Remembering my Grandmother Anne
When I was little she showed me how to dance in the kitchen. One knee raised arms bent 90 degrees at the elbow, wrists hanging limp. She twisted at the waist, moving her arms from side to side, switching legs every few beats. Her look was bored, not bored with me, or bored with dancing but more… nonplussed, unimpressed, as if to say “I know I dance well, but let’s not make a big thing about it.”
In the mornings after I would stay over she would ask me what I wanted for breakfast and I would say french toast, farina, bacon, and her special buttered toast, cut in small squares, mixed with soft boiled eggs. She would look at me and say “are you gonna eat all that?” And I’d say “yup,” and she’d make it. I would eat it all. And she’d say “where do you put it?”
She would pull out her tape recorder and we’d do radio shows. I’d make up a character and she’d be the interviewer. The only character I remember is one that always chewed ice, or maybe there was one about pillows. Even though they were pretend radio shows, I’d always dress up before we went on the air.
In 1994 my mom rented a shore house for a big, extended family Thanksgiving. All her first cousins, and their kids, came down. Dave and I had been seeing each other for a bit and he came down, too. He remarked on how much he liked my grandmother, but I hadn’t seen them talking at all. Turns out they’d both been sneaking out to smoke, and had developed a smokers’ rapport.
A few years ago we went apple picking, me and Gram and Dave and C. It was a beautiful fall day and we walked through the orchard. I chased C about because he was three and three year olds love to be chased. Then Dave chased C while I strolled slowly with Gram and we chose the apples we liked best. It was important to her that she pay for our bags of apples.
My Gram spoke about teaching elementary school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She enjoyed it, and was one year away from receiving tenure, with a pay increase, when my grandfather proposed and they were married. She said they were the last two unmarried kids on their block, and they were older, in their mid-20’s, when they married. Gram said she was embarrassed that she got pregnant during the first year of marriage, and she left teaching to raise my mother.
At Hunter College she made great friends, a group of women, that she kept throughout her life. Together they went on holiday, renting a house by a lake in New Jersey, and they really enjoyed themselves there. My Gram was the first in her family to go to college, and a first generation American.
Gram told me years ago that she was surprised to look in a mirror and see an old woman looking back at her, because she felt 18 inside.
When she was in grade school, in Brooklyn, she was embarrassed of her Italian identity. Her parents, Giovannina and Giacomo were from Naples, and ran a grocery store in south Brooklyn. She confessed her discomfort at her Italian heritage to a teacher, who told her to just go by Ann instead of Anne (pronounced Ana). She said it was like a revelation, and introduced herself as Ann from then on, although she kept the ‘e.’
She told me about a trip she and my grandfather took to Jamaica. She was in the hotel alone one day when her husband went out for the day, so she went down the bar and met some new people. They invited her for an airplane ride over the island, and she went. She recounted this to me as commonplace, but to me a airplane jaunt with complete strangers from the hotel bar is about as daring as it gets.
Dave and I lived on the Lower East Side for several years, and during that time my Gram was the closest family to us. We would take the LIRR out to see her every month or two and spend the weekend. Often we would make a little cook out in the backyard, on her charcoal grill. We would eat outside in her little yard. We made a party for ourselves, and it was lovely. She would complain that we were making too much of a fuss, or spending too much money, but she was always glad when we brought cut flowers, and a steak, and some nice chocolate that she would say she shouldn’t eat and then would snack on throughout the night.
She had a pull out couch in her spare room that no matter how you arranged yourself upon it provided the worst sleep of all time. The spare room had a window that looked out to the back yard, and also a few windows that were higher up, facing the house next door. They were good for ventilation, but high enough to provide privacy. There was one bathroom in her house, and the kitchen had this old, 1960’s style range. At one point the oven stopped working so she used it to store cereals.
Eventually she employed a woman to come in once a week and to clean. Gram always cleaned top to bottom before the woman came.
We played scrabble and she always won. Until she started to not always win.
I got a job in New York before we found an apartment, and for a few weeks, after starting the job, I stayed with Gram in Greenvale, on the Oyster Bay Line of the LIRR. I commuted to work in Brooklyn from there, and it was nice to have Gram to myself, while also feeling odd that I was living with a family member. I wish I’d been more gentle with her.
I’m up late while my mom, brother, husband, and son are sleeping. I’m thinking of my Gram, who lay dying in Connecticut. She is sedated, and she’s had her daughters with her. My mom is going to be with her tomorrow. The word is that she won’t live through the weekend. Her youngest brought in a priest to give the sacrament of last rights. My Gram always eschewed church, but my aunt says she smiled during the sacrament. Dave and I took her to church on a few occasions over the years. We’re not highly religious people, but we feel strongly, much I suppose like Fox Mulder, that we want to believe. There is something beautiful about the completion of the sacraments.
When she was a school girl, in public school in Brooklyn, she learned opera. She studied Italian and French. She was a great reader throughout her life, and always read the new fascinating books before I did. She relished political debate and intellectual discourse, and frequently got into heated arguments with Dave about health care, unions, Obama.
My Gram wasn’t always kind, or considerate, but what I remember most tonight is her smile. And her laugh. And how she could be incredulous.
Her car had velour seats, and the seat belts were always a little stretched out, and she secured hers with a binder clip, rendering it useless in case of emergency. The car smelled of Benson & Hedges, and her hair was perfectly sprayed. In the evening she would pin up her hair. She would sleep with talk radio on, and when I stayed over, I would wait until she was asleep, then tiptoe into her room and turn down the sound. She liked to watch the news, but when I’d suggest we watch a movie or a show, she would decline. It’s like she didn’t want to feel disconnected from what was happening, she didn’t want to feel unreachable.
This one time I went shopping with my Mom and Gram, right after Christmas, we were exchanging gifts that hadn’t quite fit the bill. I tried on a jacket, and she said “Honey, I don’t know why you’re always wearing those little jackets.”
And I said “because I think it looks good Gram.”
And she said “that’s because you can’t see yourself from the back.”
“Gram,” I chided, “you don’t always have to be so critical.”
She stamped her foot in frustration, I had misunderstood. “Honey,” she said, “I’m not trying to be critical, I just want you to know that you don’t look as good as you think you do.”
She was helping. She was giving me a perspective into reality whereas I existed in a fantasy world. I never wanted that glimpse into reality. I am always more comfortable in a reality that I’ve constructed for myself rather than one in which there are objective facts about my appearance perhaps, or, another topic that arose now and then, my level of financial success.
Another time I’d won a grant, and she asked me what for. I showed her the ten script pages I’d submitted and she said “For this? You didn’t give them anything more?” If I’d been one of her daughters, I might have found this to be further evidence of her negative perspective, but as her granddaughter, I didn’t have quite the need for her approval, and my mother had already come across with pride for my achievement.
Reality is just so bleak, and while I prefer the cold climes, reality is too harsh for this northerner to stand. The wind of critique and failure, the cold frost of a future rife with predicted disappointment, is more than I can stomach. For me it’s enough to know that the end is always near without thinking too hard about what action to take between now and then.
I don’t remember my Gram saying “I love you” until I said it to her first. I said it on the phone, at the end of a conversation, maybe 12 years ago. She stumbled and then said “I love you too,” and hung up rather quickly. I didn’t know if I was imposing something on her. I didn’t know if she didn’t want to talk about it. But I didn’t doubt that she loved me, I never once doubted that.
When my Dad’s grandmother, who we called Bestamore, which is Norwegian for grandmother, died when I was 12, my father wept. I remember he looked like the world was crumbling around him. And for me, while I loved her, I knew she was an old person, I knew intellectually that she would die. Losing a beloved grandmother is not an intellectual exercise. And though my Gram has lived to be very old, life is always precious, and perhaps no more so than at the very end, when all options are gone, all doors are closed save one.
In her old house in Greenvale, where I remember her best, she would shuffle around at the end of the night, closing things up, finishing one last thing, filling in a newly solved answer to a crossword puzzle. Gram always had one last thing to do.