Keeping busy

All the grand and great-grand children gather at my grandmother’s house. This hasn’t happened since, oh, so long ago that one of the kids wasn’t even born yet. Family math is complicated.

I keep thinking our visit is like a tornado, though not like the burst pipe and busted hot water heater that recently tore through her house. After we eat, I wash plates and glasses and move on to pick potato chip crumbs out of her kitchen carpet (carpet! in a kitchen!) and she shuffles behind and tells me to stop, that it will give her something to do this week. She keeps old messages on her answering machine and I wonder if crumbs on the floor are like that. Like, at any minute the party might start again.

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These children are great, but it was my grandmother who filled the wheelbarrow.
On the phone later, my grandmother tells me she has to go out and break down the pizza boxes we put out by the garbage or the truck won’t take them. I picture her tottering at the curb with a tiny pair of sewing scissors – the only ones I ever seem to​ be able to find – and consider hanging up and driving hours to do it for her. Tomorrow she will vacuum the kitchen, she says. Or maybe this weekend.

It definitely won’t be tomorrow because tomorrow she has someone coming to look at a recliner chair she has been trying to give away. People hear free recliner and get excited, but I bet they don’t even know recliners were made back then. It’s even older than the console television set she’s hoping the recliner person also hauls away for her. I have a hard time imagining two burly men hoisting it above their shins.

My grandmother tells me they bought the TV in the early 70s after my parents bought theirs and she had to have one. She said they went to Luskins but my grandfather balked at the price, so she said it was her money too, even if she didn’t have quite enough of it. She said the fellas at Luskins didn’t give credit accounts to women back then, so she talked them into some kind of deal on paper and went home with her TV and stopped by with cash after work a few times. I have no idea how she got it home, but it’s only moved once since then and probably thought it was done.

About ten years ago, it started taking longer for the picture to appear. You’d turn the set on and see black or purple, maybe a zig-zag of rainbow at the edge of the screen, and my grandmother would say you just wait a minute. You’d wait a few minutes and get bored and put the kettle on and when you’d come back, Dynasty would be on the screen on some channel that probably didn’t even exist.

About five years ago, the picture stopped coming in at all, though the sound still worked. That poor old TV went blind and must have felt us scooting her across the room to a dim corner but thankfully never saw the wobbly Walmart flat screen that took her spot. Maybe the console set egged my 2 year-old nephew to pick up a cane and swing wildly in that direction. It’s possible.

When we all leave my grandmother’s house, we leave at once. It’s always like that. We finish our last minute tasks – my brother puts in a storm window, I check her smoke detector batteries – and depart in a parade of waves and honks until she turns to a tiny speck in the rearview mirror and disappears.

I feel guilty stopping at the reservoir a mile from her house, but the draw is stronger than guilt or desire to get home. The sun is setting and there are a handful of men fishing solo or in pairs. My girls and I walk a short path in the woods to get a better look and some pictures.
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When I talk to my grandmother on the phone two days later, I expect her to sound as exhausted as I still feel. Instead she sounds alert, invigorated. This, in fact, is when she tells me her plans to get rid of the bulky recliner and console and pizza boxes. I picture her hoisting them onto her back and dragging them into the distance until they turn to specks and disappear.

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100 years

Before the big party, my grandmother asks me to do her makeup. Her hands are too shaky, she explains, as she hands me a tube of foundation that looks too tan. I squeeze a tiny amount onto my fingertip and feather and blend in the worn light of her bathroom. She asks for rouge – actually calling it that – and hands me a tube of cheap lipstick. Let me go get my makeup bag, I say. Ok, she says.

My fingers carefully navigate the suddenly unfamiliar terrain of her face. When did her skin get so soft, so thin? When is the last time I’ve touched anyone’s face besides my own and my little girl’s? My grandmother closes her eyes while I work with brushes and pencils and the foamy tip of an eyeshadow wand. I alternate between worrying she’ll look garish and no different at all. When I’m done, she turns to the mirror and says to herself You are old but she smiles and seems pleased.

Five of us pile into my dad’s car and head into the city for this big party. It’s a 100 year celebration for a social club my grandmother joined shortly after she emigrated to this country in the Fifties. I spent a half dozen of the longest evenings of my life in this hall when my brother and I were kids. We were surrounded by old people who smiled a lot and spoke a language we couldn’t understand. They served plates of steaming gray sausages and beef rolls that resembled dog turds but fortunately did not taste like them (I assume).

This might be a good place to back up and explain there’s a generation missing. My dad is not my grandmother’s son. He is her ex son-in-law. My mother died from cancer when I was just over a year old. She was my grandmother’s only daughter. My grandmother never got over that one, I can tell you. My dad remarried eventually and my brother and I grew up with a good woman who I have always known as Mom. My dad, good people that he is, still helps my grandmother with things like taxes and escorting her to 100 year celebrations.

When we get to the hall for this shindig, the foyer is in chaos. I have to root through my purse to find our tickets. We give up our coats to women in folk costumes who usher us to a table and hold out tiny glasses of something. It’s Vityra, a honey liqueur. Oh, no thank you, I say. Here, a woman says and extends the glass again. I don’t drink, I say. Everyone’s wearing tight smiles to mask the sudden awkwardness and confusion. Another woman steps in and says Just a tiny sip like I’ve hit 41 and never tried alcohol. I start to feel indignant, a little hysterical even. She says to me, It will help for the next room. You are sadly mistaken I want to say, but I refuse again and this time it sticks and the others take their shot and toast. Ten seconds feels like ten rounds. I feel oddly fortified to face the next room.

The doors swing open and the room sucks us in. An unsmiling photographer snaps our photograph, only I don’t realize until he tells us we can go. If I ever see the picture, I’m certain I’ll be staring open mouthed at the ceiling or wall. The hall is magnificent. I haven’t been here in over 20 years and it looks better than I remember or imagined. The afternoon sun filters through golden curtains and everyone looks airbrushed and perfect.

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I drink Cokes with the girls. Normally I would drink Diet, but today I’m letting my hair down. I take pictures of the hall. My grandmother finds old friends to talk to, so my dad and girls and I head up three flights of stairs to a museum that needs its own museum. I snap about 200 pictures, all of which I’m going to share with you right now.

IMG_0033Oh, just kidding. Sorry if I gave you a scare.

My kids were the first to fade. Kids these days have no stamina for folk carvings and dolls that probably come to life and dance quaintly. Here’s the moment they realize my 88 year-old grandmother is halfway up the first landing.

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I feel like we’d been caught going out for ice cream without her. It’s too many stairs, I say. It’s really cold up there, my oldest points out helpfully. There’s old dolls, my youngest says unhelpfully. My dad’s no help because he’s still upstairs talking to the curator, but my grandmother doesn’t seem interested in the museum anyway. I help her back down and an older gentleman passes us and she whispers to me He wanted to marry your mother.

She says this again later about another man that stops by our table. He introduces himself to me as the man responsible for getting my mother and father together. I tell him thank you very much because if not for him, my girls and I wouldn’t be here. When he leaves my grandmother tells me he too wanted to marry my mother but he was too short for her.

100 year celebrations are maybe only somewhat surprisingly filled with speeches. A congressman, an ambassador, and a former hall president give speeches. Only one is in english. It sounds like the start of a joke, and the punchline is quaint folk dancing. The jarring accordion starts while we’re in the restroom. It looks like it did 20 years ago. I know it’s bad form to post pictures of restrooms on blogs, but I already worked dog turds into this post and hope you’ll understand.

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If not for the overpowering funk of air freshener, I might have pulled up a chair to take it all in. My grandmother swears it was renovated recently. When we get older, do all the decades bleed together?

After all the speeches and folk dancing, my grandmother wants to walk up to the buffet line and serve herself. They’re calling tables by number, we explain. I see several white-haired renegades totter over with their chinette plates. When you get to a certain age, maybe you realize rules are for rubes. Maybe you hit enough buffets that ran out early.

The salad is the best I’ve ever had. The cake has almond paste and layers and looks like it took someone a long time to make. The kids don’t eat much. I sneak them bland things I brought from home and let them fill up on marble cake with white frosting that someone mercifully put out by the coffee. My grandmother eats everything on her plate and wraps fried dough pastries in a napkin and puts them in her sequined purse to take home. Just when I think the night can’t get any better, a man about my age with spiky hair sets up on stage and plays electric guitar and sings Lithuanian rock songs.

My youngest one wants to dance. This kid, she won’t take no for an answer about anything, so I don’t try too hard. We’re one of two “couples” “dancing”. She likes me to twirl her around so that you or I would vomit. Kids just get crazier when you spin them that fast. She’s like a tiny top of madness and it doesn’t matter that I can’t barely dance the hokey pokey because I’m really enjoying myself. It’s a good thing I don’t drink because I’d never be able to handle these spins, I think.

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Soon the dance floor is cramped. This crowd knows just what to do and forms a giant circle. People wearing black hats are allowed to dance inside it. I don’t understand the rules, but we all abide. After the dance breaks up, my grandmother greets an old friend with a hug.

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We don’t stay too much longer. I’m the first one ready to leave. My grandmother is the last. She says my dad doesn’t want to leave. She says he and my mother used to go dancing all the time before they had kids. Eventually we get our coats and head out into the cold dark night in a huddle to keep warm.

Chorophobia

My grandmother shows up almost three hours late. At first, I’m not worried. I know how long it takes her to get moving these days. Getting out the door to Walmart is an hour-long odyssey. It isn’t just a matter of slow moving limbs, either. She has a set routine she follows before she goes anywhere. Pills and bills sorted and stowed. Cups and bowls washed with care. Wet ‘n wild lipstick applied. Doors locked and checked, then double checked. When I try to speed things up by taking over, the process grinds to a halt.

I hope I’m that sharp at 88. Actually, I hope I’m not still around at 88 because I’m not that sharp now.

Just when I start to map out her search party, she drives up in her spiffy black sedan. The first thing I notice is her hair, snow-white and stylish. She’s not wearing her partials, but her bright eyes counterbalance gaps in her smile. She knows she’s almost three hours late but she’s happy she made it at all.

She hands me a mystery wrapped in foil and a plant she forgot to give me at Thanksgiving. The cats and I kill plants, so I will leave it in the hotel room along with a modest tip on the desk like a plea. Please take good care of my plant. Bless You. Signed, The Black Thumb.

We take my grandmother to lunch at an old riverside restaurant trapped in time. The decor is wood paneling and salad bar. She folds her paper placemat and slides it into her purse to take home. I fight the urge to snap a photo of mine and now can’t show you what it looks like. There were vintage illustrations of a sea captain and crabs. Was there a cartoon clam smoking a pipe? I can’t be sure.

I order shrimp salad on a roll and my grandmother orders a steak sandwich. My husband remarks later he’s never seen anyone enjoy a sandwich so much. Half of it goes home with her. She rests it atop garnish and what’s left of a withered dill spear. This will provide at least one more meal, maybe two.

The word mindfulness gets lodged in my head after I spend time with my grandmother. It makes me think about the word I chose last year as my word of the yearNourish popped into my head and so I picked it and spent all year dodging it. Nourish, I thought as I popped milk duds in my mouth and played dumb-numb games on my phone.

Acceptance would have made a better word for 2014. But I accept that I chose another word and did nothing with it, further proving my point. This year I may not pick a word since I haven’t finished the last one. This feels both mindful and nourishing, or possibly punishing.

Soon we will join my grandmother for a big celebration at the Lithuanian Hall. She skipped over Christmas and has been talking about this for weeks. She tells me what she’ll wear because she knows I haven’t given any thought to what I’ll wear. She tells me I should drive down the day before so we can get ready together. This is serious business. I must not let her down.

I can’t wait to take pictures in the old hall I haven’t visited in nearly twenty years. When my grandfather died, I wrote a letter deep in grief to my new boyfriend who is now my husband. I wrote about how my grandfather used to drag me out on the weathered floorboards of the old hall to dance. He’d whip me around in a polka or waltz or waltz-polka. I always resisted at first from deep self-consciousness and maybe fear of whiplash.

There’s something about dancing. All that movement stirs up dust in the dullest corners and oils stiffened limbs. By the second dance, I never want the night to end.

The night always ends anyway, but it feels best to get lost in it with those who love us as hard as we love them, maybe harder.


Note: Inspired by CoachDaddy’s latest post, I used the Hemingway Editor to pare down flowery sentences. Professor Dowling, wherever you are, I hope you’re happy. This post was also written in the spirit of Just Write, via The Extraordinary Ordinary.

One month gray

On Saturday, I tell my hair dresser I want to go gray. She barely bats an eye and rattles off the best way to go about it. She tells me she saw another client through the process, only to have her go back to color when the last bit was growing out. I hope that’s not me, though it very much sounds like something I would do.

My grandmother used to visit her hair dresser every Friday morning. I think her hair dresser’s name was Jo and I think I played Mr. Mouth with her daughter once, though I could be mixing up memories. I’ll never forget the can of Coke and pack of peanut butter crackers I got when I tagged along to a hair appointment. There was nothing tedious about it to me. I sat on a dryer chair, shoving in dry, day-glo crackers, and watched the magical transformation unfold.

My grandmother always went in tense, barking at my grandad to quit driving so slow and did he see that red light he just ran. When she came out of a hair appointment, she was the Queen. She still barked orders at my grandad, but did so regally. Her perfectly coiffed ball of ash blond hair looked like cotton candy and made me hungry again.

In all honesty, I’m not sure what she had done at those appointments. I think it was a wash and set, which would mean she didn’t wash her hair all week? No wonder she was always on edge. (She’s been gone nearly two decades, so I can’t ask her.)

I’m a little nervous about seeing my still-living grandmother at Christmas. Last summer, we were standing in the morning sun when she said to me “You do have a lot of gray hair.” I thought we’d been talking about sandals but she’d been having an entirely separate conversation in her head. She then told me about the time she’d been sitting poolside with my brother, who is several years older than me, and accused him of wearing a white wig. She may have given his hair a gentle tug just to be sure.

My hair dresser inspects my roots and tells me I’m about 80% gray. If she’d said anything less than 75%, I admit I would have felt disappointed. She says the hair framing my face is nearly 100% white and I remember the time I got a 100% on a french test in 7th grade and I beam. She shares a theory that the hair on that part of our heads takes a direct beating from the sun over the years and that’s why it goes first. I watch her fill my head with aluminum foil wraps and think it’s all pretty crazy.

I go home with about two inches of exposed white root and a head full of expensive highlights. I don’t really understand how this is all going to work, so I make an appointment for 8 weeks away, just to be safe. I’m relieved I won’t have to do my roots anymore every 3 weeks at home. White would already be showing at the temples and part line after 2 weeks. My hair doesn’t want to be fucked with anymore. It’s been quite clear about that.

On Christmas, my grandmother will no doubt comment on my hair. It’s better when I can brace myself. I’m learning to be more gracious and brush off what she never intends as insult in the first place. She went to the school of Say What Everybody Else is Thinking. I’ll probably slip into defensive mode and explain I’m just trying it out, much like the conversation she forced out of me on the phone last week when she asked about church.

When I told her that I was taking the girls to church a couple of months ago, she started crying. She still surprises me. Part of me now wishes I hadn’t said anything because now I feel like we have to keep going. She asks me if I can send her literature about my religion, which is a mix of beliefs and a stretch from what she’s used to. I think how fun it might be to make up my own brochure in Word, arranging weird clip art (aka the original emojis) and funny phrases. Instead I tell her how a recent service went, which is similar to every other denomination I’ve been to. Hymns, saying things in unison, shaking hands with flu-infested neighbors, listening to the minister, staring at the floor and ceiling, chucking money in a basket, snacks.

My grandmother tells me she wants my brother to go to church, that he needs it. She wants my husband to go to church. She probably wants you to go to church if you don’t already. The thing I can’t quite tell her is that church isn’t everything I’d hoped it would be. It turns out that it’s just me showing up and feeling awkward and out of place. The hymns are lovely, but in truth I’d rather not stand and I’m still lip synching all of the high notes and at least half the low ones too. When service is over, I beeline out of there to find my kids because awkward small talk feels like gargling with battery acid. There are definite points during the service where I feel peaceful and connected and outside myself, which is a very good place to be, but as it turns out, I’m no better at embracing community at church than I am anywhere else.

How did I start talking about gray hair and wind up at church? It might be worth mentioning that while counting hats is pretty impossible at church these days, I did count quite a few white heads in the congregation. A surprising amount of women too. So maybe I’ve found my people afterall, at least for where I am right now, which is all any of us can hope for.

us gray gals gotta stick together (if only mine would come in that lovely)
us gray gals gotta stick together (if only mine would come in that lovely)

beneath the pines

While slowly navigating a sloping parking lot with sharp sticks and muddy mulch, I argue with my grandmother over which of my daughter’s birthdays had been at a park on a raw, cold day several years ago. My memory is excellent for things that don’t matter, such as birthday party venues and the names of all the boys I’ve liked since kindergarten.

Even though I know I’m right about this, it hits me how silly this need to be right is. I remember a family from childhood whose mom used to argue loudly with her own aging, confused mother when she swore she watched a team of tiny children during the day while everyone else was at work and school.

“You’re here by yourself, Ma” the younger mom said, exasperated. “There aren’t any children.”

The old mother’s brow furrowed and she folded her arms across the front of her downy flannel nightgown.

“There are so children and they greased the banister and slid down and got hurt,” she said. “Several died,” she added.

Every year my grandmother becomes a little more like her own mother, who stubbornly wore cork-heeled wedges around the house well into her 90s and kept a stash of fun-sized milky way bars in her room because she said they helped her sleep at night. My own grandmother insisted on wearing low-heeled but open sandals to the hilly farm today even though I told her sneakers would be better.

After we make it through the minefield of a parking lot and get in line to pay, my grandmother gets stung by a bee on the neck. I don’t see it happen, but she holds her neck with one hand and gestures triumphantly to a dead bee on the ground with the other. She is not allergic and in fact seems to get stung regularly. Last summer, she was stung multiple times on her arms and legs while pruning bushes in her yard. I see now that she’s not phased by her bee sting. She only wants to share her excitement with us.

I start to feel like the trip is a terrible idea. The farm is bigger and hillier than I remember. There are way more people than I expected. Toddlers, strollers, parents – even goats – are everywhere. My own kids are off like shots, and I do my best to track them with peripheral vision and that homing device all parents come equipped with.

When I see my younger one sail off a distant slide and look around for us as nonchalantly as possible, I leave my grandmother’s side to corral her back. From the slide, I see my grandmother look around as nonchalantly as possible. Once we get into her line of sight, I wave my hand and smile until she sees us and smiles back.

My grandmother spies another woman using a cane by the goats and remarks excitedly that she’s not the only one. It doesn’t occur to me that she’s self-conscious about using a cane. Her mobility is very good, excellent even, for someone turning 88 later this month. Her own mother had fought stubbornly against using this very same cane, but compromised by keeping those damn wedge heels. My grandmother uses the cane willingly for balance, but inherited her mother’s love of impractical shoes.

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sensible shoes all around

My grandmother tells me about a class trip she took in her home country when she was a little girl to a place just like this. I think she means a farm, but when she says they sang and picnicked and played in a field by the river, I realize the woods were the destination.

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My grandmother tells me this is the first time she’s felt like she was back in her home country in all the years she’s lived here. She says the woods in her village were so clean, you could lie down and rest and not even have to brush off your clothes afterwards. This is not the first time I’ve heard this and she has no way of knowing how many times my parents and I told and retold that story to each other because we loved it so much. Later, my husband loved hearing it too. We were all tickled at the idea of a preternaturally clean forest, oceans away. I look down at the ground here and see it littered with pine needles and kicked-up silt that she doesn’t seem to notice. For the moment, she is home again and she is happy.

After the farm, we make the long trek back to the car and I feel myself loosen. I help my grandmother buckle the seat belt in my car because it is hard for her and she jokes that I have three children today and I smile like it’s the first time we’ve shared this joke.

Back at her house, we assemble sandwiches and dine overlooking her back yard, which she has spent the last three decades tending and trimming. She has two beautiful bushes in the back that I fall in love with every fall. They’re so big, you can almost stand beneath them and they bloom white flowers in late summer that turn a lovely shade of purple-pink in early fall.

I ask her what kind of bush or tree they are and she says she doesn’t know. She adds, “They’re not hydrangeas” because she remembers I asked her the last time we visited. Last time we visited, I even used Leaf Snap but it only pulled up trees that don’t grow in this region.

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Honestly, it’s bugging me and I say that I wish I knew and she says, “You don’t even know the trees in your own country,” like she’s confiding to me about some other idiot. I am as handy in the yard as a plaster gnome, and this is probably her deepest disappointment in me.

My kids and I say our goodbyes, which weigh heavier each visit, and drive back home in the setting sun. I decide to detour through the town where I went to college, which is also where my other set of now long-gone grandparents once lived. For some reason, I find myself missing them terribly this fall. It’s like I held everything in until this year and now songs on the radio remind me of car rides to their house and old movies remind me of inappropriate things I watched on the small TV set in their back room while the grown ups talked in the main room, oblivious. I ache rawly with love for them it is far too late to express.

Just Write

I’m a big fan of The Extraordinary Ordinary because of how beautifully she writes. I love the idea of trying to capture those weighty everyday moments without a lot of explanation. This is my attempt at Just Write.

I go into the living room to talk because it’s the one part of the house where calls don’t drop. The cat follows me. He probably thinks I’m talking to him. He’s 18 but he’s never used a phone before.

My little girl comes in next with a blanket, her new baby doll and a plastic tube of tiny knights she got on our trip to New York City. She lays the doll and blanket on the floor and lines up the knights on the keys of a 1978 Wurlitzer organ we rarely use and knocks them down with a green dragon, one by one.

I am talking to my grandmother on the phone. I had thought up many reasons not to call. I’m tired from our trip. I mailed her a mother’s day card and gift. I’ll call tomorrow. None of them beat the voice that waited patiently until the Brady Bunch episode with Peter’s terrible volcano was over and insisted Call Now.

My grandmother is 86 and does most of the talking. I know from phone logs that we usually talk for an hour, give or take 10 minutes. She tells me a lot of the same things each phone call and I’m not sure if this is because she forgets or thinks I forget.

She brings up things that happened a long time ago, like that time another family member got drunk and said terrible things three Thanksgivings ago. I was even there for it, but I know not to interrupt or argue the details because once I lost my patience and made her cry. She hung up on me and I felt like a drowning person must feel in that final moment when panic changes to relief but it’s still the end. Of course I called her back to apologize. Let’s start over, I said. She’s my grandmother.

For the 51 minutes we talk on the phone, my little girl comes and goes out of the room to watch bits of America’s Funniest Home Videos and report back to me.

A boy just pooped on a girl’s shoulder! she whispers in my non-phone ear and then steps back to watch my response. I raise both eyebrows and make an O with my mouth and think what kind of pea pickin’ show are they watching anyway. Later I realize she said bird, not boy.

My little girl climbs on my lap and gives random hugs and quiet I love yous and then rolls herself up in a blanket and lays so long and still at my feet that I am sure she’s fallen asleep.

The last five minutes of my phone call are me trying to find the exit. My phone battery is dying and l tell her and she says Just wait a minute and tells me what her mechanic said about her car battery. She also says And another thing, just like they do in the movies. My grandmother fled her Soviet occupied Baltic state when she was a young woman and still speaks with a heavy sing-songy accent that I found soothing as a little girl.

In the end, I am saved by a raccoon. One minute my grandmother is telling me what her mechanic told her and the next I hear her rapping on glass to scare off a raccoon that is washing his paws in a water dish she keeps on her back porch for the birds. No wonder that water is so dirty! she says.

The raccoon’s presence has boosted her mood and she tells me she is happy I called. We say goodbye and I feel something loosen inside me. I go upstairs to plug in my phone to charge and my little girl follows me upstairs like a puppy wrapped in a blanket with a sprinkle of freckles across her nose.

My daughters and I in Battery Park. (Puppy on the left.)

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