Monday, October 15, 2012
Grandma, We Hardly Knew You
My grandmother was born in the beginning of October and died at the end of October, a few weeks after her 95th birthday. That's why I've decided to remember her in an October blog.
The last time I saw her was at my cousin's wedding. She had just turned 90 and had flown from Florida with my cousin, the bride-to-be, who was now her primary caretaker. At this wedding, I saw a sassy side of her I'd never seen before. Every time someone would come to greet her, she greeted them back with zingers. To her grandniece she said, "Wow, your husband put on a lot of weight." I asked another of my cousins about this, and she laughed about it, saying, "She's always been like this. Every time she sees me, she still asks me why I only had one child." My mom endured zinger after zinger, most of them questions about my mom's ex-husband whom she married after my father (who was my grandmother's youngest son) passed away. My mom didn't seem rattled by her zingers at all. When I asked her about it, she said, "I'm used to it. When you were a kid, she often told me I should wash your father's hair for him." I figured that now that I was an adult, there would probably be zingers for me too. I braced myself for zingers directed at me, but they never came.
Growing up, I hardly ever saw my grandmother smile. If she spoke to me at all, it was either "hello," "what was that?" (because she was hard of hearing) or "goodbye," along with a "pray for me." I also remember her being obsessed by things. At first it was her false teeth, then years later, the floaters in her eyes. If she did talk about something other than false teeth or floaters, it was likely to be something odd. Like the time when Jack Cafferty (now a CNN news analyst, back then a New York City's Live at 5 News anchor) came onto the TV, and she suddenly exclaimed, "That is a good-looking man!" Jack Cafferty? You'd think Tom Selleck had just appeared on the screen!
The only thing I can remember us doing together was play cards. She taught me a great card game with a lot of steps called "King's Corners." She and my grandfather used to stay at our house for one week every Christmas vacation. During one of those visits, my mom had to go to work, and I wanted to make pancakes. I was probably about 12. I called my mom's work, and she wasn't at her desk, so her co-worker asked me if there was something she could help me with. I told her, "Well, how do I make pancakes?" She told me a few things, and I hung up the phone. As soon as I hung up, my grandmother exclaimed, "Why didn't you just ask me?" I was surprised at her expression and that she seemed upset. "I know how to make pancakes!" she said huffily. She had never reprimanded me for anything in my life except for not asking her how to make pancakes! It was funny, but the thought never crossed my mind that I could just ask my grandmother how to do it.
The fact that I didn't think she could handle something as easy as making pancakes is strange considering that when she was growing up, her family of five siblings all agreed that she was the most gifted academically. Her biggest disappointment in life was that her family didn't have enough money to send her to college because it was the Depression. Only her oldest sister got to go. But she made the best of it and became a legal secretary. She was a champion stenographer who also entered typing contests and won medals. She was such a fast typist that she had to type on a special Underwood typewriter. Otherwise the keys would jam up because she typed so fast.
After she married, she became a stay-at-home mom to my uncle and my father. It was World War II, and she and my grandfather had going away parties at their house for their friends going off to war almost every week. Since my grandfather had the two young boys to take care of, he was the last to go. My uncle remembers there being singalongs at the player piano and karaoke before there was a name for it. My grandmother was considered very funny and an excellent hostess. But all that changed about nine years later, when she gave birth to her last child, my aunt, and suffered a severe form of postpartum depression. She wasn't able to take care of either her new baby or her two sons, so she endured "treatments" given in the basement of a questionable doctor and was never the same after that. But it did save her from going the way of Sylvia Plath.
For my grandmother's 90th birthday party, I asked my cousin what I should get her, and she said a brain teaser/logic problems book. You know, the ones that hardly anyone can do much less would want to do unless they were being forced to? She said little during the party except that she didn't know what all the fuss was about. At one point, a guest said, "I try to never argue with anyone during the day because, you know, one night, you may go to sleep and not wake up in the morning." "Oh," my grandmother said looking him up and down. "I wish that would happen to me!"
During the last decade of my grandmother's life, my cousins, who sometimes took turns taking care of her, had a lot of stories to tell. The funniest story was when she stayed with my cousin and his wife who lived in New Jersey. Every morning, my cousin went into the room where she was staying and noticed that the cable channel was always set from the night before on the same number, a certain adult channel. When they asked her about it, she answered, "I don't know. I watched this show. There was a woman who had a pink apparatus." When my cousin told us this story in front of my grandmother, all she had to say about the channel was, "I was intrigued by it."
When she moved back to Florida for good, there were various medical personnel who came to evaluate her to help her get the care she needed. She never gave them an easy time. One funny story is the time a man came to the house and had to ask her several questions as he filled out a questionnaire. At one point he asked her how much she weighed to which she snapped, "Weigh? How much do I weigh? Well, how much do YOU weigh?"
Her mind stayed intact until only a couple of years before she died. I didn't see her during those couple of years, but I was told her personality had made a dramatic change for the second time in her life, but this time it was for the better. Suddenly, she was cheery all the time. My cousin said she just sat around watching TV and laughing all day. Her favorite movie was "Napoleon Dynamite," and she watched it constantly!
Come to think of it, there was one period of time that I actually saw my grandmother happy. It was when I was a teenager, after my grandmother's daughter's baby was born, and my grandmother moved in with them for three years to care for my new cousin while my aunt returned to work full-time. Whenever we visited them, she smiled and simply beamed over that baby. She took really good care of her and truly thrived while doing so.
My uncle probably knew my grandmother better than anyone else in the world. When I asked him about her recently, he told me: "People thought she was aloof and distant, but that wasn't the mother I knew." Again, I say -- Grandma, we hardly knew you.
Post Script: I have to give the photo credit to my cousin Dawn who found this picture in her stash. Both of us were shocked that there was actually a photograph in existence of our grandmother and grandfather kissing!