Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Grandma in a Snowglobe

Written September 2019

Some creatures slowly leave out the hardest parts when they tell stories over time. The memories become artificially sweetened, but it tastes like the real thing. Some are merciless in the retelling, building monsters in the hard drive.

My grandma Patty died in March, so let me retell as I know how.
My memories of her are only sweet, but memory itself is a monster.

I have always relegated "prayer for my ailing grandparent" into the category of least honest prayer requests because everyone has an ailing grandparent and none of the rest of us know those people. Of course God does not scorn the prayers of worried grandchildren, and my rancor in my opinions about the hierarchies of prayers worth praying is part of why I wasn't chosen to succeed God whenever he's dethroned for not answering his texts (heresy).

My grandma loved me and I miss her.
I miss the security of knowing she was near.

I didn't ask anyone to pray that she would recover. The week or two leading up to her death and her death were nearly as smooth as one could hope. Following a day spent with her children, eating and chatting, something in her body broke and she never woke up again until she was ready to go a week and a half later.

It felt better then than it does now. At the time I felt like I'd said a good goodbye and the time with other family members was healthy and appropriately wrenching, but hopeful. I was able to realize things about who she was and what I loved about her in a way that seemed like softly accepting a matter of fact rather than getting swept out to sea. I think that's what it means to say a good goodbye, but I'm not sure because if it is, it's the first time I've done that.

I was even able to see that my grief was less tragedy and more tiredness. In ways that I'm too tired and distracted to fully explore yet, I'm learning that my body does most of the emotional work that my head denies. I respect and resent my body for it.

I didn't finish the first rambling obituary I wrote about my grandma because I knew that times had changed, I had changed, since the way I used to do that for other grandparents. This one is more about me than the others were. Last goodbyes are more about those left behind. Of all people, my grandma will not hold this against me.

I wanted to write down every memory that includes her, but they begin to blur into the mundane, and besides, it's a futile exercise. Even as she deteriorated, over the last few years to be truthful, I tried to reach out the arms of my mind and gather everything I could about her. I created a space sheltered somewhat from my own degrading memory reel to put the things I know about her in a little globe so that I can visit it from time to time. A sort of do this in remembrance of me.

Of course, I know that the more I visit her there, the less she will be herself and the more she will be
a figment of my creation. A photo negative rubbed into oblivion with repeated touching. It's a great frustration of life, but perhaps also a blessing. It's how we become either sweet or merciless retellers of history. Usually I'm very aware of people's faults, but I can't think of anything I didn't like about her.

It was hard because I didn't know her very, very well, and the knowledge that I would never know enough kept me from giving myself wholly to the project. Although I didn't do it very well, it seemed better (and safer) to be with her when I was able than chase her memory before she was even gone.

Even so, I tried to ask her detailed questions when I could, trying to hear stories I hadn't heard before. I asked her about a ring she wore and the vase in her living room and prom dresses. I got her personal notes on the family taco recipe (which is all wrong if you just follow what's written in the original recipe). She would drop alarming tidbits about her life as if they were the simplest details, and I skirted the nagging voice in my head reminding me that those stories would soon be locked out of reach. Of course I know stories die every day. Of course I know it.

In San Diego at my youngest brother's college graduation, we sat on a dizzying ledge above the amphitheater pit, too far away to recognize my brother at all. I bought popcorn that we shared. That weekend, she told me about her dad, one of three brothers. Two died in or as a result of WWI, killing Germans who were less than a generation removed from being their kin. Her father was never deployed, but after the war he found work on a banana boat off the coast of Florida where he learned Spanish from the crew. Later he ended up in El Centro where my grandma grew up an only child in the first integrated class in her school.

(This photograph of her is from March 1958, in Avenal, CA. She was 22.)

In the past few years, she nodded to herself more and more, and it felt like breaking her away from her own thoughts when you spoke to her. My grandpa Ron died in 2012, and her charisma faded noticeably with each time I saw her after his death. They were married for over 50 years. I am relieved that she no longer has to live with him missing from her life. Despite her losses, she was never far from her big, easy smile.

What most struck me as I began to process her being gone was that she made me feel unconditionally loved. It's a thunderbolt the few times in life that you can recognize that feeling. She not only loved me as a granddaughter, but I am convinced I was liked, too. Approval isn't everything, but now I'm realizing how rare it is to feel that someone is truly in your corner. I can not remember her ever speaking a harsh word to me or betraying even a hint of annoyance, and I surely went through many an unflattering phase in her vicinity. I am in awe that someone could leave that sort of feeling as the overarching characteristic of their personality. To me she seemed a selfless giver of love, and if I can ever make someone else feel like that someday... I don't know how to finish that sentence.

My impression is that she made many people feel as if they were her conspiratorial favorite, and not only her family members. More than anyone else I know, she was diligent about maintaining friendships. She traveled to visit people, she kept yearly appointments with friends from when she was in elementary school, she attended every baby shower, piano recital, or important football match for her grand kids, and she was a faithful letter writer. Not only did she keep old bonds strong, she consistently cultivated new ones. She welcomed each new neighbor and babysat if they had young children. She tried new foods as her neighborhood became more ethnically diverse. She kept up with the politics of the countries her friends were from so that she could be more aware of their worlds. The last time I talked to her, she had called me to ask about my experience having my wedding dress made in China because her friend's daughter was thinking about going that route. She never seemed to tire of this level of engagement.

People often seem to get stuck in the social norms of their youth, but she was largely immune to that. Sometimes older people seem to disdain new iterations of political and social correctness, but I never saw her struggling with that because I think that fundamentally, she was kind and cared about people. Not only did she care about you, she was interested in you. Because she cared more for people than circumstances, she didn't seem wrung of compassion in new and surprising chapters of history. I don't know how she did that. Even with her priorities straight, she stayed deeply interested and engaged in current politics. She told me she hoped Millennials could turn this ship around and I said I don't think we can, but I'll carry that baton for her.

She didn't lack fire. She just didn't make her passions about herself, at least not by the time that I was around. She told stories of her own forceful will when she was much younger, demanding that my grandpa go back to school, or leaving their car to walk down the highway alone after they had fought. He spent several hours looking for her. Here, I can't tell if my memory is sweetening her or if my own age now recognizes that sometimes getting out of the car isn't a weakness in character.

My most vivid impressions of her are from times when she took special care to be with just me. She took me to lunch for my birthday one year, I was probably 9. We went to the Oaks mall and ate at the Cheesecake Factory, and then she took me to Claire's and let me pick out several pair of earrings. One pair were silver-colored cats with tails that dangled and the other were flowers made of blazingly blue rhinestones. I hope I still have them somewhere, but I'm afraid to look in case I don't. She was not one beholden to "stuff" (much to my chagrin, at times), so I don't have many heirlooms to remember her by or "big gifts" that I felt obligated to keep. In fact, while this wasn't really of her own volition, she told me several times that her wedding dress was gone because her mother gave it to a cleaning lady.

She did leave me things. Newspaper clippings, personal writings that got lost in a folder between the time I was 10 and now. I will read them closely when I no longer feel the absence of a birthday card from her. She gave me the last newspaper clipping over a year ago, and the fact that I haven't read it yet feels like a continuation of life with her near by. Not reading it is a way of saving the last page of a book I was enjoying too much to want it to be over. I can not say goodbye just once, all at once.

My grandma Patty and me, c. 1991

She hadn't done much to her house since the 80s. That's just the way a Grandma's house should be, because it's always the same. The vent to the drying machine let out right in front of the front door and she always used the same products, so it was a smell I'll always associate with her home. The living room always smelled the same too, but I'm not sure what made the smell. I can tell when I smell it elsewhere, though. I don't think that matters to anyone but me, and I feel myself building snowdrifts in my memory globe out of increasingly unrelated, "unimportant" things. My heart, you are a shaky devil.

My favorite memory of her is from when she was driving me to an art lesson one afternoon, I think it was right after we moved back to the US, so I was probably 16. I grew up on the other side of the world from her, and I felt like I didn't know her very well when we first moved back. I often worried that I was inconveniencing her, which is funny, because if I can think of anything I knew about her that could be considered even a minor flaw, it was that she was maddeningly deferential at times, and it was hard to know whether she was deferring because she truly didn't care about something or because she thought your needs were more important than her own, but was secretly displeased.

We were driving in somewhat awkward silence to this art lesson when we stopped at a red light next to a monster truck blaring rap with the windows down. For as long as I can remember, my grandparents had gold-colored boat-sized sedan cars, always clean inside, always with a box of tissues, always playing classical music. My grandma rolled down her window and cranked up her classical music and howled with laughter the rest of the way to my class. That was so characteristic of her. Gentle and riotous. I think I was embarrassed at the time, but it was truly funny and surprising, and I admired her confidence in herself and her lightheartedness. When I picture her in my mind's eye, at any age, she's always in the spirit of that moment, open-mouth smiling, almost lurching forward full of her own enthusiasm.

She loved music. She had what was - to me - a very "grandma-y" way of humming, where she'd put her hand in the air a bit like a conductor, with several fingers pointed and sort of draw music in the air while worbling "la dee da, hmm hm hm". It was one of those things that only Grandmas in movies do, or Fred Astaire, except she was completely sincere. She loved the performing arts, stale black licorice, Mary Cassatt, Diana of Wales, buttered rolls, steak and red wine, watching My Fair Lady, playing and watching tennis, and watching figure skating. Beside red wine, I enjoyed all of those things together with her. She didn't hold back in times of celebration - eating out, Christmas, laughing.

We tried to get her cooking, but she hated it, and it makes me smile. She was a lifelong learner, but sometimes you just aren't that into some things.

Two years ago for Christmas I gave her Paul Kanathi's book When Breath Becomes Air, and she said it was the best gift she got. I have a copy but I haven't read it yet, I'm sure it will make me cry. I find myself wishing I knew what her favorite flowers were and what her favorite book was. I know she liked roses. She read a great deal, as most wonderful people do.

She was always cheering me on. Telling me I was gifted, born for this, pushing me to go for the things that set me aflame, clipping magazine articles to that affect and giving them to me, emailing me. It's pretty rare (especially for me) to feel like someone's base feeling about you is "proud'. I'm lucky to have a lot of people love me, but you can tell when someone is acutely aware of your faults. My grandma didn't dote, but I never felt my faults around her. That breaks my heart as I realize it, because where am I going to find that again this side of eating buttered rolls with her when my breath becomes air?

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