Debbie & I went to see Turandot. First time in 2 or 3 years that I’ve made it to one of the Concert Series-I enjoyed so much getting out. I horrify everyone because I say my idea of heaven is being in an elegant theater like the Stanley or the Landmark or Radio City Music Hall & listening to & watching the stage productions/musicals. The few I’m closest to think they’re going to be with someone they’ve lost or family. –excerpt from a letter my grandmother sent me in 2001
My grandmother sent me letters in her spidery, nearly illegible handwriting when I was in college. At the time, like most 19 year olds, I was too much of a self-involved asshole to put the Skyy vodka down & think, “Ah yes, this woman who adores me put time & effort into writing to me & I should read these.” Instead, I just put the letters aside….just like how we all put things aside, thinking we have more time to come back to them. Note to everyone who HASN’T learned this lesson: Stop doing this. You don’t have all the time in the world. You think you do, but you don’t. She ended up dying my sophomore year at college & then, brimming with guilt, I couldn’t bring myself to read her letters. I put them away—and despite a relatively nomadic lifestyle at one point & a brief period of homelessness—I managed to keep hold of them. Because it was her own thoughts in her own words–I felt like by not reading them, I was keeping her alive, that there were still bits of her for me to discover.
My paternal grandmother was a complicated person and she didn’t necessarily inspire a hemorrhage of warm affection. She could give a backhanded compliment like no other. She often voiced unpopular opinions. She wasn’t necessarily wrong—but her opinions could be conversation killers that left you feeling oddly defensive. She was often unhappy and depressive. She had lost a child. Her daughter, Robbie, was born with spina bifida and a malformed brain. For some reason, when being knit together in the womb, something went wrong. At Robbie’s birth, my grandmother was told that Robbie wouldn’t survive. But Robbie did survive. In fact, she lived to be 3. Every day for 3 years, my grandmother took care of her daughter knowing that she would die…And sooner rather than later. As a mother, I can’t imagine how excruciating that must be…caring for & loving a child that you know is a mayfly. Robbie’s comet-like affair with life on this planet was something the family didn’t talk about. Once, in my youth, I had enough innocent curiosity to ask my grandmother what Robbie was like. She told me that Robbie was like a little living doll. She never talked, never walked & was never going to. My grandmother fed her and changed her and loved her and waited for her to die. Understandably, my grandmother never really recovered from this and it manifested itself in days of her lying prone on the couch with the heavy curtains drawn tight…
But my grandmother loved me. Just like Robbie’s life wasn’t talked about, my favored status was another un-talked about but understood thing in the family. We all knew I was her favorite grandchild. It sometimes caused grief between my wounded, jealous siblings & me…as well as my mother & me. While my mother tried to break me, my grandmother used to tell my mom to accept me as I was, that I was just “high-spirited.” My grandma thought it was a good thing I was feisty, that it would help me someday when things got tough. There is an anecdote told in my family about how one year my parents took me to JC Penney’s. In the store, I saw a white denim skirt that I coveted. My parents told me to remember that my birthday was coming….which means nothing to a small child. Instant gratification is built into us and we loathe to give it up. In response to being told to wait, I began to act out. I hid under the clothing racks & spun the circular racks around. In general, I just went on a campaign of terror in the middle of the store. My dad grabbed me and physically dragged me out of the store. As we passed the startled clerks, much to my father’s chagrin, I yelled, “HELP! HELP! HE’S CHOKING ME! HE’S GOING TO BEAT ME IN THE CAR!” To prove that the “high-spirited” thing might not behoove me in my life & that she should not encourage it, my parents told my grandmother what I had done. I accepted at that point that I had shot my shot of getting that skirt.
A few weeks later, at my birthday party my grandmother handed me my gift. I honey-badgered the wrapping paper off that sucker, shredding it with my little nails, only to see a white cardboard box with the words JC Penney written on it. I looked up at her & I remember she nodded at me with a smile. I flung the top off the box to find the white denim skirt I had wanted so badly. My mother & father’s response was one of annoyance and displeasure over their authority being undermined. My grandmother just laughed in the background at the exact moment someone snapped a picture of me realizing what was in the box. I love the picture, even though you can’t see her whole face. You can still see her delight at finding a way to give me what I wanted, while pissing off my mother at the same time. I keep it on my fridge.
I remember she made me watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s with her when I was about 8 years old. As a grown woman, I wonder what the fuck she was thinking showing a movie about a call girl to a child…but, even then, I loved that movie. I didn’t see a broken girl trying to get out of her situation by any means necessary, even if meant charging a man $50 to let him “take her to the powder room.” Instead, I saw a quirky woman in beautiful clothes living a glamorous life in NYC, surrounded by men who loved her & wanted to possess her. It informed a lot of my ideas about what I wanted to be as an adult. Clearly, I didn’t understand…As an adult, I have realized that I am probably closer to the character that the movie is actually about…a desperate, fragile woman who doesn’t understand her value beyond what men are willing to pay for her….A woman who wants to escape.
My grandma also made me watch Katharine Hepburn movies with her. She especially loved the African Queen. Even as young as 6, drinking tea & watching Hepburn & Bogey would be our afternoon together. I can still picture my grandmother in her blue corduroy Laz-y boy chair…dressed in a men’s button down oxford with the sleeves rolled up and her long skinny jeans. She would pull one of her long, gangly legs up and rest her head on her knee, a youthful pose for someone her age, and wistfully watch the movie. My grandma wanted to be Katharine Hepburn, I think…or at least what Hepburn represented—an untouchable strength, an untamable Yankee spirit who made her own rules. For example, I remember my grandma once telling me not to get married till I was at LEAST 35. “Use your 20s for selfishness. Get a career, financial stability. Travel. Then, when you know you won’t need to be dependent on a man, then you get married.” It was an uncommon philosophy in the kind of rural area we grew up in. People marry young here. And so, I rushed to get married at 25 and immediately knew, I should have listened to her. But, as much as my grandma wanted to be bullheaded and strong and haughty like Hepburn was, my grandma saw herself as weak, stupid and ugly. A less than. She voiced these low opinions of herself around us a lot.
Like I said…complicated.
My grandmother loved classical music. I remember her making me listen to Bach as a child. She explained that she loved Bach because of the way the melodies and harmonies intertwined & were woven together into a tapestry of sound in her ear. Later I discovered she was talking about counterpoint—but the way she explained it made it sound magical. She took me to the opera & to see famous violinists when I was a very young child. People told her all the time she was foolish for paying good money to take a young child to see artists like Itzhak Perlman. My grandmother always told them it wasn’t a waste because I would appreciate it when I was older. As an adult, I think about how she was investing in me. She didn’t live to see the return, but she was confident in where she made her deposits.
Part of the favoritism revolved around the fact that she loved that I was a violinist. She financially supported that venture as well…paying for lessons here or there…and even buying me a violin…Because she was often so depressed, she showed affection by way of ATM. I didn’t understand that supporting my education & career financially was her hug, her I love you. My youth & own mental health issues were Vaseline on the lens. I never saw clearly how much she actually really, really loved me.
I was dutiful in writing home to her when I was away at college…but often, I let numerous voicemails collect on my dorm room phone more than I should have, before calling her back. When she finally passed, I was out getting a tragus piercing. I came back to a voicemail from my parents and I knew before I even called home that she was gone…I kept thinking, “I was getting a piercing she would have hated…while she was taking her last breath.” I hated that I wasn’t home with her, that I was doing something she would have disapproved of…And, so, I boxed her letters up. Put them in their own coffin. Buried them in my closet.
In my own recent suicidal depression, I finally made the decision to read the letters she had sent me…even though it means there is nothing new left of her…that she is actually known as much as I can know her…that there’s nowhere further for me to carry her. I thought it would be sad, and in some ways it was…but all I could think of was that one scene in Eternal Sunshine where Clementine tells Joel that this is the end of their memories together and it’s all going to be erased soon…their life together good or bad…their love…and anything they might have been…and Joel quietly tells her he knows. She asks what they should do and his response makes me weep every time, “Enjoy it.” But there’s a lesson in that answer….So that’s what I did. I just enjoyed it.
In one letter, she tells me, “We’ve been having flocks of turkeys in our back yard. We watched 2 males fighting Sunday—and a third one waiting to see who won out &, I suppose, to fight him. Anyway, the next day I saw the one was beaten and with feathers hanging out under his breast. Grandpa likes seeing them out there and is so afraid someone will hunt them.” I can see her at the back sliding glass window, leaning her arm up against the frame of the door. Her lithe body leaning on her bony arm, watching. Her teapot whistling on the stove. Committing details to memory to recount later with her cheap bic stick pen.
One of other letters starts with a lament that she couldn’t get ahold of me via telephone in my dorm room, because there was a great program featuring performances by various famous violinists on pbs that she wanted me to see. Because she couldn’t reach me, she recounts the whole special in the letter. Even now it’s almost like I’m watching it with her. She used to call me and watch specials like that over the phone with me all the time when I was a teen.
In another letter, she writes, “Got your nice newsy letter. You could be a writer. Maybe someday you will—I know you were always good at it. I hope you will find some time to do some-& some poems.”
In some letters, she is lost in the past, her youth: I remember Sally Healey & I went to the Beeches for a luncheon that Bobby Kennedy was going to be at—one of his stops when he was campaigning for senator from NY. They called him a carpetbagger then, too. I still think of touching his 2 very cold fingers. I’ll never forget it. I was so thrilled. It was a little cold, wet, nasty day & he was half frozen. I’ve always wondered how things might have been if he had not been assassinated—he would have surely been president.
But from each letter addressed to Roxannie, her affectionate name for me….to the contents & sign off…the only thing I felt was how much she fucking loved me. Even in the minutiae, I saw how hard she was trying to find content so she could send me a letter, even though her world was shrinking with the increasingly common deaths of her oldest friends, her depression, my grandpa’s Alzheimer & her role as a caregiver…
Gram, I’m not ready to slip into the seat beside you in the velvet light trap yet…but I hope you’re enjoying your never-ending show…Clap loudly when they get the Bach just right & I will see you at intermission. I’ll be wearing my best dress & a dark lipstick you’re going to hate…but that won’t matter. We have so much to talk about, it’s been so long.