My grandmother’s name was Mary Jean. Her life, like her name, defied the expectations of her generation. She had earned a Masters in Chemistry, and worked in a lab in 1950. She was a terrible cook. She was always right, even when she wasn’t. She was a tiny Irish Catholic firebrand, and I loved her.
She wasn’t the classic Grandmother. She wanted us to call her Grandmama, like the Russians did, she said. She liked it better. She never made cookies, she didn’t sing. Apparently, she *did* know how to sew, but as a child I didn’t know that; I never saw her do it. Only later, when she moved into assisted living, did I ever see her sewing machine. My Mom remembers Grandma sewing, but only when Mom was quite young.
Grandma took us shopping and always put our towels in the dryer just before we got out of the pool so they were warm. We always used the same towels; I still have mine, and use it when I go swimming. She had weird metallic silver wallpaper and a sheer brown curtain in the Guest Bathroom. And fantastically horrible green carpet. IN THE BATHROOM. She used to make us rootbeer floats and let us eat them with her fancy iced tea spoons which were made of plastic and shaped like brilliant colored gems strung together as the handle. There were plastic gems in a lot of things in Grandma’s life; she even had strings of them hanging in her bathroom window as curtains until I was 12 or so. I hate almost all of her jewelry, we apparently have very different taste.
We used to spend a week every summer at my grandparents’ place. They lived in Orange County and had a pool, and Grandma used to take us on a tour of the kitchen and pantry to show us all the goodies she’d bought for us when we arrived. She’d forbid Grandpa from eating any of it, but we never minded if he did, and he pretty much always did.
Grandma smoked like a chimney, but only ever outside, at least when my sister and I were around. When we were going through her things, Mom found a bone and silver cigarette holder, and gave it to me because she knew I’d find it amusing. I don’t smoke, but I almost wish I did; the cigarette holder is so glamorous and it reminds me so strongly of my grandmother, even though I never saw her use it. I don’t know the name of the cigarettes she smoked, but I occasionally smell them while I’m walking around, and I’m instantly a kid standing in her front entry and marveling at the perfectly groomed lawn and the enormous antique mirror in the stairwell.
Even as she aged, my grandmother remained difficult; she refused help, and always insisted she was fine, even when she wasn’t. She’d take the shuttle from her apartment and get groceries, even though she didn’t have a kitchen. Some of it was the onset of dementia. Some of it was stubborn refusal to change, and some of it was probably her way of protesting.
When I got married, I considered wearing her wedding dress. My mom had it in storage by that time, and we pulled it out. The only time I’d ever seen the dress was in my grandparents’ wedding photos, which were in black and white. The dress was cream lace and SCREAMING PINK lining. I was shocked. The sleeves were actually separate gauntlets; apparently, her sister had worn gloves to get married, and refused to take her gloves off to have her husband put the ring on her finger. Apparently, it was a challenge. Grandma, being her pragmatic and kind of harsh self, insisted on wearing fingerless gauntlets instead of gloves, to avoid the fate her sister had encountered. I liked the gauntlets, but I didn’t end up wearing the dress. As it turns out, my grandmother’s waist was smaller than my thigh. There was no way I could wear the dress, even if I’d decided I could rock the screaming pink. Mom and I took the dress apart and used the lace as the overlay for my non-traditionally colored wedding dress. I wore blue under that cream lace, and I couldn’t help thinking of Sleeping Beauty’s warring fairies when I thought about the colors my grandmother and I had chosen.
By the time Grandma and Grandpa moved into assisted living, things had gotten pretty bad. They were doing ok largely because Grandpa was spending huge amounts of time and energy hiding how frequently my grandmother was slipping into her own world. I started to mourn for her then, because she wasn’t quite that person who’d been my amazing Grandma. By the time Grandpa passed away last year, Grandma was so far gone that she didn’t even notice. Still, when prompted on Valentine’s day to share who else she’d loved in her life, Grandma insisted that there had never been anyone other than Grandpa. She finally passed away today, after being in and out of Hospice care for several years. I’m sure I’ll mourn her more in the coming weeks and months, but right now, I’m simply relieved. Finally. Finally we’re done. She can rest, and be with Grandpa. Mom can relax. I can stop flying into a panic when my family calls. I can finally wear that black dress, and then get it out of my closet, where it’s been sitting as a reminder for several years.