Goodnight Grandma

DawnGates1My paternal grandmother, Dawn Kathleen Preston, was born on June 24, 1924 in Castelton, Vermont to parents Elmer F. Preston and Kathleen E. Towers.  At age 6 she moved to Albany, NY and by 1940 she was living in Bolton Landing, NY spending a majority of her time with her cousins Pauline and Robert.  On April 23, 1944 she married my grandfather, William Beckers Gates, near her home in Castleton, Vermont at the age of 19.  The two of them went on to do what I strive to do every day…become good parents and make each other happy.  Bill went to the Navy and returned home as a hero for saving his shipmates.  He and Dawn purchased a trolly car diner and opened The Bill Gates Diner in Bolton Landing, NY…my home sweet home.  They had three lovely children:  William, Walter and Jeanine between the years of 1945 and 1954 and the five of them all worked to feed the town of Bolton every day.  Walter, or “Buddy” as everyone called him, is my dad and thus I’m here writing this today.


Everyone will have their own memories of people and things that stand out for them.  As the youngest of the family I will always remember the cookies, the pancakes, and all the sweet smells that came from the kitchen when I visited.  I remember the smell of the house, the cool damp basement where my grandfather taught me how to fix things, the hand-knitted blankets my grandma made throughout the house, the doilies and lace everywhere, Grandma’s bell collection, Grandpa’s cologne, M&M’s in that little glass container on the coffee table with the cube picture frame next to it, the powder blue toilet with a cushioned seat in the bathroom, the smell of rotting leaves as I cleaned the gutters, the putter of the 1949 Willy’s Jeep, my socks stained pink from picking strawberries with Grandma all morning, her paintings…everywhere…so many paintings, and then the blue chair near the entrance to the dining room where my grandfather passed away on February 24, 1989.  I was 9…and I didn’t understand what death really meant.


Grandpa and I had restored a canoe the summer of 1988 and by the time the fire-engine-red paint dried in the fall, cancer had whittled him down to skin stretched over bones.  When he passed away I knew if I closed my eyes long enough, prayed hard enough, and pictured him clear enough in my mind…he’d be sitting next to me when I opened my eyes to wrap me up in one of those big hugs of his.  However, he was never there when I opened my eyes, he never gave me another hug, and we never got to say goodbye.  When I read a piece I had written called “My Grandpa and Me” at his ceremony I couldn’t hold the tears back.  It felt like my insides were being torn out and the world was never going to be the same again.  How could it?  Then, I looked up from my tear-covered sheet of paper and locked eyes with Grandma Dawn…and she was smiling.  She wrapped me up in that hug I was so desperately waiting for and the emotions came spilling out of me all at once.  I realized he was never coming back.  She told me she was proud of me and that she loved me very much, then she showered me with kisses before I sat back down…and then the thought hit me, “What about Grandma?”

Sterett-book-cover-jpegFor weeks after the ceremony I would lay awake at night wondering what my grandma was thinking?  She slept next to him every night…and now he was gone.  How do you recover from something like that?  Every summer since, I spent as much time at her house as possible, stayed with her for extended periods of time, and developed one of the deepest friendships with a family member I have ever had.  We kept no secrets from each other, we played the games I wanted to play, then I watched the TV shows she wanted to watch and we napped.  Every day, Grandma drank a beer (sometimes two) then took a nap after Wheel of Fortune.  When she lost the appetite for alcohol she switched to NA beer and the ritual continued.  She taught me how to paint, sew, crochet, and other skills I am so happy to know.  She taught me how to bake, especially her famous pancakes from the diner!  We were thick as thieves, Grandma and me…til one day this guy named Bus kept showing up.

Bus asked Grandma to marry him and she said no.  So, he asked again.  She said no.  He asked again, and she said yes.  By this time I was a young teenager and fully capable of trying to sabotage Bus’s relationship with Dawn and I gave it a darn good shot.  Bus cornered me one day, grabbed hold of my shirt, and told me as we stood nose to nose, “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.”  It made me like him even less.  He seemed bossy and I didn’t like that Grandma was baking for him now instead of me.  Then one night he had a few too many Manhattans and told me the story of how he’d fallen in love with her back in the 1940’s but she was waiting for Bill.  Bus got married but never lost track of what Dawn was up to.  When Bus’s wife passed away he needed a friend and so did Grandma.  They found each other.  Through decades of life, they found each other, and he made Grandma was happy.

With her boys Bud (left) and Bill (right)
With her boys Bud (left) and Bill (right)

I never stopped calling her, and even today I sometimes find my fingers dialing her home number when I pick up the phone.  Bus and I came to understand each other as soon as we both figured out we wanted the same thing, to see Dawn happy.  I never missed an opportunity to stop by, always called every week, and introduced her to every girlfriend to see if I got approval.  We were thick as thieves again and I went to college only 4 hours away which meant I often got to see her on the weekends and always on holidays.  When Bus passed away…it took a hard toll on her.  One of the last things Bus told me was that her memory wasn’t so good.  I remember replying, “Well…she’s old Bus.”  He shook his head and said, “I’m old too…this is different, sometimes she forgets things…big things.”  I wasn’t sure what he meant.

DawnGates2It started with her cooking.  She’d forget crucial ingredients that would leave food inedible.  Recipes that only existed in her head disappeared forever.  Cookies became dry, cakes became bricks, and sometimes cereal was served with orange juice poured over the top instead of milk.  Then it was people.  She’d recognize a face but couldn’t put a name to it.  Then, once the daily routine of the house was gone…she drifted off somewhere far away.  She moved into a nursing home and the memory loss was astounding…it happened so fast!  She’d remember me and be telling me a story…then stop, look at me with confusion, and get shy.  I could see her forget who I was.  Alzheimer’s?  Dimentia?  All of the above?  Who knows.  All I know is my grandma’s brain was sick but her body was perfectly healthy.  I think the last straw was when her daughter (my aunt) Jeanine passed away in 2007 at the age of 52.  Lung cancer.  That was my last cigarette and the the beginning of Dawn’s retreat to someplace far away in her mind where she only remembered things from long ago, and music…she remembered all the music and would sing songs with Bud and Bill.

Slightly confused but happy she attended my wedding.  She sat right in front and I could feel her gaze on me throughout the ceremony.  Sometimes she seemed to know what was going on, other times she seemed completely flabbergasted by where she was, and other times she simply seemed content to have a change of scenery.  It was the last time she left the nursing home and the last time she looked like the grandma I had shared so many beers with over the years.

Grandma Dawn (left) & Aunt Barbara (right)
Grandma Dawn (left) & Aunt Barbara (right)

Last summer I visited her with my family at the nursing home.  I walked right past her…I didn’t even recognize her she was so gaunt.  The nurse woke her up slowly, she was sleeping in her chair, and physically moved her head towards me so her eyes were lined up with mine.  Nothing.  Blank.  I wanted to cry but knew that was a terrible thing to do in a nursing home so I just said, “Hi Grandma!”  Her eyes focused on me and studied my face.  Then, like a bolt of lightning, she shot up and smiled and gave an expression on her face that can only be described as “I KNOW YOU!”  Cookies, cakes, and pancakes all over again!  I introduced her to my son Max who was 2 at the time and my son Dodge who was only 3 months old.  Her expression was that of, “Yes, yes, yes…I see the babies…I know you!  I know you!  I know you!”  So I held her hand, looked straight into her eyes, and told her about what was happening in my life as if we were drinking beer on her couch back in the 90’s.  I combed her hair, I stroked her beautiful face, and I showered her with kisses like she had for me the day Grandpa died.  I wrapped her up in a hug and told her I would see her again soon.  Then I went outside and broke down in the parking lot.

That was the last time I saw her.

She passed away this Wednesday at the age of 90.

I’d be lying if I said I felt like I was a good grandson in the end.  I did not visit her this summer, intentionally.  Selfishly, I was scared and didn’t know if I could handle seeing her again after last summer’s experience.  Last summer’s experience was so hard and so rewarding that it seemed like the best note to end on.  Now, I don’t know.  My dad saw her just before she passed and she recognized him.  I can’t stop thinking that I should have gone a few weeks ago when I was there, and I’ll have to live with that decision for the rest of my life.  However, I have so many memories to to hold her in my heart and last summer is the punctuation on my life with her.

Great Uncle Bob, Grandma Dawn, Aunt Jeanine, Uncle Bill, Great Grandpa Preston in front of the diner
Great Uncle Bob, Grandma Dawn, Aunt Jeanine, Uncle Bill, Great Grandpa Preston in front of the diner after it closed.

Last night I sat in the back yard, stared up at the sky, and picked out a star to talk to and said my goodbyes.  I didn’t scrunch up my eyes and hope she would appear next to me, I prayed she was released from the confines of her body and was somewhere with lots of beer, Wheel of Fortune reruns, Grandpa, Bus, and a kitchen stocked with everything she needed to make pancakes for the universe.  She was my last grandparent.  She was a living connection to that time period.  It is a chapter closed…but never forgotten.  In the end I think we all wish for that one last goodbye, that last memory, that last morsel of cake…but why cry over crumbs when you got to enjoy the prime cut?  It is so cliche but enjoy every moment of life with those you love, NOT because it could be the last…because it is what you’ll remember when its over.  If your grandma or grandpa is still alive, give them a call.  Stop by.  Give them a hug.  Tell them you love them, even if they don’t remember who you are.  It doesn’t matter…everyone likes to hear “I love you.”  Finally, if you knew Dawn…please think of her and maybe her spirit will touch your dreams or add a dash of love to your next batch of cookies.  I thought of her last night as I spoke to that star and suddenly the sky was filled with hummingbirds!  20-30 of them swarmed my mimosa tree in search of something sweet.  Then a deep Kansas wind rolled through and off they went as the ash tree bended and swayed through the gust.  Then everything was calm.  Not a sound in the night air.

Good night Grandma.  I love you.  I miss you.

Tell Grandpa (and Bus) I said, “Hi.”

Bill Gates Diner

One thought on “Goodnight Grandma

  1. Beautifully written and heart-felt,Ryan! Am glad we got to meet Dawn and Bus at your family’s Lake George home. They were out for a drive–happy, laughing, and enjoying the Bolton Landing summer. That is how we will remember them both! Thanks for sharing these memories with us. We know them better now and can see Bud, Bill, and you in the stories and laughter Dawn brought to life that you all share with us. Thank you!

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