In the old days, we used to play a game. Every time one of us was off to see Gram, we’d take bets on which part of our appearance she’d take objection to. Our eyebrows were uneven. We needed to get our hair cut. Why didn’t we wear contact lenses? Why had we bought such ugly shoes?
|Gram and my sister C1975|
Whenever we would turn up to visit, she’d insist that we borrow her clothes. In my childhood, it was a coat or a sweater here and there. And then it was her shoes. A few years ago, Gram was hospitalized after a particularly nasty attack of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. I hopped the first flight I could find out of
to look after her while she recovered. She was feeble. She couldn’t walk the fifty feet from her bedroom to her kitchen. I spent a lot of time telling home health aids that she was using five liters of oxygen. They’d correct me and tell me that it was point five liters of oxygen. And I’d reiterate that I knew the difference between one half and five whole. Five liters of oxygen is a shedload. Bristol, England
Still Gram went rummaging in her closet and handed me her shorts—four sizes too big for me—and couldn’t understand why I insisted on sticking to my skirts and dresses. Still she sent me into her closet to pull out her leopard print slippers to prove that they wouldn’t fit me. She wore a seven, I wear a ten. She insisted my feet were supposed to hang out the back.
In those first few days, I had to wash bras as, in my hurry, I had had to pack dirty laundry. As I placed them the washing machine, she insisted that I could borrow hers. There was a period in my life, twenty-years ago, when Gram and I had matching bras right down to measurement and cup size. I had to reach into the washing machine and pull out a bra to prove to her that I wore a different size. She didn’t believe me, so I stripped off and slung hers over my shoulders and stuffed myself in. “God, you have big tits,” she said. We had to revisit that scene every evening, as she tried to fathom out how I had ended up with comparatively giant tits.
At least of my sisters was offered Grams underwear. Gram insisted on referring to the panties; I think she did it to watch me shudder at the word. Every time I visited, she’d check to make sure I was wearing my good panties because I might meet someone. Like all good Floridian Grandmothers, she tried to hook me up with every man she saw. In that last visit home, she wanted to get new dentures made not because hers were a problem, but because she thought I’d make a good match for her dentist. He might not like his wife, she told me.
Last weekend, Dad asked me to proofread her obituary. He sent me exactly a paragraph. I spent most of Thursday night thinking about how short that paragraph was. I wanted it to be longer. I wanted it to include all of the things in her life that she was proud of. I wanted it to say how thoroughly inappropriate she was. How she’d been willing to give the shirt off her back to someone who needed it more than she did. How after the love of her life died, she’d carried around a photo of John Wayne to show people who dared to ask if she was dating anyone. I wanted to say that she once walked out on a job to touch John Wayne. I wanted to say that just once she’d loved so fiercely that that love carried her through the rest of her life. I wanted to say that she’d sold condom trees in her beauty salon one Christmas.
|She Wanted All of Us to Love as Fiercely as They Did|
Here’s the thing. Gram didn’t want a big deal obituary. She told me that on the way to rewrite her will. I asked if we could talk about this when I wasn’t driving. She told me I drove too slowly anyway. She didn't want me telling people any of the things I was proud of. Those were things for the family, she said. She said that she didn’t want a bunch of wailing and weeping. She wanted a mass said. She threatened to haunt me, if I wore all black. I pointed out that my suit was black. She told me that I dressed like a schoolmarm. I could buy a pair of colored shoes. She had a list for me: No weeping and wailing. No house full of whispers. No wake. What? We don’t get to get drunk and tell stories? I wondered. That we could do. I am not to pace myself. I am to drink and laugh with abandon.
When I was very young, Gram and Grandpa Joe lived on ten acres on the Great Plains of Colorado. When the prong-horned antelope would make and appearance, she'd wake us up and let us press our noses to the window. She'd feed us up with bacon and waffles. She filled each square with syrup and let us eat away. When Grandpa Joe died in the early nineties, I started sleeping in her room with her. I'd fall asleep to Mash re-runs and stretch my body across his side of the bed. She missed him terribly, but she still kept us in breakfast food.
|Gram and Grandpa Joe on their wedding day 197?. She hated these pictures.|
When I left that summer, I knew that it would be the last time I saw her. She could no longer travel, and I knew that it would be difficult for me to leave England again. I knew that she faced a terrible death. There is nothing peaceful in a COPD death. I rang home on June 23rd to say that I needed four months to get the final bits and pieces taken care of, to obtain a new visa, to find work, and then I’d be home. Dad called early Thursday morning. Gram had died peacefully in the night. She was 78.