Guest Column

A Mermaid Looks at 95

I couldn’t allow her birthday to pass by without the opportunity to seek her wit and wisdom

By Maggie Doherty

My grandmother Margaret was once a mermaid. At the very least, she was once called a mermaid. Her late husband Phillip, a retired English professor and author of local history tomes, dedicated his second book to her adding the term of endearment after her name. He was her fourth husband and she, born in Michigan in 1929 months before the stock market crashed, has outlived all the men who’ve loved her. She informed me that she was married four times and loved each of her husbands.

At the end of this month this mermaid, now living so very far away from the very bodies of water that gave rise to her shapeshifting form, will turn 95 years old. I couldn’t allow her birthday to pass by without the opportunity to seek her wit and wisdom and how it felt to reach such a milestone. She gave me one firm look from the patio chair and quipped, “I didn’t expect to live this long.”

The interview took place on the patio at the house where she and my mother live. They now have made their home in Montana, although my grandmother said, “I’d rather be in Michigan.” When my mom became a widow and wanted to move to Kalispell to be near me and my firstborn, my grandmother, at the spry age of 88, moved with her. For my grandmother, life might be a series of so many unexpected events, but she’s been a devoted mother and grandmother.

I asked her what might have contributed to her longevity and it’s a question that gives her pause because underneath the surface of such life is loss. Her siblings have all died and she’s three times a widow. Her first husband has also passed. Many of her friends have died and she’s been witness to that painful decline. She’s survived breast cancer and, as of a few weeks ago, is officially in remission for a type of leukemia. She didn’t need a walker until three years ago after she fell in the middle of the night and broke her hip, which required emergency surgery. She readily admits that she used to smoke, was married to smokers, and has a sweet tooth. During the summers when we’re together at her cabin on the island, I notice that the supply of Hershey bars for smores begins to dwindle without explanation.

In my tactless attempts to shape some bullet point or succinctly delivered proclamation about a life well lived in five steps or some other nonsense, what my grandmother really wanted to talk about was her life beginning in childhood with her siblings (she was number four out of five) and her parents. She explained that her memory isn’t as good as it used to be, and I sometimes notice that she confuses the names of relatives but overall, her mind is sharp. And her wit, well I knew better than to pander. We talked about the dogs she adored, the long road trips she took in the ‘70s in her motorhome, across Canada to Glacier and then south to the Grand Canyon.

Her stories are spellbinding and it’s not difficult to imagine her as a mermaid. I grew up calling her “Grams” or “Lala” and those were just as imaginative because she’s always been magical and magnetic. Whether it’s her bloodwork or her unbeatable streak at completing novels in record time, this mermaid keeps defying expectations.

Happy 95th Grams.