Thursday, December 25, 2014

Requiem Part One: Grandma

Grandma died first, so I'll start there.

I think maybe I was closest to my grandma growing up, although I feel utterly disloyal saying that. It's also possible that in many ways, I'm most like my grandma, though I feel pretty strongly that I resemble all of my grandparents (for better and for worse!). Maybe I was closest to my grandmother because she had the strongest personality- or at least, the one that she put out there the most strongly. All four of my grandparents were very strong.

I feel especially bad saying that I feel closest to Grandma because she was so insistent on telling us all she loved us equally. None of us was her favorite, she protested. There was a cork board in the breakfast room where they ate with photos all the kids and grandkids would send them. She'd carefully have equal pictures of everyone. Cousin J would rearrange them each time she came (which was more often than most of them because she lived close) so that she and her sister were on top and then we'd come by and rearrange them. This was a longstanding family joke, and Grandma always played fair.

Grandma got sick when I was four, so I never knew her healthy. She had a tumor at the base of her skull. She was in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Or maybe that's where she had the first surgery- I don't remember- but I remember that Fort Smith, Arkansas figured in this story prominently, as did the dumb doctor on the hill (the hill was Berkeley). Grandma's stories were often repeated. The tumor may have been cancerous or it may not have- she always said it was, and Grandpa always said it wasn't, so we'll never know. But it was in a bad place, and in Berkeley (this is why I'm telling my version, not any kind of official, authorized version, because it may still have been in Fort Smith, Arkansas) they did experimental radiation which got rid of the tumor, as well as lots of other important things, such as her pituitary gland. One way or another, this controlled a lot of bodily functions. The one I was most aware of was saliva. She used a "nose machine" for the rest of her life, which washed out her nose- I don't know, instead of snot? I don't know if I ever knew how this worked or if I just forget.

This tumor did not kill grandma, and she would not let it. Grandma had already had breast cancer in her 40s and had a mastectomy. I remember when she told me I was old enough to understand and showed me her prosthesis that she wore in her very large bra. She was exceptionally proud of being a fighter. The tumor did, however, cause her life to be pretty miserable, though as a kid, I knew she was sick, but didn't know she was miserable. Grandma and Grandpa lied with us for awhile during the summer she was getting radiation (I think?) at Berkeley, and I don't remember much about it- I think I was four- except that we played my favorite game for hours. One of us would say a sentence and then the other would tell the next sentence into epic stories. Grandma believed that we could do anything with our imaginations, and because of her, I believed I was the most creative person, and that I could, too. Oh, the stories we could tell! (That's something she would say- that's why I wrote it.) If the story of her life was that she was going to fight that tumor, then she was going to fight it.

Every morning when we woke up in LA, we'd run into the bedroom and climb in bed between Grandma and Grandpa. They slept in two twin beds pushed together because they were longer than normal beds, for grandpa. Eventually I think they got a real bed. (Did I make that up? It seems like I made it up, but it also seems so real in my mind.) They would stroke our backs and hair. Grandma did this sweet thing with her nails lightly on our hands. Grandpa would get up and make orange juice. Grandma had an art room in the back of the house in LA. We did all kinds of arts (crafts) there- collages, pastels, both oil and chalk, paints, etc. We had a "kids' room" at their house, where all the grandkids stayed when they visited. She had painted our names into a crossword on the sliding closet door. There were books and toys saved from her children. She wrote us stories and tons of letters while we were away at camp- one for every day. Her cursive bordered on unintelligible. Clippings of who knows what from all kinds of newspapers with more of that scribbling came in the mail. She must have been a regular at the stamp machine. We got a cultural education- she took us to the La Brea tar pits and Olivera Street and the Grand Canyon and gambling and all kinds of museums. Grandpa came on all of these trips, as well, of course, but Grandma lived for it. She used to tell us to go bang our heads against a wall if we complained of being bored. (I believe she said this was a Yiddish phrase- that's what I've internalized.) Couldn't we figure out something to do?

Grandma was proud of being a liberal. She had worked (volunteered?) with blind children and felt strongly about civil rights. I don't know if this was how she was raised, or because she was Jewish in Missouri (pronounced Missour-uh) growing up, or just who she was, but it was important to her. She taught me to be passionate and to write letters to politicians about what I believed in. She had a framed letter from someone (I want to say Clinton) in the back bathroom. There is a story to go along with that, but I can't remember it- I've been trying for weeks.

She loved jazz and chocolate. Grandma knew the word to every song ever- it was one of her special talents, along with being able to write in cursive backwards, like mirror image. She had a soft spot for m&m's and would keep a dish in the living room, maybe exactly so that she could complain that we always went there before seeing her. She always said "And all, uh, that, uh, jazz." The only thing I know about Frank Sinatra is that he liked to be called Mr Frank Sinatra. Grandma told us the same things a lot. That thing stuck. I don't think I ever saw her drink.

Grandma's freezer was notorious. She had an extra freezer. She would do things like cook noodle kugel and put it in there and bring it out for us because we loved it. And then ignore the freezer burn or not taste it. Her sense of smell went away after the radiation, so maybe that excuses the inability to notice bad food from the freezer? She was good at comfort food- frozen shrimp and garlic and butter. And very good at excess lengths of stay in the freezer. There was the time she served expired cans of soda from the porch. Until that moment I didn't know it was possible for soda to expire. It is both possible for soda to expire and for food to go bad in the freezer.

Grandma was also good at guilt trips. We didn't come down often enough or call often enough or write enough. As she got sicker, she and Grandpa fought all the time, and it could be very hard to be there. She was "Missouri (pronounced "Missour-uh"- did I mention her stories got repeated?) stubborn" and he wanted to take care of her and she didn't want to be taken care of, maybe because that would be admitting that she needed taking care of, and it sucked all around. I'm sure it was worse for them, but it could be really bad, as a kid, to watch that. You get used to hanging if you hang long enough, she'd say. Grandma got increasingly bitter and eccentric as she got older. Some might say crazy. Time has softened that, though, and I only remember eccentric. It's easier to remember that she didn't want to lie in bed and stare at the crack in the ceiling (something else she said all the time). She was going to fight.

The good moments came when we would get out. Grandma would charm everyone. She would think of an exhibit to go see, and she would have her wheelchair parked at the front. She would charm handsome young men and Grandpa and I would go see the exhibit, him worrying the whole time. We'd come back and she'd regale us with stories of her new friends. She always threatened to tell people who said she looked "good" or "cute" with a whack of her cane. She favored a certain type of canvas hat. She was vein about her very sweet and soft skin. But she knew that she looked like an old lady. She loved to tell people how my family once told me and her that we were doing "inappropriate behavior" when we danced with her cane in public. I loved my grandma.

Grandma died in the fall of 1999, after several bouts of meningitis. I was a freshman in college. I came home for my second oldest cousin's wedding. Grandma was very frail at that point. She got Grandpa up to dance- she always loved to dance, and Grandpa was like me- a stick in the mud with no rhythm. But he got up and danced with her, or stood there while she shuffled next to him, happy as I had seen her in years. She died two weeks later. We all knew she had waited for C to get married- her first grandchild to do so. She was cremated and buried (against her instructions, but that's another story) with her mother.


mamagotcha said...

Oh, this is absolutely lovely! Thank you so much for sharing your beloved grandparents with us. I'm looking forward to the entire series.