Amber room

amber

When I first mentioned that I might be going to Lithuania with my 91-year old grandmother, my husband thought for a moment and said “don’t come back with any more amber.”

Like a person told not to think about a white polar bear and only able to do so, immediately I  pictured a chair with smooth, gleaming lines of bubbled translucent gold. There would be at least one fearsome bug preserved within. Even though it would not be feasible to check an amber chair on an international flight, let alone procure and afford one molded from the prehistoric resin of long extinct trees, I could not stop myself from thinking about it.

I have taken amber for granted most of my life. I have never paid for it (nor stolen it), though possess so much I sometimes discover amber rings or broaches in random drawers. Most of it was passed down from Baltic-raised relatives, though at least one piece, ironically, is from the same husband who forbade me to buy more. (Maybe he wants to buy it for me? Probably.)

I own hand crafted “lucky” amber earrings with darker stones of varying size. I wear these on special or difficult occasions, though recently noticed several of the smaller pieces are missing. This means random bits of luck have fallen out and been ground into dust. I have amber rings I can’t wear because they were made for slimmer fingers and bold necklaces that should never come back into fashion. It is not a particularly valuable or sought after gem, but still my eye is drawn every single time to the only amber jewelry in craft stalls or hippie head shops. Amber steeps in my blood.

International treasure hunters still search for the Amber Room. It’s easy to lose a few lucky stones from a pair of earrings, but imagine misplacing an entire room made of amber, worth about $500 million today. A Prussian King gifted it to a Russian Tsar in 1716 and it was embellished and added to over the years. In 1941, Nazi troops looted Catherine Palace and disassembled the Amber Room, packing it into 27 crates. These crates were last seen in Konigsberg in 1945. Maybe the crates were destroyed in the firebombing of Konigsberg. Maybe not. I do not think even the Amber Room contained a chair made of solid amber.

I am planning to travel to Lithuania in August with my 91-year old grandmother and my father. We plan to visit the village where my mother was born and hopefully the pine forest my grandmother swore was so clean she would lie down for a nap and not have to brush herself off afterwards. I feel like an eight-year old a month before Christmas, equal parts excited and terrified the big day will never come.

The last time my grandmother proposed this trip, I didn’t take it seriously and got pregnant within the year. I could not take a baby and young child on such an adventure, nor could I leave them behind. Also, my grandmother was too old, we thought. We never thought “let’s wait 10 more years so she’s even older” but that’s what we did. She told me if she doesn’t at least try to make this trip, she’ll be really, really sad. As I looked at her old, unstamped passport and the application for a new one, I saw a path laid out so clear there was nothing left to do but start following it.

This trip is a treasure within reach but never guaranteed. A lot can go wrong any given day, exponentially more when one traveler is a nonagenarian. It will not be an easy trip (I have never thought this). Still, we see this as a chance to do something we will never be able to do again with people who won’t always be around. If we make it, how can I not bring home at least one amber-encrusted souvenir spoon or paperweight with a perpetually stunned wasp inside?

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Double vision

I thought I’d done a good job of disguising it with a scarf, but my grandmother informed me yesterday that I’d gained weight.

“I know,” I said. “You told me that last time you saw me.”

“I did?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

“You did. You don’t need to tell anyone they gained weight,” I added. “They already know.”

“I’ll remember not to tell you anymore,” she said, somewhat chastened.

“We’ll see,” I said.

I didn’t tell her that I’ve been back at the gym lately. I didn’t tell her I joined a cycling class which meets twice a week in the dark and how one of the instructors yells WOOOoooo during the hard parts, which are pretty much every other minute. It’s not that I’m afraid I won’t stick with it, but I have seen myself lose and regain weight before. She has too.

She deftly changed the subject to my brother’s weight gain, though his was self-reported since she hasn’t seen him in awhile. Later I realized this most likely came up after she’d told him how much weight I’d gained and felt a fresh wave of disappointment that a pretty scarf only goes so far.

“My problem is these things that keep growing on my skin,” my grandmother continued. She then told a brief but troubling story about an elderly friend who grew “a long stick” from her nose. Kids, if you’re reading, life has exciting things in store for you too.

“How’s your cat doing?” I asked, afraid of what she might bring up next.

The cat is not really hers, but does anyone really own a cat? She has been letting this cat into her house to eat and nap, although never overnight, for over a year.

When I visited at Christmas, she had me put a litter box in her basement. “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside,” she explained, which was true, however 1) this cat is a boy, and 2) he already has a place to sleep: at her neighbor’s house, where he lives.

They have an unspoken agreement whereby my grandmother feeds the neighbor’s cat and they don’t call the police on her. According to her, they have a lot of cats. She’s not sure if they just turn up or if the neighbor brings them home to replace cats other people borrow.

This cat, the one my grandmother borrows, is pretty great. She calls him Tiger, which is a funny name for a girl cat and still not his real name. When you put your hand out to pet Tiger, he rises on hind legs to meet you halfway. Something about him standing upright makes me easily picture him in trousers and a waistcoat. He seems like a wise angel sent to keep my grandmother company.

Grandmother and “Tiger” during warmer days

The other day my grandmother said she saw Tiger in the neighbor’s driveway when she was going to get her mail. She called out and walked towards him but he scampered off when she got close, which surprised my grandmother despite this being totally catlike behavior.

Once my grandmother got back inside, she found Tiger sleeping soundly on the couch, right where she’d left him.

“He looked exactly like my Tiger. Now I know where to find another cat if anything happens to him,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.

How we pass time

My grandmother leaves a brief and mildly worrisome voicemail asking me to call her because she doesn’t feel well and wants some advice. She ends her message with “I don’t want you to get in a panic.” I am sitting at my desk when I listen, trying not to count how many times the young mechanic across the street slips behind a dumpster to vape or the minutes to lunch and now returning this phone call.

By the time I call back, my grandmother is not really sick. Whatever the problem was, it already resolved with prune juice and something stronger if mysterious due to a language barrier I’ve long given up on trying to deconstruct. Now she craves milk and also eggs but is too weak to drive to the store. I tell her to call her saintly next door neighbor, Lois, but my grandmother is, as usual, three steps ahead. She will call when she knows Lois’ granddaughter is down for a nap.

My grandmother says “If I had died from this, no one would have had any idea what killed me.” Maybe this is why she called, not for advice or reassurance but to pass along information that might prove useful post-mortem. This is what it must be like to outlive all your friends, your spouse, your child. My grandmother has become dramatically stoic while still engaged and interested in the day-to-day. She grills the middle-aged man who cuts her lawn on why he still lives with his parents. She has a much younger friend who takes her to buy a rotisserie chicken every Wednesday. She even has a cat on loan from another neighbor.

The cat thing bothered me for awhile because she was borrowing it surreptitiously. One day it showed up on her back porch and she opened the door and let it in. I guess it was like having a good friend over and not having any cake to offer because she went to the store afterwards and has been buying cat food ever since. I worried the cat’s real owner would notice and accuse my grandmother of catnapping, but as usual none of my worries play out and it turns out this cat is one of eight and hogs all the other cats’ food so I guess everyone (and cat) benefits from the arrangement.

My grandmother insists on calling the cat a she even though it is stocky and male. When you go to pet his head, he stands on hind legs to meet your hand faster. My grandmother and I both agree it is dangerous to invite a cat into a house without a litter box and to let it nap on your couch, possibly teeming with fleas, while you watch Fox News through equally droopy eyelids. But a part-time pet brings great pleasure and at regular intervals my grandmother shuffles to open the door and let the cat that is not hers outside.


Recently my grandmother told me she saw a strange creature in her backyard. At first she thought it was a cat, but its tail was striped with bold black and white rings and so long it dragged on the ground like a monkey’s. A week or so later, she saw another creature with a similarly droopy tail, only this one was cream colored and the size of “a very large squirrel”.  She said the striped tail creature looked just like an animal she saw on the news the other day, but she could not remember what it was called. I know what you’re thinking and she knew too because she told me Lois saw the creature lounging on the driveway and snapped a picture with her phone. 

When I visited my grandmother, I asked if she’d seen either creature again and she said no and added “Lois isn’t home right now, but next time I’ll have her show you the picture.” There were three cars in Lois’ driveway and I wondered how my grandmother was so sure about that.

 

Saying goodbye to the ocean

The first order of business was digging up Saint Joseph, the patron saint of sold condominiums, whom my grandmother buried head down in a garden area by the parking lot. It’s unclear if Joseph helped sell any other condos in the building or if the $500 “marketing fee” my grandmother paid had more to do with her finally getting a decent offer. I talked it up to my kids before we left – how their great-grandmother buried the statue of a saint because she thought it would bring good luck and how we had to find the exact spot and dig him up, like lost treasure – but I guess they were expecting a full-sized statue and seemed disappointed when they saw he was plastic and fit in the palm of her hand.

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My grandmother bought this condominium with my grandfather many years ago so they would have a place to stay at the beach. They rented it out a couple months out of the year, which paid the mortgage with enough left over for gas and tolls . She tried to get my brother and I to buy it from her but it’s too far and we have another place to stay when we do make it down. Also, I don’t have that kind of money, though it troubled me that she was only a few years older when they bought this place. She tells me they never went out to eat or took vacations when they were young.

It felt like we were on vacation, I guess because I’d taken a couple of days off work to drive her down for the settlement and so she could say goodbye to her place. I spent many nights there myself, so the closure was just as much for me. That was the bed where I slept one night while grape gum dropped from my slackened jaw and snaked relentlessly around my long hair, I thought to myself. There’s the pool I snuck into another night to fool around with a boy I barely knew. This is the carpet where my great-grandmother actually spat after they caught me and made me come back inside. Actually, it was shag carpeting back then. I still remember the gold and yellow pile from the time my brother and I both spilled overly full bowls of Fruit Loops with milk, accidentally and almost simultaneously, while my grandmother hurried to get her condo ready for a rental.

This was a bittersweet goodbye visit, for sure. I asked my grandmother a couple of times if she was sad, and she said she was mostly relieved. She posed around the condo while I snapped picture after picture. She didn’t ask what I planned to do with all of the pictures and I wouldn’t have had an answer anyway. Maybe I’ll make up another photo book like the one I did after her 90th birthday party. She carries it around in her purse to show her realtor or the woman behind the deli counter. If I do a photo book for My Grandmother’s Last Trip to the Beach, I have enough pictures to tell a story, though it will only be mine. Too bad I didn’t get a photograph of the men power washing the halls of her building and how they popped their heads out and yelled down to me in the parking lot at the exact moment my grandmother and daughter yelled other things at me from another floor. It was so funny looking – four anxious heads peering down from different spots with their mouths all moving and not one noticing the other – but that can’t go in the book because I neglected to capture it on film or whatever you call it these days.

I also don’t have a photo of the new buyers, who dropped by for their walk-in inspection just as we were getting ready to leave for the settlement. Oh what a gift that was. You know how when you meet someone and something about their tone or expression zaps all the tension from the air and everything feels lighter? It was like that with this couple, and not just for my grandmother but for all of us. Even their realtor looked visibly relieved at the unplanned meeting. The new buyers chatted with my grandmother for a good 15 minutes instead of pulling out all the utensil drawers to make sure they worked properly (and thank goodness for that). Before we left, they told my grandmother she was welcome back any time and she told them God Bless You and I know she meant it because she wouldn’t have said it otherwise.

The settlement occurred around a large oval table in a room decorated with ink and watercolor drawings of festive legal scenes set in the ’80s, judging by the outfits and hair. There were massive, serious looking legal books that I think were just for sure. At first the presiding attorney seemed all-business, curt even. But he softened with my grandmother and repeated instructions when necessary and did not rush her along. Her hands were very shaky and each time she had to sign her name she did so with painstaking effort.

I caught a few glimpses of the capable, determined grandmother I grew up with. I will forever remember her big cars and hair and how she was always ready to challenge an unsuspecting store clerk or family member who forgot who they were dealing with. She seems so much smaller now and walks slowly with a cane, her hair soft and snow white. But still she is sharp as a tack in unexpected ways. She got what she wanted and, I believe, deserved with the help of Saint Joseph, family who loves her and a charming couple eager to turn her old place into decades of new memories.

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Ring the bell in the middle of the cemetery

On Friday afternoon, I got an urgent phone call from my grandmother. I could tell she meant business because she called me and said she couldn’t talk long.

“When you were at the cemetery, did you notice white stones on your mother’s grave?” she asked.

I laughed, already sure I knew where this was going. “Audrey put those there,” I told her.

“Oh, Audrey did it!” she said, relief in her voice. She had spent the last three days calling everyone she could think of but me trying to figure out how those stones got on my mother’s grave plus the graves of five other family members.

Audrey is my youngest daughter. She fell asleep in the back seat of the short car ride from my grandmother’s house to the cemetery. Just before we left for our long drive home, my grandmother handed me a plastic flower and one of those junk mail newspapers that usually go directly from the driveway to the recycling bin. She didn’t ask but told me to stop at my mother’s grave and put the flower in the cast iron vase. She said she was too weak to do it herself. She did this the last time we visited too. Say what you want about ninety-year olds, but they can be very clever.

For years, I never visited my mother’s grave. I thought about her often…at least once a day, I guess? She died when I was still a baby so any connection I feel is in my blood or from stories my grandmother told me. I have no physical memories of her so never saw the point to kneel down in grass beside a stone marker to feel closer. I carry her in my head and heart. Besides, I’d already spent plenty of time tromping around this cemetery.

My grandmother used to take my brother and I there every Sunday when we stayed the weekend. Friday nights were all about going to Cook’s for some cheap toy we didn’t need and putting a glass of Coke in the freezer, something our parents never allowed us to do at home (did we ever ask though?). Saturdays were all about running errands, like to the grocery store for junk food my parents never bought or to the dusty butcher shop where I passed on my first and last offer to try hog’s head cheese. Saturdays were also about trying to eat those frozen Coke pops we’d started on Friday.

Sundays were all about church, the cemetery and going home. I can reminisce sweetly now about the earthy incense and garishly frightening statues at St. Alfonsus Church, but at the time it was a boring hour better spent with coke slushies or feeding her neighbor’s malnourished dog rolled up pieces of salami and carrots through chainlink fence. I did not want to be at church, though the cemetery was at least outside. It was also the next to last stop before home. I never wanted to go home on Sundays. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day and, more importantly, I wanted to be spoiled by my grandmother forevermore.

Our stop at the cemetery felt like it took hours, though maybe it was only a half hour. My grandmother didn’t do fake flowers then and, depending on the time of year, she often brought pansies or mums to plant. She’d park the car and walk the equivalent of two big-city blocks to the water station to fill a jug of water. She’d walk back to the grave and prune the boxwood planted next to the headstone bearing my family name, and then she would pull and weed and dig and plant and walk all the way back to the water station to rinse off her tools. Maybe this did take hours.

My brother and I were not much help. We flitted between headstones, playing with our Friday night junk toys and inventing new ways to torture each other. As the younger sister, my ways were more innocent and generally involved not giving my brother enough space. His ways were less innocent and more geared towards reclaiming that space. This is when he told me the story about the haunted mausoleum.

This particular mausoleum is a small, one-family structure a little more than a stone’s throw away from my mother’s grave. It looked like a cute little stone house or shed from one side, but if we walked to the other side, we could peek through the locked steel gate and see inside. This is where my brother told me there were dead people living inside. He said they might escape and I should watch to make sure they didn’t. Then he flitted off.

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This is the same brother who told me dead people lived inside a wooden storage bin underneath someone’s beach house. Maybe he told me both things within the same year. Maybe he was on a dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out kick and I, unfortunately, happened to be his sounding board. I remember being terrified by both dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out stories, though why I stood guard by the gate of the mausoleum and never thought to run back to my grandmother stumps me now.

I got in trouble that day. My grandmother couldn’t see me from where she was weeding and planting. She thought I’d been kidnapped. You might wonder what kind of kidnappers hang out in cemeteries, but once she told me a car slowed down and stared the three of us down and she threatened the driver with her trowel. He swore to her that he was just looking for his brother’s grave but maybe he wasn’t and surely he could tell by the look in her eye that she would wield that trowel swiftly and ferociously to defend her family. Wisely, he moved along.

Understandably, I feel a little skittish in cemeteries, but this last visit not so much. Audrey was fast asleep in the backseat and would not wake, so my oldest daughter, Vanessa, and I put the fake flower in its vase, carefully anchoring it in with junk news. I took some pictures of her by the grave, as one does in my family. She’s pretty used to it. We took a little walk so I could show her the mausoleum and pass along terrifying family folklore.

When we got back from our walk, Audrey was sitting up in the backseat and not at all happy. I had visions of my grandmother with her trowel. We consoled her with apologies and a promise that we would take another walk, this one much longer. It was a beautiful, spring-like day for February. We walked over to a much larger mausoleum, this one holding easily hundreds of deceased stacked in tidy grids. We passed some ground markers along the way and noticed some had stones on top. Audrey got excited about the idea of leaving mementos and gathered a handful of stones from the walking path to take back to our own family. We rang a bell on our way back, something you don’t get to do very often, much less in the middle of a cemetery.

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Audrey carefully distributed her stones equally between six family members. If anyone got an extra stone, I hope it was my poor grandfather buried in a lonely plot across the lane marked only by the spot where his inverted (empty) flower vase sits not quite flush with the ground. He wasn’t much for flowers and would have preferred a hog’s head cheese sandwich, but we only brought stones. Audrey left some and then the three of us got in the car and drove home.

Now, why my grandmother drove to the cemetery herself a couple days later and why it never occurred to her that we left the stones are great mysteries. When she saw Audrey’s stones, it spooked her. First she went to the cemetery office and grilled them. They said they did not leave the stones but told her it’s a Jewish tradition to leave stones as remembrance on a loved one’s grave. We are not Jewish, so this spooked my grandmother further. Over the next few days she called friends, neighbors, and her niece’s son to ask if they had any ideas. One of the neighbors suggested maybe someone in our family left the stones but, no, my grandmother didn’t think so. Where would we get stones? She underestimates our resourcefulness and tendency to wander in cemeteries on really nice days.

Once we solved the mystery of the cemetery stones, my grandmother said she would leave them there, even though we are not Jewish. She said my girls will always remember going to visit family in the cemetery and the way she said it made me know it pleased her very much, and it pleased me too.

 

 

 

 

Prone to wandering

When I told my grandmother I took our youngest to the Science Center on New Year’s Eve and that I had fond memories of her taking me and my brother there many years ago, she said “Oh yeah, I remember that you both got lost and I thought you’d been kidnapped.”

I only remember two things from that visit:

  1. a metal ball that made your hair stick straight out when you touched it.
  2. a giant mechanical crab.

I do not remember being lost, and so I do not think my brother and I knew we were lost. My grandmother was always losing sight of us and fearing the worst. To her, we’d been thrown in the back of a kidnap van for 7 minutes of horrifying yet efficient torture, when really we’d just followed the ice cream truck over one block to see where all the lucky kids lived.

I do remember being lost at the beach once on her watch, and that truly was a terrible feeling. None of the buildings looked familiar and the beach was so thick with umbrellas that weren’t ours that I figured I’d die out there, sunburnt and alone.  This is not the beach disappearance my grandmother remembers, of course, and her version has me taking off to the store with a friend’s mom and not bothering to tell her. I don’t even think this happened but is maybe something she saw on a sitcom once.

I did not lose my daughter at the Science Center, though I could have. It was very crowded and rowdy and the carpet on every level was littered with confetti, adding to a sticky-jelly-hands post-apocalyptic atmosphere.  We crammed in as many exhibits as we could in an afternoon, but we never found the metal ball that makes your hair stand straight out when you touch it or the giant mechanical crab. The ball probably doesn’t exist anymore since delivering electrical currents to small children can be tricky, but I googled later and think I somehow missed the giant mechanical crab. Only I could miss this (also maybe my grandmother).

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via this

We had just enough time to catch a show in the planetarium on black holes. I thought it would answer all the questions I never thought to have about black holes, but instead it created more than I could have imagined. The show was like a black hole itself in that way. The narrator had a soothing voice and didn’t seem overly worried about any of it.

I had never heard the story of the waterbug who became a dragonfly, but the narrator told us and we listened. It seems there was once a colony of waterbugs who lived in a quiet pond. Once in awhile, one of the waterbugs would hang back from the colony and cling to the bottom of a lily pad and drift up to the surface only to vanish completely. The other waterbugs were curious but also worried, so one made the generous offer to come back and report what was on the other side if it happened to him. Sure enough it did happen to him, and when he got to the other side he was gobsmacked. It was a world unlike any he’d seen or could have imagined at the bottom of the pond. He was also now a dragonfly and realized he couldn’t keep his promise to go back and instead would have to wait for his waterbug friends to find their own way through.

My daughter said she nudged me to ask what happens if earth gets sucked into a black hole but saw that I had fallen asleep. Remember, the narrator had a soothing voice. So she asked later and I asked my husband and he said no one really knows what happens in a black hole, so I said I choose to believe it’s like coming out the other side of a pond.

Later my daughter opted to skip fireworks for putting pajamas on at 8pm because she is mine and I am hers. While my husband and older daughter went out in the cold and crowds at midnight, I woke to the gentle rumble of fireworks we could see clearly from our hotel room. I tried several times to wake my youngest, but she kind of snarled and drew deeper into the sheets. I watched them from my own bed and thought what a perfect year it was, really, how even all the shitty, scary moments seemed insignificant now that we had made it to the other side.

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90 years young

That dream I had about tiny delicious sandwiches at my grandmother’s birthday party did not come true, though I did get many compliments on my kugelis. 

Kugelis is a dish that involves peeling and grating five pounds of potatoes with the nubbiest, most painful side of the grater. As such, each batch contains a little bit of human flesh as well as a pound of bacon with the fat undrained, a stick of butter, and several other, less horrifying ingredients. Once it bakes for about an hour, you serve it warm with a dollop of sour cream and are fortified to work the fields for many hours. That’s what my ancestors did anyway, so years ago I had my grandmother show me how to make kugelis, and even though I wrote each step down on a sheet of yellow lined paper and managed not to lose it, something got lost in translation and I had to go to the internet for my current recipe.

Throughout my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, she kept speaking to me in Lithuanian, a language I do not understand. She does this more and more lately, especially when she’s flustered, and it reminds me of her own mother, who lived to 94 and reverted to her native language steadily so that by the very end she never spoke English. When my great-grandmother used to speak to me in Lithuanian, I would smile and nod and usually this worked, although if my grandmother caught us she admonished with a “Mama, speak English!” Now that my grandmother speaks to me in a language I don’t understand, the smiles and nods don’t work as well and I have to say, as gently as possible, “In English?” I can see the corrections embarrass her.

My grandmother hit her party stride around the Happy Birthday Song, which the mixed crowd sang in English and Lithuanian. The Lithuanian version had a lot more verses, with long gaps in between, and at one point I made eye contact with my sister and felt laughter start to bubble up and decided it best not to look at her anymore. You may remember how I fussed over a music playlist last week, and that worked out fine and all, but the surprise hit was a guest who showed up with an accordion and tambourine. I dreamt about tiny delicious sandwiches that don’t even exist and then a living dream walked through the front door!

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The accordion player led the birthday songs and played some more while my grandmother sat and sang alongside him. The song was not in English, but it sounded sad or maybe just sincere. My grandmother sang beautifully in a high, confident voice and I remembered how much I love listening to her.

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There was plenty of music and too much food and as the last guests left, I said goodbye to my husband and felt loneliness like an itch I never seem to be able to scratch. But just like ten years ago and her 80th birthday party, the after-party was maybe the best part. My grandmother changed into pajamas and rejoined us while my daughters played some Lord of the Flies game with balloons and we listened to more music. My husband had put away most of the food and washed dishes and other relatives helped too, so cleanup was not too bad. 

The next morning, we reconvened and I put records on her old stereo console that still works, though I’ll admit reservations shoving the bent two-pronged plug in the wall and again when the speakers whimpered and crackled like a dying man’s cough.

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My grandmother handed me the official album for the 1984 Summer Olympics and told me to play it and my youngest rocked out to Loverboy because she is still in pajamas and buzzed on room temperature ginger ale. My grandmother said “How come you didn’t play music like this yesterday?” and I don’t know if she means music kids go nuts to or Loverboy or if she just wishes the party was still happening. She instructed us to leave the streamers up and the balloons get corralled in a corner, though they will shrink by the day.

My grandmother tells my girls that the next time we have a party at her house, she will not be there and my youngest asks where she’ll be. She tells them when my great-grandmother was very old, they had a party and she came downstairs and danced awhile and then retired to her room. My little sister went upstairs to find her and my great-grandmother told her the same thing about not being at the next party, and sure enough she died within the year. I remind my grandmother that she’s been planning her own funeral for the last 10 years and she laughs.

Before my girls and I leave, my grandmother pulls flowers from various bouquets and fastens them with a piece of ribbon and tells me to stop at the cemetery and leave them on my mother’s grave. I can hardly refuse this request, though before we pull out of her driveway she also tells me “Please do not vote for that Hillary.” So you don’t always get what you wish for, even at 90. Maybe we get very few wishes over a lifetime and foolishly use them up when we’re young. I know I love watching my youngest daughter’s face before she blows out candles or flips a coin in a fountain, her face earnest with concentration and belief. I can’t remember the last time I’ve blown out candles or thrown a coin in a fountain.

After we back out of my grandmother’s driveway and pull away, I honk and watch as she gets smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror. Once we round a corner, I look back and my daughters turn around even though we know she won’t be there.

Heading into the Eye of the Storm

Patsy Cline, Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson stand awkwardly in separate corners for the first 15 minutes of the party. Then the Alan Parsons Project and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass show up and there aren’t  enough corners so I guess you could say that’s when things got cooking. Oh, and Sam Cooke was there too, of course. 



When planning a party for a 90 year-old grandmother or anyone, really, music is key. I could fill a playlist with standards from the 40s, but I don’t remember her listening to what I think of as old people music. When my brother and I were kids, she took us to Montgomery Ward’s on a Friday night to help her pick out records. It had a music and electronics department upstairs with moody lighting and sonorous acoustics. We flipped through albums but generally picked whichever one was hottest and spent the rest of the weekend listening to it over and over again on her walnut record console, a swanky piece of furniture. 

My grandmother’s living room is where I first heard the Thriller album in its entirety. It’s where we pushed her glass covered coffee table to the side so we could dance to Eddie Rabbit’s I Love A Rainy Night and ABBA’s Super Trooper. (I’m a little embarrassed to admit these things but not really.) Maybe I wasn’t a fan of Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton, but Islands in the Stream won me over. My brother played his new Fat Boys album for her and she kept an open mind, but she didn’t buy that one for herself. 

Actually, she wasn’t buying any music for herself. We binge-listened to an album over the course of a weekend and then she packed it carefully into a box, along with Levis jeans and whatever else worked as currency in the early 80s Eastern Bloc, and then shipped it off to distant relatives I never met and never will.

I finally sat down yesterday and combed through apple music playlists to cull a party mix worthy of my grandmother’s eclectic and open-minded musical tastes. And because a party isn’t just about the birthday girl, I included hits I know other family members will enjoy. She still comments appreciatively on some of my daughters’ favorite songs when we listen in the car. That’s where I’ve been testing out this party list in shuffle mode and find I love it all. 

This has been the surprise hit for me, a sweet little oasis in the angst of party planning, the calm before the storm. I could have listened to any of these songs at any time, but they had no context individually or even as part of another more generic playlist. Only in this more personal playlist do I feel each song so deeply I crank it up to feel it deeper. I catch myself thinking how much better music was in the 60s and 70s, how much more effort they put into each song, how rich and satisfying the sound. Sometimes it feels good to get good and old. 

The party isn’t for a few more days, and who knows if the ipad and wireless speaker setup will work as planned. It isn’t necessarily easier than the good old days of playing a record and flipping it over. My grandmother still has the record player console and a few albums that will work in a pinch. It’s not really about the music anyway but who we’re with when it plays. 

It’s going to be awkward when these guys show up because we’ll all basically be wearing the same outfit.

90 year old napkins

My grandmother turns 90 soon and to celebrate, we’re throwing a party that will send her to an early grave. Just kidding, 60 would have been an early grave. This party might send me to one, and that would be early but also deserved. 

When my grandmother turned 80, we threw her a big catered affair, attended by a great number of friends who are not invited this time because they are dead. It was quite a party, I’m telling you. 

A lot changes in a decade, especially once you make past 80. She said to me the other day on the phone while we were in an actual fight over this party “You don’t know what it’s like to be 90.” What could I say?

I forget sometimes that she’s not 80 anymore. She got all worked up before that party too. She’s a perfectionist and a worrier and a real force to be reckoned with. I remember spending a day driving around with her to shop for party supplies and how tiny the glass of wine seemed at dinner, how ordering another seemed pointless because that wasn’t going to do it either.

And then an hour before her party started, a kitchen cabinet fell off its hinge and smacked her in the head. She was okay – just a little shaken up – but another family member remarked later it had been like a Wizard of Oz moment. Before the head bonk, her party loomed like a terrorizing tornado. After the head bonk, the air felt oddly tranquil, my grandmother sedate in silver sequined slippers.

The fight her and I got in about this party, like most fights, wasn’t really about the party. It was about something that will be hard to remember 10 years from now. Already it seems silly and sad that I chose to get upset and react. Usually when I talk to her, I keep my emotions in a separate box, locked from the inside, and they understand well enough to lay low. This time Hurt Feelings heard me on the phone and said “I’m hungry.” Righteous Indignation heard and said “Yeah me too…let’s go ask for a snack.” 

Probably my lowest point in the argument with my 90 year old grandmother was when I told her we probably shouldn’t be planning this party in the first place. We should have just taken her somewhere nice for dinner instead. She never asked for a party in the first place, but it was already too late to call off and cruel of me to say, even though we both knew it was true. 

I had a dream about the party the other night. It was something about tiny, delicious sandwiches and I hadn’t ordered enough. Good lord, I am not a party planner. I don’t even like parties when all I have to do is show up. But I said to a friend a few weeks ago, before things got so crazy, that the difference between this party and her 80th is I’m sober now. Theoretically I have more energy and focus, though much less free time. I just wanted my gift to my grandmother to be a nice party. I am not giving up. 

Yesterday I called to go over some details with her. She told me she picked up napkins specifically for a 90th birthday party. I asked where on earth she found those and half-jokingly she said “I don’t even want to talk about it..this is all your fault.” She then talked about wanting to make this special cranberry cake she used to make all the time and last made for her 80th birthday party. I told her not to buy any more anything for the party and to skip the cake and put her feet up instead.

The difference between 80 years old and 90 years old seems to be less physical and mental stamina to do all the things you still think you should be able to do. I told her about my dream and the tiny, delicious sandwiches being just out of reach and she laughed and said “See, you worry too much too.”

Before we got off the phone, she got in a quick reminder that I shouldn’t vote for the candidate I’ve known I’d vote for since I was a little girl. Righteous Indignation paced behind the closed door but did not come out. (Hurt Feelings was stuffing her face with tiny, delicious sandwiches.)

My grandmother’s party is just before the election. Some moments I don’t know how we’re going to make it, how it’s possibly going to work out that either side will be happy with the outcome. The divide between perspectives is so vast it’s like we’re looking at two completely different landscapes.

If I think back to her 80th party and the days leading up to it, it felt the same then. And that party turned out wonderful overall. Because, my god, nothing is ever perfect, but we have to look at the big picture and remember it’s about the people at the party. When my grandmother complained about the state of her yard, I said no one is coming to this party for the view or the food or decorations. They’re coming to see and spend time with you, to offer congratulations and well wishes on turning 90 years old. 

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