My first real memories of my grandmother start when I was in third grade. After my parents divorce, my father took me and my two brothers and we all moved in with Grandma and Grandpa. I was eight, Joel was six and Josh was five. For the next several years she generously accepted the role of ‘second mother’ in our lives.
Grandma always called us ‘punkins.’ Joel was ‘Little Joe,’ Josh was ‘Little Josh’ or ‘Joshua,’ and I was always ‘Jay.’
Grandma always worked hard to look nice. In her twenties she was a beautiful, slender young woman. After giving birth to my Dad and my Uncle, she steadily grew heavier until she weighed about 200 pounds. Over the next several decades she tried dozens of different diets, none of which were successful. Finally in her eighties she lost the weight after falling and breaking her hip. When I visited her in the hospital, she proudly announced that she had dropped sixty pounds. “I look great!” she told me. “A broken hip is the best diet program I’ve ever used. I should have done this years ago.”
For a woman obsessed with her image, being overweight was incredibly difficult to accept. It may have been impossible. Her societal role as a Southern Belle was to be beautiful, charming, social and supportive of her husband. She was an attractive woman but I think her extra weight made her feel like she was a failure.
Nevertheless, she always did her makeup, wore excellent clothes and got her hair done every week like clockwork. Once the girls at the salon had gotten her fixed up, nothing and nobody could touch that hair: No human hands, no water, no shower, no wind. God forbid one of us would splash her. My brothers and I used to wonder if we sprayed her down with the hose would she melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz? None of us ever had the courage to find out.
One of Grandma’s defining characteristics was her stubbornness. A good example is our Battle of the Onions. I have hated onions since birth; she loved to cook with them. When we moved in, Grandma was convinced she could teach me to like them. So (no doubt for my benefit) she made sure to incorporate onions into the daily menu. Red onions and yellow onions; Green onions and pearl onions; Crunchy sandwich whites and Walla Walla sweets; Scallions and chives. I knew them and hated them all.
Year after year she unfailingly included the disgusting things in my food and I picked out every single one. Sometimes, after the necessary sorting, I’d have two equally large piles of food on my plate: Onions on one side and everything else on the other. Finally after more than a decade she accepted her strategy wasn’t working. I had never once eaten an onion in all that time. During one memorable Thanksgiving, Grandma took me aside and told me that year she had made two stuffings – a large casserole dish with onions and a small dish without onions just for me. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
When my father was a baby, Grandma was in a very serious accident where her car flipped and Dad was thrown out the window. Decades later, she still had a fear of cars. She didn’t enjoy driving and liked being driven even less. Whenever she rode shotgun she would always stamp on a non-existent brake to try and stop the car. Her default statement was to call for her husband, no matter who was driving. “Willard – I mean Jay! He’s too close! Oh no!” My brothers and I used to laugh at her paranoia but in the end it probably made us better drivers. God knows we needed the help.
Grandma’s house was always immaculate – especially the living room where kids weren’t allowed. We always thought the term ‘Living Room’ made no sense considering we never actually did any living in that room. ‘Parlor for Entertaining Important Guests’ is really the term that should have been used. After fifty years of saving, she and Grandpa built their dream home overlooking the Napa Valley. Piece by piece she assembled an impressive living room, dining room, deck, garden and grounds. By the time it was complete, her property was a thing of beauty.
She was an excellent chef and she enjoyed cooking for others. Giving a dinner party was one of her favorite things to do. It was also one of the most stressful things in her life. She would fret for days – sometimes weeks – planning the menu, buying the ingredients, mixing, preparing, coordinating and finally plating her work. Few things brought Grandma greater joy than a beautiful table set with excellent china, a tasteful flower arrangement and a dozen eager guests.
Manners were always important and the dinner table was no exception. Grandpa always insisted we wait for The Hostess to sit before we began. No snacking. No nibbling. No exceptions. We would wait patiently, hands in our lap, surrounded by baskets of warm bread, steaming roasts, vegetables with butter, salads, yams, potatoes and of course the desserts. We would wait as long as necessary until everyone had dressed appropriately, washed their hands and the entire assembly was ready. Then Grandpa would choose someone to say grace. Finally, thankfully, we would eat. And eat. And eat. Every Sabbath dinner was a mini Thanksgiving meal at Grandma’s house. Eating until you could barely move was not only acceptable but a sign of appreciation. Everyone was offered seconds. Consuming a third helping would all but guarantee a return invitation. Thankfully, Sabbath afternoons were considered free time so the only true requirement was to sit around in a semi-coma and try to digest our meal.
Grandma loved flowers and spent at least an hour every day watering and cultivating her plants, both inside and outside her home. One of the fastest ways to Grandma’s heart was to help her maintain her gardens throughout the property. She was proud of every blossom and sad whenever one of her precious roses, orchids or azaleas died.
Grandma and Grandpa would take a walk together most every evening. He held doors open for her and was polite and kind to her throughout their marriage of more than 50 years. When she had mood swings, he would simply smile and say “Yes dear,” and then do whatever he could to accommodate her. Grandpa was her prince. The cry of ‘Willard’ was frequent and was always answered as soon as he could.
Although she was unfailingly polite in social circles, Grandma could also be devastating when she deemed necessary. Prior to my parents divorce, my mother had an affair and in Grandma’s mind that meant everything was my mother’s fault. One afternoon after the divorce, she sat me down and told me, very gravely, that it was important I knew the truth. “Your mother is going to hell,” she said. “I’m sorry but you need to know. God won’t accept adulteresses in heaven.” I had already started to guess that religion, relationships and politics were all somehow related but that day was a kick in the teeth.
Grandma would cry often. It felt like every week my brothers and I would see her in tears at least once. Maybe one of us had broken a dish, maybe we’d tracked dirt onto her clean carpet, maybe we had been too loud or obnoxious or rude. Whatever it was, she would start by raising her voice, which would soon escalate to yelling and then suddenly she was weeping. ‘You boys’ were often attributed to her unhappiness but there were other times were we would find her crying, perhaps standing alone in her kitchen or in her bedroom, with no apparent cause. It always made us uncomfortable but because we were raised to be sensitive and respectful children, ‘Crying Grandmother’ would win every battle. It was the ultimate trump card. No matter how bad we might behave, if Grandma cried we would surrender.
Because Grandma believed she needed to be ready for guests at a moment’s notice, she was often displeased with the general state of affairs: She hadn’t made enough food; She was unprepared for the new guests; The house was dirty; The outside grounds were ugly. Once she got on a roll, she would expand her criticism: The family didn’t visit enough; ‘The boys’ were not behaving; Young people in general were disgusting; Modern entertainment was evil; The world was falling apart.
Of all topics of criticism, she was hardest on herself. She complained about her hair, her weight, her wrinkles, her inactivity. She was too tired. She didn’t work hard enough. She had too many projects. She never finished anything. At her core, no matter what she did, Grandma seemed to have difficulty accepting that she was good enough.
But, no matter what she might be feeling, she still woke up every morning and fought as hard as she could. She made the bed, straightened her room, fixed her hair, chose a nice outfit and headed to the kitchen to prepare food for the family. She organized the weekly menu, paid the bills, watered the plants and bought groceries. She called family and friends every day and wrote letters often. She cooked three meals a day for her husband. She bought gifts for her children and grandchildren, in-laws and friends. She read inspiring books. She set aside money for charity. She taught church school classes. She sang in the choir. And at night she would pray and be hopeful.
Grandma was a difficult woman for me to interact with. Our relationship was never easy. A good example was her dissatisfaction with my grooming habits – especially my hair. My hairstyle was a constant source of irritation for her. It was either too long, too short, too modern or too strange. When I started to grow facial hair, she would always say she missed “the nice face you have hidden under all that beard.”
Whatever I did, it never seemed to be enough to please her. I never married while she was alive and although she never mentioned it directly, she knew I had various girlfriends and assumed (correctly) that I was having sex. The proper thing for a young man to do was to find a wife and settle down and why didn’t I just do that? She disliked that I worked several different jobs but did not have a respectable career. “You’re a smart young man,” she’d say. “You can go to college and get a good living. Why don’t you get a good job rather than being a ______? (waiter, salesman, caregiver, massage therapist, etc.)”
Grandma was a product of a strict conservative upbringing. She believed that everyone had certain roles they should follow and it was a constant struggle for her to try and fit people into those roles. Yet it was her duty to help the world become a better place and so she refused to give up on improving those around her, even if those people had no desire to improve.
After many years of living in that kind of narrow thinking, I rebelled and went out to find my own way. Grandma never truly accepted my decision. She wanted what she felt was best for me – and what was best was for me to follow the rules of the church, of polite society and of the family proper. Making waves was never a good idea. Not only was it rude to flaunt conventions, it reflected poorly on the family, it damaged my prospects for good social standing and ultimately could send me to eternal damnation (God was, obviously, an upper middle class Republican).
For a long time I expected her to be the ideal grandmother I felt I deserved, while she expected me to be the ideal grandson she saw in her mind. I needed her to be more accepting and open-minded; She needed me to be more responsible and live up to my potential. I wanted her to stop being so fussy; She wanted me to be more manly. Fundamentally, we both wanted the other person to be something better than what we actually were.
Thankfully, we were both stubborn. We never gave up on each other. As time went on, Grandma began to accept that even if I wasn’t a picture-perfect grandson, I did love her. After Grandpa died, I visited her in her convalescent home. I brought her flowers. I talked to her and sang songs with her. I spent hours poring over old photos with her. I took her on drives through the orange groves.
In exchange, she started opening up to me. She talked more freely about her insecurities. She listened to my stories about my various psychotic girlfriends. We found we had a mutual interest in people watching and would laugh about the bizarre outfits and fashion trends of the day. We would find a good bench, watch the weirdos and eat ice cream. Well into her nineties, Grandma still had a good appetite for sweets.
Over the years, she and I both began to change. I started enjoying her company more and she began to tell me she wanted me to return.
“Jay,” she’d say, “you come back soon and see your grandmother. Just make sure to cut your beard first.”
“I definitely won’t,” I would promise. Then we would laugh and hug and I would leave.
I won’t ever see her again. For many years I didn’t want to see her. Now that she’s gone, I wish that I could. I will miss her. She was my grandmother. No one will ever be able to take her place.
Rest in peace Grandma. You are loved.