Saturday, September 10, 2011

my grandmother

We buried my grandmother yesterday. It was a small but lovely funeral if such things can be lovely. Here is what I read. My Uncle Michael, her baby, and I said very similar things.

My grandmother called the obituaries the party page, and she loved parties. She thought life cycle events demanded full participation and extravagant celebrations. We all thought that the St. Patrick’s Day parade was in her honor, and she kept a record of who called on birthdays and anniversaries. If she could, she’d take attendance today.

When she turned 83 she said she wanted to ride a double decker tour bus around New York City with her five granddaughters, so we did that and finished it off with a jazz concert in a club off of Madison Avenue. This last spring we had a party which included, in addition to the usual suspects, almost all of her nephews, and she was more with it and connected than I’d seen her in years. She loved every minute of it. She talked about my cousins’ weddings for weeks. And for my twins’ naming ceremony and bris she insisted that she and my mother wear matching green. She did jello shots at my sisters’ college graduation. And while I spent my high school and college years decked out in baggy ethnic garb, listening to earnest folk singers, she wore custom made leather outfits to clubs and concerts in the City. Every so often she bought me a sexy shirt that I wouldn’t wear for almost twenty years. I think this aesthetic caused a mixture of pride and trepidation in my cousins who lived in the city and got to bring her to grandparents’ day. You never know how black leather and sequins will play in an upper East Side primary school. So my niece probably had it right when she wanted to wear a peach taffeta puffy dress today. And I know that I’m not the only granddaughter who felt inclined to buy a colorful outrageous dress this week. If there had been time I would have suggested green manicures for all before this morning’s service. She loved parties because she loved people. I know that she would want us to celebrate her life.

And, perhaps even more importantly, I am certain that she was ready to die. She stopped her rote greeting of “I’m happy to be alive” about a year ago. And this last week she said she was ready to go. Mammy outlived everyone in her generation except her husband. We come from a family that does not shy away from talking about death; for the last twenty years both of my grandparents have taken a Woody Allen approach to old age, reminding me that they could die soon and therefore I should, for sure, come up for lunch. And by the time my grandmother’s slow decline became a reality I had internalized the behavior. She was, by the end a shell of what she once was. But that she was not much older than I am now when I was born means that I have vivid memories of her in her 50’s. And for that I am incredibly thankful. Not only was she vibrant enough to take my sister and me on trips, stay with us when our parents traveled, and generally be the coolest grandmother on the planet, but I got to have an adult girl friend relationship with her. And those are the memories I want to hold on to.

I want to remember the Mammy who did my hair at Uncle Michael and Aunt Lynn’s wedding. And I want to remember the Mammy who slept with me and Pami in the big trundle bed and told us stories about my Mom and Uncle Earl and Michael when they were children. I always liked the one about how she locked then in a closet when they had misbehaved and they asked for cookies. And I want to remember the Mammy who took train to Philadelphia to hang out with me in when I was in graduate school. And of course I want to remember the Mammy who loved my babies.

Mammy saw five granddaughters married and eight great grand children come into the world. Two of my favorite snapshot memories are of her on the floor stacking cups with my twin babies and of her walking down 86th street with one tiny hand in each of her two. They were her walker. And she thought the baby monitor was the best invention of the 20th century. She was largely blind but could sit on Uncle Earl’s deck in the Hamptons listening to the kids squawk at each other for hours. My children looked forward to her visits, which came complete with bagels and lox and usually a hideous toy that made too much noise. She got to meet her newest great grand kids Henry and Nola in the last year, and I know that thrilled her.

My grandmother lived a wild and crazy life, and she lived it with gusto. She was movie star beautiful in her youth and flirted shamelessly not just with her children’s friends but my friends all the way through graduate school. She knew that every ex-boyfriend any of her granddaughters had must be gay. She was in the coast guard, a dental hygienist, a cable television producer, an avid traveler, an amateur Egyptologist, and a good guitar player. She loved music and was truly adventurous. She always bucked the system. Our cousin Bill reminded us yesterday that in the throws of losing her eye site she got thrown out of the Lighthouse for The Blind support group. Instead of a seeing eye dog, she wanted a seeing eye horse so she wouldn't have to walk everywhere.

She had a fast and furious romance with my grandfather who, more than any of us knew, was still the love of her life 68 years later. It broke my heart to see her reach for him this last week. And in this they may be a model for us all. While they were movie star beautiful they did not have a movie style marriage. They had the kind that took work in the decades before people talked therapyspeak. They loved each other fiercely and had extremely strong ideas that didn’t always match. I don’t know many women of her generation who so clearly lived the way they wanted even when it went against what their husbands wanted. They knew how to fight and how to make up.

My grandmother told me years ago that she didn’t want anyone making stuff up at her funeral or saying nice things if they weren’t true. (my mother has said the same thing so it must be genetic) And so it’s worth saying that she never ever turned into a sweet little old lady—little yes in her final years but sweet no. With that vigor for life came a vicious temper. It didn’t really surprise me when she gave the ER resident the finger last weekend in the hospital, actually it cracked me up. She had spunk and humor until the very last minute. And she always loved her comforts and those too she had at the end. I had the best grandmother in the world. She was by no means perfect, and that’s exactly why she was the best. I’ll miss her terribly, but I’ll end by saying again that I’m sure she’d want us to have a party today


  1. May we all refuse to be "little old ladies"! As the poet said, "do not go gently into that good night"!