All my life, I’ve looked up to my grandmother Pia. She spent her free-spirited 20s working as a journalist in Copenhagen, grilling Danish royalty and musicians alike. Always the one to ask questions, it only made sense that it was she who asked her pen pal—a handsome Mormon missionary—to marry her.
My mother gave birth to me at 18 years old, so my grandmother had a huge part in raising me; I spent most of my youth in her company. She was less of a grandmother, more a second mother—a fact she’d remind me of often. We did everything together. My childhood in her company was a happy haze of long walks, freshly-picked cherries, and fairy houses built from leaves and twigs. We patiently fed shy deer vegetables we harvested from our garden; she offered me cake for breakfast each morning, insisting that the milk she used to make it meant it was “healthy.” I often refused to sleep in my room, opting instead for a makeshift nest of down comforters and pillows on the floor beside her bed.
Grandma Pia had a way of enchanting everything, singing and making up games for us to play. She promised me our ancestors were mermaids, and I spent every summer until I was 14 positive I’d turn into one. A true storyteller, Grandma Pia inspired in me a love of creating and living in other worlds.
While time spent with Grandma Pia was a dream, my childhood was largely difficult, contrasting sharply with her own stable and traditional upbringing in Denmark. While Pia grew up in a tight-knit, picture-perfect nuclear family, I had a constantly shifting, unsettled home environment. I was uprooted often throughout elementary school and attended four different high schools before graduation. I’ve written before about how I’ve never felt “at home” in the traditional sense; I’ve got no childhood home to go back to over the holidays, no embarrassing middle school bedroom to revisit each year. Sure, there were bright sides to my nomadic childhood—there are spots all across the country that feel vaguely familiar to me, like I’ve got different bits of me spread all over. Despite this, moving from place to place can make one feel detached.
This kind of life has become disorienting for me, this lack of place. It’s telling that the only times I ever really felt at home were when I was with my grandmother, whom I always looked forward to visiting in Utah on my school breaks. When feeling anxious or confused in new environments, I’d use the most valuable thing I inherited from her: the ability to weave stories. She gave me my most powerful survival tool: make-believe.
When I first started moving around the country, I—the permanent new kid—would change my name with each new home. To my kindergarten teacher, I was a mermaid named Shelly. In third grade, I went by June Carter and wore all black like Johnny Cash. In fourth grade, I insisted on dressing up like the Phantom of the Opera, and in fifth grade, I forced everyone to call me Freddie after discovering Queen. Throughout middle school, I experimented with alternate spellings and nicknames for my birth name, Madison, until finally landing on a winner just in time for high school: “Mads.” Looking back at my journals, I see my obsession with embodying characters. I’d write up a monthly list of new personality traits I wished to cultivate, what my new favorite colors were, what genres of music I’d like to start exploring, and with whom I’d like to become better friends. To me, identity was never innate—I had faith that it could be invented with each new chapter. Grandma Pia taught me to view challenging situations as opportunities to flex my imagination, so I naturally cultivated characters as a way to stay adaptive in the face of new environments.
When I was fifteen years old, I paid a Christmas visit to my grandmother that surprised me. Her expression was far-off and moody, out of character for her. From that point on, she rapidly declined into early-onset Alzheimer’s and, within three years, was talking to magazines and television screens, her stories repeated on a loop. I knew what I had to do: I moved into my grandparents’ retirement community for two months, one of the most valuable experiences of my life.
In the mornings, Grandma Pia would make me breakfast three times over: bread with cheese, lingonberry jam, and excessive amounts of butter. (She was never one for health; black salt licorice and dark chocolates filled her purses and pockets.) My grandfather and I hung Danish flags around her home to make sure she couldn’t get lost on her walks. Sometimes, when she talked to the television or to photos she kept in her pocket, my grandfather got frustrated and corrected her. I, on the other hand, asked Grandma Pia what her conversational partners had said, trying to ease into her state of her mind just as she did for me when I was a child.
In November of 2016, Grandma Pia passed away. My family gathered around her as soon as we knew she didn’t have much time left; together, we braided her hair, read to her, and performed her favorite song (“Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music), my family singing as I accompanied on borrowed guitar.
Grandma Pia’s funeral was held in Denmark the following August. My family rode boats to the front of her beach house she’d summered in with her own grandmother, Oldemor Gerda, the very woman who had passed her untamed imagination on to Pia. My family shared in prayer and threw roses into the ocean as my uncle scattered her ashes from the boat’s prow. Our extended family stood silhouetted on the shore, watching, generations that came into existence through Grandma Pia. It was a somber scene with the crying, the roses, the white ashes. I felt the setting hardly matched my grandmother’s lively spirit—she’d never want us to be so sad. Throughout my childhood, my grandmother trespassed into neighbors’ pools on a whim and hopped in fully clothed. Now I plunged into the ashy water, fully clothed, to swim with her. One by one, my mother and all her siblings joined me, until my whole family splashed as one.
Now that I’m 21 and “grown,” I have new questions I want to ask my grandmother—questions about her life and adulthood to which I know I’ll never find the answers. A few months ago, my mother sent me a statement my grandmother wrote at the beginning of the Mormon Mission she served with my grandfather later in life. In my experience, most missionaries write a blasé paragraph. My grandmother’s was very unusual, however. It’s a poem; a gorgeous, defiant personal declaration.
Grandma Pia’s transformative imagination is something I feel honored to have experienced; more than that, it’s a gift I will value for the rest of my life as I set out on my own journey, her magical spirit never far behind. ♦