My grandpa’s name was George, though his mother, Martha, called him Samuel. Grandpa even used S as a middle initial sometimes, but he actually had no middle name.
Martha was Polish, a first-generation American. She came from a large family. Her mother died when she was young and her father was a deliveryman. They lived in rural Illinois.
Martha married an immigrant. His name is too easily identifiable. I’ll call him S. S was a teenager in Albania during one of the revolts in the 1910s. All males of a certain age were conscripted into the war. S was of this age. Women and children were permitted to leave the country, so S’s sisters smuggled him out of Albania. I know they all came to St. Louis via Ellis Island, but I still wish I knew more.
I don’t know how S and Martha met. I know that S worked hard on his English and became the head waiter at a prestigious hotel restaurant. He died when I was a baby. I know that Martha was fond of owls and her only child, George. She died when I was a toddler.
George was a serious young man. He worked very hard and was interested in learning about everything that he could. As a young man, he got a job with Union Electric. (He went on to work there for forty years as some type of plant manager, until illness forced him to retire.)
When he was about nineteen, George and his friends went to the Casa Loma Ballroom one night, ostensibly to meet girls. That night, George met V, my grandmother. V was five feet tall with a tiny waist and vivid blue eyes. She was painfully shy. George, who was six feet tall, liked her well enough to dance with her all evening.
They “went together,” as Grandma used to say, for nearly two years before marriage – nearly unheard of in the late 1940s. V was embarrassed for social reasons, but George just wanted all his ducks in a row first.
Their first child was a boy. They called him Ricky. He was blond and dimpled, looking an awful lot like a miniature George. Ricky was such a great baby, such a funny toddler (“I’m not napping, Mama, just resting my eyes”) that Grandma and Grandpa decided to have another baby. M was born in the fall of 1954.
In March 1955, a bunch of neighborhood boys were playing baseball in the front yard next door to George and V’s house. Ricky often played with these slightly older boys. On this day, just two months before his third birthday, Ricky was accidentally hit in the head with a baseball bat. The neighborhood boy hadn’t heard Ricky come up behind him as he swung his wooden bat.
Someone escorted Ricky home, where he was inspected by George and V.
“I’m just tired,” said Ricky.
He seemed fine. There were no bumps or bruises developing anywhere.
They let him take a nap.
A little while later, V heard funny noises coming from Ricky’s bedroom. She rushed in and found him convulsing, “having a conniption fit” my Grandma used to say. George called for an ambulance, but it was so different then. Ambulances were barely more than white hearses.
And that is how Grandma and Grandpa lost their first-born.
In July 1957, just over two years after Ricky’s death, L was born. L is my mom. L was a lot like V in that she was painfully shy. But where Grandma could sometimes be bitter and cruel, L was all sugar and spice.
My mom still recalls a situation where she was told to corral her younger sisters and one of them wasn’t listening to her.
“She just ignored me and kept right on playing. So, I hit her,” she says. “I still feel bad about it.”
That’s my mom.
E was born on the leap year in 1960, and J was born in June 1963. (In between E and J, Grandma had her only miscarriage. Not a bad pregnancy success-rate. My dad’s mom had two miscarriages, but also had six kids. Again, not bad.)
A few months after J was born, V snapped. She told George that she needed to go the hospital because she was afraid of what she might do. No one has ever elaborated on that to me, but George believed her and took her to the hospital. Her stay was brief. She was given pills and told to do psychoanalysis, but money was stretched pretty thin for a family of six. So, the pills ran out and the psychoanalysis stopped.
Grandma pretty much stayed stuck.
Grandpa was like a dad to me. Living under his roof was one reason I felt this way, but mostly it was because he was a steady, loving presence where my own father was mostly just not there and more of a riddle when he was.
He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1990. I guess he’d been sick for a while and just avoided going to the doctor. His mom, Martha, had also had colon cancer. When they took her in to do surgery, they opened her up and found cancer had spread pretty much everywhere. The surgeon just stitched her back up.
Grandpa had two surgeries. He had chemo. He took lots and lots of pills. Eventually, he was on a feeding tube. He’d ask me to bring him his cans of Ensure and have me insert them into the machine that pumped the nutrients into him.
I watched his face become gaunt. He stopped shaving everyday. Eventually, he stopped getting out of bed.
A couple days after Grandpa went into the hospital, the entire family visited him all at once. His room had an almost living-room attached to it. Most of us were in that room. Grandma, Mom and my aunts were in and out of Grandpa’s room.
Mom came over to me.
“Grandpa wants to talk to you,” she said, extending her hand to me.
We walked into his room and over to his bed.
“Climb up,” he said. I shimmied onto the bed, our legs touching.
Grandpa made small talk about school and always doing my best. I told him I would.
“Keep your hair long for me,” he said.
We’re saying goodbye, I thought.
I started crying.
“Now, now. It’s okay, honey.” He hugged me.
“Okay,” I said, wiping my tears and snot onto my sleeve.
“Will you do that for me? Keep your hair long?” He ran his fingers through the ends of my hair.
“Okay, Grandpa,” I said.
“Good,” he said, smiling. He hugged me again.
Even then I knew I would break that promise.
The next week was brutal.
Every night we stayed up late with Mom, who was clearly exhausted. But she knew we were grieving and that we all needed to grieve together. More than once she sat on my bed and rubbed my back until I cried myself to sleep.
Every morning, after Mom had spoken on the phone to Grandma or whichever sister had stayed the night, we’d ask her for the news about Grandpa.
“Well, the doctor doesn’t think he can hang on much longer,” she’d say. Then she took us to school.
Grandpa kept hanging on.
We only saw Grandpa alive once more. He was in a coma. His skin was yellowing and the room smelled like urine, disinfectant and decay. Everyone, including the staff, was grim and tired.
That night, Mom and E stayed with Grandma at the hospital.
“Probably tonight,” the doctor said.
“We stayed the night with E’s husband S. My brother and I slept on the floor on a pallet of blankets. S woke us the next morning.
“Is he alive?” my brother asked.
“Yes,” said S.
He took us home and we made our mom promise she’d come get us from school if Grandpa died. I was having a hard time focusing at school and I definitely wanted to be back with Mom as soon as I could.
She dropped us off at school and went to work.
A few hours later, we were called to the office. Mom was there to get us.
“He’s gone,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
We all hugged and cried.
I was so sad, but I was also relieved it was over.
The day we buried my grandpa was chilly, but mostly just bleak. It drizzled rain on and off the entire day.
I remember I didn’t cry during the funeral, or even after the funeral. I was watching everyone. I saw my mom and her sisters and my grandma weep. I saw them hug each other and say one last goodbye to Grandpa. One aunt kissed his cheek. All of this happened while Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” played a little too loudly.
I still fucking hate that song.
We rode to the cemetery in stretch limousines, but I don’t remember anything other than the fact of it. I do remember standing next to my brother, near the open grave, as the pastor said a final blessing. I don’t remember what he said. I do remember that my teeth audibly chattered, and my body quaked. My brother kept shooting me looks like he wanted to help me, but he didn’t know how. He was only 9.
I tried so hard to control my body, clenching my fists and jamming them tightly into my coat pockets, but I couldn’t stop shaking. My aunt’s ex-husband, a man we still referred to as our uncle, came over and stood beside me. He put his hands on my shoulders and gripped me firmly as if to stop me from skittering away like an old wind-up toy.
For lots of reasons, my mom, brother and I were living with my grandparents through all of this. After Grandpa died, Grandma went off the rails.
“I should just take all these pills,” she’d say, holding her bottles of newly prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds.
“Grandma, no!” we’d cry.
“Lord, why wasn’t it me?” she’d wail.
Eventually, we sort of ignored her when she acted this way. Years went by, the precariousness of those early days were gone. She wasn’t going to kill herself.
When I was 16, fresh out of my third stint in rehab, my closest cousin committed suicide. He was 18. I’d seen him just a couple weeks before, and he’d basically ignored me. I remember thinking his behavior seemed really strange that day, even to someone as messed up as I was.
The day it happened, I was home, hiding from my problems by watching TV with Grandma. Maybe we played rummy or Chinese checkers to pass the time. Someone called to see if N had come by or called. He hadn’t shown up for school or work.
He hadn’t called or stopped by.
I knew. Right away I knew. But what could I say? That I thought N was probably dead? What if I was wrong? I sat on that couch with a lump in my throat for hours.
Another relative called to see if we’d heard from my him. We hadn’t.
A little while later, someone else called. Grandma answered the phone. Right away, my mom – who by then was home from her 9 to 5 – rushed to her. I guess she was expecting bad news, too.
Grandma put her hand to her heart and wailed. She started to fall over and Mom caught her. I sat on the couch and watched, my fear confirmed. My mom took the phone as Grandma wept.
After she got off the phone, she held Grandma and they both cried.
“I guess they found him?” I asked, my voice cracking, my eyes burning.
“Yes, honey,” Mom said, motioning for me to join their hug.
“I just had a dream about N,” Grandma said. “He was holding hands with your Grandpa in heaven and I said ‘N – what are you doing? You don’t belong there!’”
Grandma and her premonitions.
I went to them and we held each other in one sobbing mass.
There are several reasons why I moved out the second I was 18. I paid rent to sleep on couches. I crashed with friends. I pretty much only went to Grandma’s house to do laundry.
One day, when I was 19, I stopped by to do just that. Or maybe it was to retrieve something from my old room. Either way, I wasn’t there long when Grandma started in with her doom and gloom suicide talk.
My brother, who was still living there, shot me a look. Please don’t say anything, the look said. He knew how much I hated her manipulation, how much it hurt me and always had. But I bit my tongue.
Grandma was ironing a shirt for my brother. She was definitely in a foul mood, no matter what we said or did to distract her. It was just like old times.
“Maybe I should just end it all,” she said, sighing, steaming the oxford shirt.
“You know what?” I shouted.
“[Spants], don’t,” my brother said. He looked so sad.
“No. No,” I said. “No! This is bullshit.”
I walked up to my grandmother, a five foot tall old woman, stood across the ironing board from her and leaned down into her face.
“You want to kill yourself? Fine. Fucking do it. FUCKING DO IT.”
“How dare you,” she said. “Don’t you talk to me that way!”
My brother started crying. “Please,” he wailed. “Please don’t do this!”
“How dare I? You’ve been threatening to kill yourself since I was 11 years old! I’m fucking tired of it! I’m tired of you holding this over our heads. I’m tired of wondering whether I’m going to come over here and find your head in the oven.”
Grandma stood with her eyes closed, her lips pursed, her nose slightly upturned. This was her pose of displeasure.
“In fact, I’m done. If you say one more fucked up thing like you want to kill yourself – after we all lived through N killing himself – or you want God to take you, I will never speak to you again. Ever. If you think I’m bluffing, just fucking try me.”
I stormed out.
My brother rushed after me and stopped me at my car. He was still crying.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just couldn’t take it.”
“It’s okay,” he said. He hugged me and went back inside. I got into my car and drove away.
A few days later, Grandma called me. She apologized and told me she’d never make a threat like that again, that she hadn’t considered how badly she’d hurt us.
I thanked her, relieved I wasn’t going to have to boycott family functions, but also skeptical that she’d keep her word.
So far, she has.
By the time I was 22, it was clear Grandma shouldn’t be living alone. She started living with my mom during the week and my aunt on the weekends. Several years ago, that situation reversed and now my mom has Grandma on the weekends.
In addition to other health problems, Grandma has dementia. She knows we’re related, but she doesn’t usually remember how. She knows Tiny is related to her, but she only sometimes remembers her name, only sometimes even remembers Tiny is a girl.
Even though Grandma has been coming here every weekend for 16 months, she isn’t comfortable. She remembers where the bathroom is, but she no longer remembers Josh’s name. She’s known Josh almost a decade and it’s like he’s a stranger. She’s nervous when she’s alone with him and yells for my mom. She also doesn’t listen to him if he asks her to talk quietly so she doesn’t wake Tiny. She yells louder.
Grandma is generally in a good mood, even though she often feels sick. A few years ago, I “watched” her one day as a favor to my aunt. Grandma was very much herself that day, the Grandma I loved. She was quick to laugh and make little quips. She tried to answer my questions about Grandpa and her childhood, though usually she couldn’t remember.
“You know what’s funny?” I said to her.
“What’s that, honey?”
“You used to be really angry.”
“Yes,” I said. “Very.”
“I don’t remember that,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I smiled. “I’m glad.”
“Why? I wish I could remember things,” she said.
“No, I mean, I’m glad you can’t remember to be angry.”
She patted my knee and I held her hand.
While I was pregnant, Grandma, Mom, Josh and I went shopping together. Shopping with Grandma is an ordeal because she’s very slow and she constantly needs to use the restroom.
At some point, she said something that was clearly nonsense. I didn’t want to ignore her, so I kind of gently deflected what she said.
“Are you calling me a liar?” she said, pointing her finger at me. “I’m not a liar and I don’t appreciate being called one!”
The wounded and scared 11-year-old, the justifiably angry 19-year-old with more power than she realized, the hormonal 30-year-old in me wanted to pounce, to fight with her. I quickly realized the futility.
“No, Grandma. I’m sorry.”
She and Mom walked ahead. Grandma was still a little upset, so Josh and I gave her space, gave her time to forget what had happened.
“What was that?” Josh asked.
“That,” I said, “was Grandma.”
“I’ve never seen her act like that!” he said.
I thought back on situations like that and situations much worse.
“Only because she’s forgotten how to be herself.”
The moments she’s happiest are when Tiny does something cute.
“Look at her shrug her shoulders!” Grandma says, clapping with glee.
“Look at her blowing kisses!”
“Listen to that laugh!”
And so on.
It brings me great joy to see her happy for those fleeting moments. I just wish she could still string them together. Then again, maybe she never could do that. Even as a kid, it always seemed her anxiety and grief crushed the joy right out of her. It even happens now.
“I just feel so anxious,” she said to me on Sunday. She was sitting on my couch. We were watching the Food Network.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just do.”
“It’s okay, Grandma,” I said, smiling at her. “We’re just relaxing and watching TV.”
A few minutes later, the scene repeated itself.
Sometimes, I wish she could remember.