Songwriters: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe
Original Release: Automatic for the People
Definitive Version: None
I can’t hear this song and not think about my paternal grandmother. When I was a real little kid first learning how to talk, I couldn’t say Grandma. It came out Meemaw, and the name stuck. She was forevermore Meemaw, and everyone in the family called her that. (That’s the power of being the first-born grandchild.)
Meemaw was the best. Meemaw spaghetti, pizza—and most especially—Christmas cookies are legendary. I will have more Meemaw stories for sure on this list, so I’ll spread them around, unlike my Mark Beener epic, where I basically burned everything up in one blast.
This song comes in toward the end. Meemaw’s lone fault, really, was that she was a voracious smoker for more than 50 years. And, of course, it destroyed her lungs. It got so by the early Eighties, she could no longer get up and down the hill at Torch Lake to watch the sailboat races, which she loved to do. So my grandfather bought her a golf cart—the Meem Machine—which, of course, all the kids drove when she wasn’t using it.
I don’t remember that she still was smoking at this time, but sometime in the mid-Eighties—I want to say 1987—she had a major incident and had to go to the hospital. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I seem to recall that she was diagnosed with emphysema. Regardless, pretty much from then on, the family was on death watch. At any moment, we could get The Call.
Well, my Meemaw wasn’t going to let something like death get her that easily. She made it all the way to 1994, to the first of her grandchildren’s weddings and to my grandfather’s 80th birthday party but not quite to her own 80th birthday.
So, it seemed perfectly natural that I would think of this song and its message of dying with dignity and my Meemaw. She constantly struggled with her breath in those last years, although she didn’t use an oxygen tank until only the very end. She knew she was going to go for quite some time, but it was going to be on her terms.
The last time I saw her, she was apologetic about seeming so frail, and it was obvious that she didn’t want that to be the lasting image of her. Not a chance.