They would spend the two plus hour drive down talking about how awful the visit was going to be and then spend the equivalent ride home discussing how awful it had been. In my almost 40 years on earth not a single kind word escaped their lips about her; the vitriol and sour grapes poured forth freely from a bottomless well of ill-will and hatred. Yet, I cannot point to any experience of theirs that holds true to my own memories. Stories have been told about times when I was present that are absolutely different from my experience of them. Words quoted as having being said in my presence that absolutely were not. Slights described that seemed to me, much different in the telling.
Maybe she was an evil mastermind who worked diligently, and with purpose, to slyly speak terrible things to only one person in her life; there was undeniable damage done, I can attest, before my time.
I cannot, however, reconcile the ongoing narrative given to the world with the woman that I knew.
She was my grandma, and I’d like to tell you about the things I remember.
She kept an impossibly clean house in the old style, down to the dusted plastic fruit on her dining room table and the plastic covers left on the lampshades, each of which she’d remove before company came for holidays and replace once everyone left. No one ever went into the living room, save for Christmas morning, after the kids had opened Santa’s presents and everyone had showered for the larger festivities when aunts and uncles and cousins arrived. (Sometime in the late 80s, I opened a Poison cassette on the carpet in that room from my favorite auntie.) Curtains and bedspreads changed seasonally and she’d be well into her 70s before she’d stop climbing on chairs and hire a girl to help her.
She would be up with the earliest birds on holiday mornings listening to AM radio, getting breakfast ready (sunnyside up eggs for my grandpa, always) and preparing for the feast to come. My first lessons in mis en place were in her kitchen, and to this day I find it almost effortless to time dishes so that they all hit the table at the same moment, a hereditary trait passed down in the same chain as a severely arched left eyebrow and a resting bitch face.
When the house woke up, the radio clicked off and the record player kicked on. Old Perry Como and Louis Prima records spun at a respectable volume while she exhorted us to “just drink a little juice” out of paper Dixie cups.
She was always trying to feed us. No matter we’d just eaten: “How about a little sandwich then?” she’d press after we demurred, “it’s still a long time until dinner.” On holidays there were angel’s wings and ricciarelli in pastel colors. She and my great grandma made baccala in great batches and called them pizzas. (I remember feeling betrayed, being offered a pizza to eat, only to find I’d been given a gross fried patty of breaded, salted, minced cod.) We scooped Chex Mix from an enormous Tupperware container, (she would continue to send me Christmas care boxes of my own from the years I was in college all the way until the year she moved to NY to spend her final days in the Home Of The Good Shepherd. The Chex Mix got gradually and comically saltier and became the stuff of legend and the bane of burned taste buds…it didn’t matter, I’d eat handful after handful in a show of love and solidarity and masochism), and snuck small pinches of fudge from the tin in her second refrigerator. No one ever minded having to “run downstairs for me and get the X out of this part of the pantry for me” because it meant illicit dips into the Christmas Crunch, or a sample or two of the shrimp piled high on a platter waiting for the hors d’oeuvres hour.
Her to-go boxes were epic. Filene’s shopping bags filled to the brim with cookie tins and plastic containers full of leftovers and treats. In later years, we’d get only foil-wrapped goodies because my mom would forget or refuse to return the reusable tins, but regardless, we’d go home with enough food for 3 more meals. Spiral ham and pastere which were fantastic fried in butter days later.
She would keep the Christmas presents in her room under a bench, and it was tradition for me to help her bring them all downstairs in Christmas morning. The year I didn’t believe in Santa anymore, but kept it to myself for my younger brother, there was an extra “big girl” gift of a small watch with a grey, plastic band and a tiny mouse running around the face, counting the seconds.
When I’d visit, just me, we’d sit in her tall bed, eating Planters Cheez Balls and watching whatever on TV. “Don’t tell your mother” she’d say. “She’d never believe you.”
Grandma had an elaborate beauty routine. I’m certain she could have held her own on the You Tube tutorial circuit. Her hair was always “done” on her weekly visit to the hairdresser. It reminded me of cotton candy, if cotton candy were the color of Root Beer. And her nails were similarly perfect and kept. Each morning she would apply a face out of myriad glass bottles with tiny white plastic spades. Moisturizer and then foundation, eye shadow, blush, mascara and finally, eyebrows and lipstick. At night, to protect her hair, she would pull a mesh bag with a zipper over her entire head, zip it up, and then remove her sweater and put on her nightgown. The bag was, ostensibly, to maintain her elaborate hairdo, but I found it uproariously absurd and funny. Once ensconced in her practical nightie, she would wash her face and then sit back at her vanity (which was located in her closet) and apply her night serums which would leave her skin glistening and shiny. In the mornings, when my daughters say “Me too!” I am reminded of her as I swipe my own leftover lotion down their tiny arms…the flashback is palpable.
She was a smoker for many years, and had a copper ashtray shaped like a leaf, and though she kept a meticulous house, we would always leave with the scent of smoke in our suitcases. “I don’t want you to die, Grandma” I’d say, tearfully, and she’d wave me off and tap out another from the soft pack of Carltons she kept on the counter in their blue leather pouch. She would cut down, eventually to one cigarette a day, which she’d have in the late afternoon in her garage. It was a habit that would die completely when she moved into HoGS for her final few years.
Neither she nor my grandfather were particularly demonstrative and there was always some question as to whether or not they actually loved each other, but you could never accuse her of neglect. In modern speak, I would say that whatever affection there was, was shown through acts of service. His shirts were always meticulously ironed and set out on the spare bed for the next morning. His breakfasts were always hot, and on holidays he was allowed indulgences like half raw bacon and those sunnyside up eggs riddled with *gasp* cholesterol. “What was the first thing you loved about him, grandma?” I asked after he passed a couple years ago. “He had beautiful blue eyes” she said “and a fast car. I could go over to his house and your Grandma Marzec would let me and Renie [my grandpa’s younger sister] sneak cigarettes on the porch”.
My grandma wrote me regular letters throughout college. They were short, and on old, floral stationery which must have been sitting in a box for decades. “We are so proud of you” many said “here’s a little something for you. Do something fun with a girlfriend.” and a 10 or 20 spot would fall out.
As the years wore on and I moved further away, those letters continued, and, eventually, began coming to my girls. When I had Scarlett, and she wouldn’t be put down, we took our first plane trip together and visited my grandparents in Connecticut. I had to go to the bathroom and as I laid her on the bed, I warned my grandma that she’d likely scream the entire time. When I got done, I came out to find my grandma and my girl giggling together, sharing a private joke. Gemma came a couple years later and my grandma, always to the point said: “Jennifer, both of these girls are gorgeous and perfect, and I know I’m not supposed to say it, but this one is my favorite”. She was hugging Scarlett through that entire statement. Scarlett, never one to sit still, would sit and talk to that woman about anything, and no matter what she nattered on about, my grandma would listen, enraptured.
On the day of my grandfather’s services, we all gathered at my house and my grandma sat quietly in a chair and didn’t really engage with anyone. My oldest daughter got up off my lap, went over to her and took her hand and said, “I’m sorry that your person died. I’ll miss him.” and they both sat there for a good five minutes holding hands, neither one speaking more than that.
The decline was swift and she left us last night around midnight EST. She gave the most beautiful clothing as gifts when I was a kid and sent birthday cards every year full of glitter that I’d clean up all the way until the next bomb arrived. She lived long enough for me to have adult conversations with and to hug and kiss my girls whom she said she “always knew would arrive right on time.” When I dropped her off at the home after what would turn out to be our last visit last September, she hugged me tightly and told me to “Be Happy.” It was there, in the background, that that might be, and indeed was, the last hug.
She was salty, and complicated, a product of her own time.
I love you, Grandma and will miss you and remember you for all my days.