My grandmother, you see, is passing over into the other realm. I have just spent the weekend with her--a weekend where she was not once conscious--and it was very, very tough. She is in the phase which I am told is called "active dying," so she is very agitated, raking at the bedclothes and wearing an expression of acute pain or distress. She doesn't open her eyes.
My mom says that this morning she spoke. My mom was able to tell her she loved her, and my grandmother said she loved her too. I am glad they at least had this moment, as my grandmother has been rather disoriented in the last week and at one point was convinced my mom had tricked her. She became very fretful, saying she knew there must be a phone around here somewhere. My sister asked her who she wanted to call, and my grandma said she wanted to call my grandpa (who passed away 7 years ago). I'm not sure what she thought my mom had tricked her about, but it's funny that she was going to tell on her to my grandpa.
My mother was 19 when she had my sister, and 21 when she had me, and 22 when she took us and left my dad. My grandmother was 41 when she became a grandmother. When my mom left my dad, she moved in with my grandparents for a while. My mom was an only child, and my grandma had always wanted a houseful of kids. My mother likes to say that she had my grandma's other kids for her. All I know is that my grandma loved us to pieces and she was in constant motion, usually doing something for one of us. She would play leapfrog with us, and build snowmen with us, and when she wasn't doing that, she was cooking something obscenely delicious (and with the benefit of hindsight, ridiculously fattening).
In time we moved out to a series of apartments as my mom went back to college, but we were never more than 15 minutes away from my grandparents at any time. We were expected at their house every weekend, even after my mom remarried. My grandmother took early retirement in her 50s. If I got sick at school, it was Grandma who would come and get me and worry over me tenderly. My grandmother loved us all loudly and with great ferocity. She is not a tall woman (we are the same height, 5-feet and one-inch on a good day), but she has always been formidable. She expected a lot of us, but she expected a lot of herself--something I didn't recognize until I was well until adulthood.
My grandma, Muriel, grew up in a small town in a very segregated area of Virginia. She is a very fair-skinned black woman who could pass for white if that were the road she chose. In her small town, everyone knew her family and she was known to be "colored," so she had to sit in the back of the local bus and when in town, couldn't sit at the counter at the local diner or drink at particular water fountains. She met my grandpa while she was waiting tables at her cousin's restaurant during World War II. He was a very handsome light-skinned man on shore leave from the Navy. "I don't know what he saw in me," she has said on more than one occasion, but if you see pictures of her from this era, she is a beauty. She loved to laugh and loved to talk. His family were New Englanders and very reserved, so I can see how he would be captivated. I would imagine she was kind of sassy.
Because of her upbringing, I believe, my grandmother was very quick to take offense. This trait seemed to become a bit diluted over the years and I think she began to cultivate some patience and tolerance with people, but I was always amazed at how much she could read into a situation where I would not have come away with the same opinion. Her early experiences really colored (sorry, can't think of a better word) the lens through which she viewed the world for the rest of her life.
I never had any doubt that I was loved. My grandparents' house (which we always referred to as "Grandma's House") was a place of order and calm, of fun and laughter, and a veritable cocoon of love against the chaotic home we lived in. Every single time we would leave the back door to go home, whether bundled up against the snow or heading out into a muggy mosquito-laden, sun-baked driveway, my grandmother would squeeze each of us tight. "I love you, love you, love you," she'd crow, every syllable dripping with affection, and we would yell back in a cacophony of squeaky shrieks how much we loved her as we were hustled into the car.
Tonight I apologized to Viva for not being myself, for yelling, for not wanting to play. "I'm just very, very sad," I said. She put her arm around me. "I know, Mom," she said. "I know how you feel."