(Written in 2004)
Gramma is quieter than she used to be. She doesn’t ask detailed questions the way she once did. She was the only person who actually cared about the minute particulars of your plane trip over. “Well, now, what did they serve?” “How many flight attendants were there?” “Now, when you got into your seat, was the window shade pulled up or down?” These things actually interested her and she was rapt with attention at your description of the temperature of the cabin. She is forgetful now and more easily fatigued. The lilting laughter that used to infuse her sentences is less frequent. And the spark in her one good eye has become more of a dim flame. “No one should live this long” she tells me over dinner that night. We are sitting in the communal dining room of her home in Minneapolis, un upscale housing residence for senior which has nightly movies and knitting groups that you can join. At 97 She has outlived two husbands, 2 sisters, a brother, a son, and the majority of her close friends.
I am visiting her from New York after much convincing that it will be fun for me to be there even if she goes to bed at 7:30pm. “I’ll have lots to do,” I tell her, when the truth is I spend the evenings watching TV and thinking about how she has changed. I’m her only granddaughter; the only one who talks with her about things like sex, romance, boobs and skimpy underwear. “Oh, Mary.” she says when I tell her about a sassy new bra that I recently bought but I can see her smiling behind her feigned look of disapproval and I know she loves the fact that I share this stuff with her.
It gives her a chance to remember that within her still exists the damsel who once dropped her hanky in hopes that it might inspire a “young blade“ to approach her with the offer of a date.
Back when The Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, she took me aside at lunch during my visit explaining that she didn’t understand what this “oral sex” thing was. No one would discuss it with her. Sexy bras were one thing, sexual acts that are still illegal in several states are another. Trying not to choke on my potato salad, I decided that after 97 years, she deserved to know. I stumbled my way through a grandmother-friendly explanation of the process which included such words as mouth a and “private area“. When I had finished she took a moment to let it sink in and then replied with a furrowed brow, “Well, I don’t know anyone who does that”. I paused for a moment and took another bite of the salad. “Well, actually, you DO, Gramma”. “Oh, Mary……” was all she could say. We sat in silence for another minute before she turned to me again, inquisitive. “Now, when people have oral sex, how do they decide who goes first?” It was actually a good question that I had never thought about before. “ I guess it’s whoever wins at Yahtzee.” I replied and we both laughed.
But our conversations are different now. They are more about what time the attendant is coming to pick her up in her wheelchair to take her to breakfast, whether I will wrap a present for her and did I remember to turn on the lights in her bedroom. Her life is about existing and getting by more than planning for future events and taking on the world‘s problems. We go through her jewelry and she tells me to pick out my favorite pieces- a reminder that she may not be around for that much longer. Each broach, ring, necklace has its own story. A gift from Grampa on their first wedding anniversary, a pin from her mother, a heirloom from an old friend. I see the spark return to her eyes as she relates parts of her history- remembering happy times when joints didn’t ache and wrinkles weren’t so apparent.
The next day we are sitting at lunch in the same dining area the next day when, another resident, a white haired woman on a walker wanders over to us. “ Helen, can I sit with you?”. I know this infuriates my Gramma since there is a reserved sign on the table meant to insure that we have a private meal together. But ever the lady, my Gramma smiles and says, “Sure, Kathy, have a seat”. As Kathy gets settled, Gramma leans over to me and says “She’s nuts”. The conversation stays pretty simple. “This is my granddaughter.” “Well, the pie on the other table looks delicious.” “It’s cold in here.” “I wonder what the specials are.” There is no news to share. No current experiences to discuss. Life feels very much about the immediate. When the waitress finally arrives we order and sit back in our seats with a sense of accomplishment. I turn to Kathy a minute later. “So what did you decide to get?” She looks up at me. “Um, I forgot,” Her expression is resigned as she continues, “I guess it’ll just be a surprise when it comes” and she tucks her napkin into her shapeless shirt stained with this morning‘s coffee. I smile at her . “Yes, I guess so!” I But I look around the dining room filled mostly with women and the few rare men who have outlived their wives. Some are in wheelchairs, many have with hearing aids, one trails some sort of Oxygen machine. They all eat with an elegant slowness I am not accustomed to seeing in my Manhattan fast paced life where everyone gulps down their burritos and chai teas and rushes off to the next appointment. Suddenly my Gramma perks up. “ You should feel Mary’s butt cheeks,” she declares to Kathy. You’d never believe how firm they are.” At first I take this as a sign that Gramma has had a minor stroke but then I remember how at my last visit, I insisted that she pound on my tush to bear witness to the results of an arduous body sculpting class I had been taking for months. But Kathy, who is now in possession of both her napkin and mine looks about as interested as she did when the waitress told her the soup of the day and I mutter….”Oh, Gramma…”
As I am waiting for the van to take me to the airport that afternoon, Gramma sits with me in the lobby going over some of the exercises I suggested to help strengthen her legs. I wonder if she is thinking the same thing I am. Will this be the last time I see her? Will there be another trip? More stories about her jewelry? More 5pm suppers with Kathy in the dining room? I rest my hand on top of hers and we sit in silence for a moment. When the van arrives she pats my butt and tells me she loves me. “See you soon, Gramma,” I say and she smiles. Whether or not that is true, saying it somehow makes it seem more likely.