I Knew Her


After my grandma’s funeral, each of her great-grandchildren took a flower from the arrangement on her casket. My children took their time selecting just the right one. And then my oldest daughter did something that touched my heart so deeply. She took a flower and laid it gently on my aunt Paula Kay’s gravestone.

My oldest daughter’s middle name is also Kay.

Paula died in a tragic accident just a few days before her second birthday. My father was a two-month-old infant at the time. I wouldn’t be born for another thirty-five years, but for as long as I can remember I have loved Paula Kay.

I remember, as a very small child living at Grandma’s house, seeing a photo of a beautiful little blond girl on the top of Grandma’s dresser and asking her, “Who is that?”  She told me Paula’s story, and I remember feeling like I was being told a story I already knew about a person I already loved. Early in my life there were moments when I had brief flashes of memory. Of Paula, as an adult, tutoring me and preparing me. Whenever anyone spoke of her, it was like they were touching the deepest reaches of my soul, tugging at a sacred, hidden spot in my heart.

When my family moved in with Grandma following my parents’ divorce, I was almost two years old, a little blond girl who needed a mother. And from that moment on, Grandma called me her own, “My Baby.”

Years later, I was living with my dad and stepmom in Massachusetts. I told my dad about the special connection I had always felt toward Paula, and he validated my impressions. It made perfect sense to him. He felt that my “memories” of being taught by Paula were true.

When Grandma came to visit us for my thirteenth birthday, she and my dad had a special talk one night. He told her about my feelings toward Paula. He mentioned how I had arrived in Grandma’s arms, “Her Baby,” a little blond toddler, at exactly the same age Paula was when she died. Grandma was not a public crier. I think I only saw her cry once in my thirty-one years with her, but my dad said Grandma sobbed that night. I imagine she felt decades of grief releasing in waves of weeping.

Later, on one of my birthday cards, Grandma wrote, “I love you lots and think this card says it. You are a gift from God.” And I think she said it exactly right. I do believe I was sent to my parents’ unhappy marriage and soon lost my mother to separation and divorce because God had a healing gift to give to a heart that had been aching for a long, long time. What an honor to have been chosen for that task. What a privilege to know the part that Paula played in ensuring that it happened and that I was prepared.

So when my oldest daughter, completely of her own volition, placed that flower on Paula’s grave, it felt like another witness: Yes, Paula knows us. Yes, we know her. Even though she died thirty-five years before I was born.

By Lani Axman