My Gal, Cal

grandma grandson relation
Graphic designed by BKL Designs

I’ve thought about what I would write in this post for a long time – about three years, to be exact. That was when my grandma, Callie Dady, was moved from her independent cottage to the memory care unit. I felt like that marked the beginning of the end, and it would just be a matter of time before she succumbed to her dementia. Instead, I was blessed with more years, more visits, more smiles, and more memories which, truthfully, may have made writing this all the more difficult. 

I was by my grandma’s side as she passed away on Saturday afternoon. Dealing with the loss of a loved one is complex; though my faith is strong enough to know with certainty that she’s in a better place right now, it’s still difficult to accept that I won’t have any more visits with my gal, Cal for a while. So, I found myself turning to writing this piece as a way to commemorate one of the most special souls I’ve ever known. I love you, grandma.

Trying to describe Callie Dady to someone who didn’t know her would be like trying to describe the Northern Lights to a person who’d never seen them. Though pictures and stories can help, there’d be no way to aptly summarize the beauty of her soul or the way she made you feel when you were in her presence. So often, I’d hear her referenced by other family members, friends, and members of the community like this: “Callie? Oh, she’s just such a special lady.” She brought such a palpable energy to every room she entered that even when I was a quarter of her age, I couldn’t help but feel overshadowed by the youthfulness of her spirit. She truly loved life, and she made me love life even more when I was around her.

Growing up in the Twin Cities, and having my Grandma Callie living in Fargo, the bulk of the time I got to spend with her during my youth happened at her lake cottage on Big Detroit. We would travel up to Detroit Lakes about three or four times a summer, and upon arrival she’d greet us with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and some of her famous meringue cookies. She loved to entertain and her lake place was equipped to do just that. She would welcome family members and friends to have a social hour, would love to host card games (rumor has it, she was one of the best Bridge players the Red River Valley has ever seen), and always kept a tidy house for the unexpected visitor that might pop in. 

As a kid, I learned a lot about my grandma through the stories my mom would tell. I used to laugh about my mom’s recounting of nights where she was in high school and would come home to grandma drinking martinis and playing her piano for a roomful of neighbors. “They’d be up until 4 or 5 AM playing that piano some nights. It was like I was the parent and she was the kid!” my mom would joke. In her 70s, grandma would still be sipping spirits and hosting all-night parties with her friends. The lore of Callie Dady prompted me to write an essay as a sixth grader titled “75 Going On 20” about my grandma. She always loved that piece.

When I was making the decision on which college to attend, Grandma Callie was a deciding factor for me. I moved up to Fargo and went to Concordia College, knowing that if it took me a while to adjust to this new area, at least I’d have the safe haven of my grandma’s place to retreat to. After moving up to the F-M area in August 2011, my grandma and I decided to make it a weekly tradition for me to come to her place for dinner. In the early days at Concordia, especially when I was struggling to feel a great sense of home in Fargo, the highlight of my week became those Sunday meals at grandma’s.

By this point in time, Grandma had been dating a new man (Jim) who would join us for the bulk of these dinners. We’d talk about everything from classwork to friends, politics to liquors, sports to music. When 60 Minutes came on, we’d go to the den and I’d try my best to stay interested in what was going on on the TV. Honestly, I just wanted to learn more about this woman I’d heard so many stories about. Every visit, I grew closer and closer with my grandma, and she grew closer and closer with me.

Odd as it may sound, I started to notice the regression in my grandma’s mental state through the meals we shared together during my time in college. Freshman year, she’d always insist on cooking for me. Sophomore year, she’d ask me to pick up food from a restaurant and bring it. Junior year, she’d start to forget we had plans but I’d show up with the food regardless. Senior year, she was moved out of her house and into the retirement community and we’d typically eat meals in the community dining room.

I regret how busy I let my life get, as somewhere along the way our weekly visits turned into visits every two or three weeks. Within the last couple of years, I wasn’t always “Jack” anymore. I was sometimes “John,” sometimes “my son,” other times “my boyfriend.” I was whoever my grandma needed me to be that day. The one thing I’m grateful for is that, despite her losing track of my name, she never forgot who I was. The look I would get when I walked through her door to visit was priceless – in those moments, I never felt more needed or loved. 

For the last couple of years, we had a lot of those moments. She didn’t like being in the memory care unit; she was confined to a small room and was away from her loved ones. Any time I could break her out of there was special. We would drive around downtown and listen to Frank Sinatra music, attend holiday lights shows, eat dinners at some of her favorite restaurants, and I’d introduce her to some of the special people and places that had entered my world. If I was having a bad day or feeling lonely, it was nice to know that I was only a few miles away from my grandma and could spend some time with her. Even as her memory faded and her life started to look a little different, being around Grandma Callie always gave me a sense of comfort and helped make this city feel more like home to me.

Then, COVID struck. I wasn’t able to see my grandma between March and June, and when I finally was able to visit her again for the first time (on her birthday, this summer), I was told not to hug or kiss her. I know this virus is serious, and don’t want to undermine the regulations that were put in place to help keep us safe and healthy… but you also have to understand that for a woman whose whole life has been filled with socializing, to be so isolated for such a long time can do a huge number on one’s overall mental health. My grandma needed people. People needed my grandma.

One of my final visits with grandma was in July. I went over and visited her memory care unit to try to take a video for my mom’s 60th birthday gift. It was a bit of a struggle, but we were able to capture this wonderful moment (shared below). I’m grateful my sister put this video compilation idea together, because it ended up being one of the last times my grandma was documented on camera. Before I left that day, Grandma Callie brought up one of her favorite memories of us together. Though she struggled to remember so much (even forgetting if I had visited her a few hours ago), her memory would sometimes shine through. She talked about a time where we went to Rustica together and then I showed her my apartment overlooking the river. I told her, “Grandma… as soon as all of this is over, we’ll definitely do that again. I promise.” Her smile beamed, and she started tapping the table in excitement. It devastates me that I wasn’t able to fulfill that promise.

My mom once told me that she sees so much of her mother in me – from the music to the personality. Honestly, if I can go about my life with even 50% of the energy my grandma brought to hers, I’d feel incredibly accomplished. Alzheimer’s took my grandma’s mind, but it never took her heart. Though selfishly I feel sad to have lost such a close confidant, I feel at peace knowing her pain is gone, and I feel assurance that she has left an indelible impact on the world around her. I’m blessed to have moved up to Fargo and been able to deepen my relationship with my grandma over the past nine years, and I’m so fortunate to have built a catalog of memories that I’ll hold near and dear to me. 

I found myself wallowing over the fact that grandma wouldn’t be able to attend my wedding, see my first baby be born, or be present for some of the other life changes that will undoubtedly take place over the next several years. But, the parts of her that live in me and have shaped who I am as a human will always be prevalent, so in some way, she always has and always will be guiding me through these chapters in life.

I’ll think of her whenever Sinatra comes on, so there’s no better way to end this piece than with this:

I’ve lived a life that’s full, I’ve travelled each and every highway, And more, much more than this, I did it my way.

I’ll love you forever, my gal, Cal.

(EDIT): I wanted to include a couple more stories that bring a smile to my face. The first is from September 2011. I’m new to Fargo and there’s a historic home tour that’s happening just south of downtown. One of the homes on this tour is the one my grandmother grew up in. I took grandma that day and she started to give me her own tour – retelling stories from her childhood, describing special things about all the nooks and crannies in the house, etc. A news station that was present started to pick up on the fact that my grandma had once lived in this house, so they start having their cameras follow behind me. My grandma thinks she’s just giving a tour to me, but she’s actually speaking to the entire community of Fargo at this moment. It was an adorable time that I’ll never forget.

The second moment is in October 2014. I was in the Homecoming Court at Concordia and I brought my Grandma as my guest. The President of our school (President Craft) was sitting right in front of my grandma, and got up to introduce himself to her. I believe my grandma may have thought he was the actual President of the United States, because she gracefully stood up, extended her hand to him, and said “Caroline Dady, from Fargo, North Dakota.” She was such a proud lady.

I know I’ll continue to reminisce on stories like these over the next several months. If you have some you’d like to share, you can feel free to do so by visiting the link below. You can also see a photo presentation my sister will be putting together, read the obituary my mom wrote, and give a gift if you choose to do so.

Click here for my grandma’s obituary info


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