, right at the top of the stairs near the door. She showed me the spot in front of the library that had filled with water once, perhaps from a heavy rain or a burst pipe, where she’d jumped in to swim with her friends.
While we were in Hamilton, Gramma was reflective. She’d pause to soak in the view of the river winding through the trees, the mountains framing it all. She loved this place, and she wanted to savor it.
Though she moved away from Hamilton as a teenager, when her mother went to work at Boeing as a riveter during WWII, she maintained that connection to Montana.
I think her childhood instilled in her a deep, abiding confidence in herself and a sense of delight in the world. Gramma knew what she valued and what she loved, and she would not let sorrow, nor trouble, take away her sense of wonder.
She took so much pleasure in everyday moments: playing charades, bridge, or cribbage (when she taught us a game, she made sure we knew the exact rules, and she did not waver). Smelling fresh lilacs in a vase. Eating jam made from her own raspberries. Watching Jimmy Stewart in the movie Harvey. The virtues of real butter and whipping cream. Any musical performance.
She loved to hold a baby and talk to them with real understanding. She’d watch their expressions shift across their little faces and nod, hum, or frown in solidarity. “Oh, yes,” she’d say. Or, “oh, it is so strange, isn’t it?”
She took children seriously, as individuals, which later translated to her wanting us to know our manners, tell the truth, set the table properly, say hello, work hard, and try our best in school. She also delighted in us, her grandchildren, and plied us with popsicles, sandwiches, toast, and chocolate milk. She loved nothing more than hearing her grandchildren walk through her front door.
And yet, she wasn’t a typical stay-at-home grandmother throughout much of my childhood, when she commuted to Shoreline Community College to teach nursing students.
It took her ten years to finally get her nursing degree in the early ‘60s from the University of Washington. She pulled it off, even with five young children. She worked so hard: imagine living in a tiny cabin in Indianola with five children under nine, commuting to the city, and studying late at night. And years later, she got her Master’s.
When I turned forty last year I asked her what she remembered of that time in her life. She laughed, shook her head, and gave my arm a characteristic sharp squeeze. “Oh honey, I was so tired all the time. I had all those kids.”
Her professional identity was important to her. Even after she retired, she read medical journals and gave out advice on minor injuries and ailments.
She was also prone to hyperbole: when my brother, Nathan, colored the freckles on his arms with a blue-tipped marker, Gramma took one look and began to shout, “melanoma!” Later on, she told my mom that my littlest brother Oliver probably had a case of “World War I foot rot.” His feet were itchy.
In her final days, when my aunt Jennie took her to the hospital, Gramma wanted to be sure she had an experienced doctor; “I’m not going to listen to him,” she said of the first one, “because he’s just an intern.”
Gramma believed in gaining experience through work. She paid my cousin Jeramey and I one summer to hose the pine needles off her roof. [Now I think that may not have been particularly safe, but you know, it was the ‘80s.] From atop that steep roof I could see half the town, the Puget Sound, and my Gramma in the yard below, cranking on the hose for us. I felt so free, so capable. I have never been afraid of heights.
She’d also pay us to sprinkle slugs with salt, one nickel per slug. She stood with me in the kitchen for hours describing how to make fudge like her grandmother had. [“We have to get to that soft ball stage!”]
Gramma could be firm—perhaps an understatement!—and yet she had a lightness, a sense of humor, that was never far away. She was not precious about her techniques and she often laughed at herself. In later years, she proudly made fudge in the microwave with Marshmallow Fluff.
Once, my brother, cousins, and I wanted her to buy us a child-sized suit of plastic armor from the Christian bookstore in Poulsbo, next to the DMV. [Who knows how many of us were with her; it seemed she was always surrounded by a haze of children.]
Sword of the Spirit, Helmet of Salvation, Belt of Truth, Shield of Faith, Breastplate of Righteousness: the various pieces of the armor were labeled carefully.
Gramma saw an opportunity. She wouldn’t get it for us until we memorized Ephesians 6:13-18, top to bottom.
13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
It was all rather thrilling. She’d say certain words with emphasis when she read over my shoulder: “the evil one! The breastplate of righteousness!”
I’d sit at her little kitchen table munching on the Chicken ‘n Biskit crackers she kept on top of the fridge for me and apply myself to that verse. I don’t remember if we got the armor, but I won’t forget the Scripture.
She was also generous, of course. You couldn’t walk into her house without being offered food, even if you weren’t hungry. “Don’t you at least want a sandwich?” she’d say. Her door was always open, in every sense of the word; not a single door in that house was ever locked. It didn’t matter what ailed you.
She lent money to anyone who needed it. She did not believe in interest, and she’d tell you that. In fact, when she bought her Subaru, she told the salesman that she’d be back when he was ready to give her 0% interest, and eventually, he capitulated.
I spoke to her on her 89th birthday and she was so happy to be surrounded by family that day. She was delighted to hear from me, calling her from my son’s soccer practice. “I have so much love in my life,” she said. [And added, “soccer runs in the family!”] She liked to say that when you get old, you only need two out of three things: family, health, and money. And she definitely had two, she’d add.
Gramma was the center of our family. We went to her house for summer barbecues, for trick or treating, for Christmas, for Easter, for a birthday, and for any reason at all. Now that she’s gone, I know she’d want us to stay close, and I hope we can. She kept her heart open to us, whatever our differences. She was a Christian in the true sense of the word and loved us, and her community, without reservation.
No matter what troubled us, she had faith that we’d rise to the occasion. [Just got a divorce? “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you!” Lost your job? “Do you need some money?”] She’d get angry, certainly, but the next time we saw her, it was often as if it never happened. As we grew and moved away, she worked hard to stay in touch and to understand our lives and our values, no matter how they have seemed, outwardly, to diverge from her own.
I can still hear her voice, saying “oh, hello?” [Rising on that last “o”, the delight when she realized who had walked in the door.] I will always miss her. I want to carry on her fierce spirit, her fearlessness, and her clarity about what matters.
And I want most of all to keep my heart as open as hers.
I know she would have wanted us all to do the same.
Whenever anyone left after a visit, she’d follow us out, still talking. She’d hug us and then stand there waving from the porch, her voice following us to the road. “I have a ferry to catch,” you might say, and she’d say, “oh, get going!” She’d still be talking as we drove away.
I picture her standing there, growing slower and a bit smaller over the years, still waving, prolonging each goodbye.
It’s hard to say goodbye now. I loved her so.