My grandmother died last month and I still feel unmoored. I know that at my age I am lucky to have any grandparents left (I am now down to my other grandmother), lucky to have had so much time with them. This is a blessing my children won’t have since I waited so long to become a mother. I know death is inevitable. And I know what pancreatic cancer does to the body. I know all of this and yet this loss has pierced me in a way I didn’t think possible.
Grandma wasn’t my biological grandmother. She was Grandpa’s fourth wife and the second “grandmother” I had known on that side (I have only fuzzy memories of the earlier one and she was also a stepmother to my dad. His mother died long before I entered the scene). I can remember sending cards and letters to them addressed to “Grandpa and Yvonne”. Her replies were signed from “John and Grandma”. Message received. She didn’t become my Grandma, though, because of marriage or because she told me that’s how it would be. She earned it.
I have given a lot of thought to her qualities as a woman and a grandmother lately. I went to see her shortly before she passed and my cousin several times stated, “She wasn’t the best grandma, but” as a prelude to comments about hard it will be live in a Grandma-less world. Neither of my grandmothers is my biological grandmother and neither is without their complete set of baggage. So, I don’t really know what the “best grandma” is or should be. But, I’d argue that mine should win an award for the best dysfunctional grandma (not that her dysfunction is the best, rather she functions best despite the dysfunction).
My grandma drank. A lot. Too much. So much so that she endured rehab as a senior citizen. It didn’t stick. This is not that surprising considering some of my earliest memories of her are her discussions of how to make a proper Bloody Mary, which was really the only acceptable form of drinking before noon, save for the Red Eye. I remember Grandma standing behind the open island area of her kitchen mixing copious amounts of cheap vodka with just enough bottled mix to color the drink and provide a scant amount of vitamin C. This was her and Grandpa’s wake-up beverage of choice. I was too high on sugary cereal my mother never would have let me eat at home to really question the situation. She would take a swig of the Bloody Mary and I would take one of the colored sugary milk left in my bowl. And so we greeted the day together.
She also smoked, like many women of her generation. Despite not being alarmed about Bloody Marys for breakfast, her smoking scared me. I hid her lighter in one of her potted plants and flushed her cigarettes down the toilet. That was the only time I can recall her being angry with me. She reminded me a bit of the smoking grandmother in Sixteen Candles, only my grandma was all heart and less hands.
Reportedly she said unkind things when drinking. I cannot recall a single instance when she did this to me. What I hear is her caramel, fuzzy voice on the other end of the line saying, “Oh, I love you, honey.” And she did. And that love just might have saved me.
My other grandmother is the one you think of when you think “Grandma”. She taught me to bake pies at an early age, she taught me to cross-stitch, and she handmade my Christmas stocking. She also let me eat sugary cereal, but she made me go to church, too. I loved her deeply. She made me feel connected when we were uprooting and moving every couple of years. But, she lost her daughter at an incredibly young age and she kept me at arm’s length. I called her by her first name; still do. And when I became a teenager, the age when her daughter died, she backed away completely, leaving me completely bereft.
I think that’s when I really opened my heart to Grandma. She stepped in and provided me with all the love I wanted from a grandmother and more. She didn’t do the traditional kind of grandmother things like my other one, but none of that mattered. She was there for my 21st birthday, for my college graduation, my law school graduation, and was the only one of my husband’s and my grandparents (so far) to meet both of our kids. She never once got off the phone without telling me she loved me, that she was proud of me, and that my grandfather would have been so proud of me, too (he forbade me to become an attorney, so it’s nice to know she thought he could get past that).
Yes, she drank a lot. Yes, she often gave more of herself to my cousins who lived nearby and that hurt. And, yes, she never trained her dog to pee outside. But, she lived her life heart first, kind of like me, and she showed me just how much a person has to offer if you’ll only let them. I miss her every day and I think the reality that she’s not a phone call away has finally sunk in. It’s a lonelier world without her. But, I know that every time I drink a Bloody Mary, we’ll be together again. Sort of like the drinking version of “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets [her] wings.”