Before my grandfather died thirty-ish years ago, he told my grandmother that when she died, he would meet her in the nebula of Orion and would take her the rest of the way to Heaven from there. Two nights ago, he did just that. Surrounded by four of her children, with the fifth on the phone, my Oldie died and flew to the stars.
I know it was coming. I know it was time. I know she was so curious to “see what was on the other side.” I know she was tired. Tired of living, tired of dying, tired of missing her husband. I know it’s a blessing for her, for all of us, especially for my mother, who took such brilliant, loving, quotidian care of her. I just wish the steadfast logic of my beloved grandmother’s death being a good thing had any effect at all at on the wellspring of sadness that has dampened my heart and my cheeks.
Grief is a harsh task masker. It will not be ignored. You try to turn your back on grief and it will rise up, gather strength, and knock you on your ass whenever it goddamn feels like it. The only tool we have against grief is to surrender to it, feel it in its entirety, deflate it from the inside. And so, as I mourn my heavy loss, I am taking out my memories, thumbing their well worn, dog-eared pages, and remembering some of the lessons my Oldie taught me.
You don’t have to deal with something you hate. Get rid of it. Oldie was staying with me while my folks were out of town the day I brought home my 4th grade school pictures. I was terribly upset. I had a mouth full of metal, a face full of pimples and (O! The horror!) my hair was parted down the middle! She tried to console me, told me it wasn’t that bad, that braces were fixing my teeth, that my skin wouldn’t always be turbulent, who the hell cared where my hair was parted. None of it worked. So she pulled out a pot, filled it with water, took out all the spices and said, “Boil ’em up.” We spent a half hour, the two of us, adding a pinch of oregano, a soupçon of gravy master until the offending image was gone and all that was left was a blank page.
She taught me that when faced with something abhorrent, try a different perspective. But if that didn’t work, then get rid of the damn thing.
They’re just boobies. When I was about twelve years old, Oldie was again filling in for my folks. I had a nasty chest cold. Oldie tucked me into bed, grabbed the Vicks Vapo-Rub and sat down beside me, waiting for me to lift my nightie so she could apply it. I hesitated, embarrassed to expose myself to my grandmother. She said, “Come on, they’re just boobies. I’ve seen ’em.” Somehow, her brusqueness broke through to me in a way that sympathetic understanding might not have.
She taught me that sometimes we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to receive the comfort we crave.
The magic words. I was in my early twenties when my grandmother called me over to her house to help her unstick a drawer. I thought it was cute that my “poor old widowed grandmother” (as she like to call herself when she wanted me to do something for her) couldn’t get a drawer open and I felt kinda puffed up that I would be able to come to her rescue with little effort. Well, forty-five minutes later, you think I had made any progress? Yeah, no.
Me: Oldie, I can’t get the thing open, either!
Oldie: Did you say the magic words? You can’t give up until you’ve tried the magic words.
Me: What, abracadabra? Open sesame?
Oldie: No. [Smirk.] Shit, shit, SHIT!
She taught me that I really do come from a long line of potty mouths, and that spicy language is sometimes the best way to get your point across.
You have to have a sense of humor about aging. I used to call my grandmother “Grandma.” All of my younger cousins do. But on her 75th birthday, I teased that she looked fantastic for two hundred years old. She stuck out her tongue, thumbed her nose at me and said, “Smart ass.” The spark in her eye and the wink in her tone told me we had just found a game that was gonna last for the rest of her life. I started calling her “Oldie.” She started signing cards and letters that way, too. But just to me. When my younger cousin once snidely called her Oldie, she snapped, “Don’t you dare. Only your cousin can call me that.” I think she trusted that there was not an ounce of disrespect in my nickname for her. Just the teasing love of a granddaughter who adored her.
Every Thanksgiving was the Old Folks’ Home test. As long as she could make the gravy, she didn’t have to go in the home. She always muttered about smart-mouth kids, but every single year, she called me to the stove for the taste test. When she got the thumbs up she’d declare, “Stick that in your Old Folks’ Home!”
As she got older, her standard answer for “How you doin’, Oldie?” was “Not bad for an old dame.” And she often said even when the chips are down, “You gotta keep on living. Otherwise, they stick you in a hole a throw dirt in your face.” She even had a sense of humor about her memory loss. Toward the end, many a conversation happened like this:
Me: “I told you yesterday, remember?”
Oldie: “Oh, well, I have a very fine Forgettery, you know. I must have put it there.”
She taught me that to fear or even lament aging is ridiculous. It’s gonna happen, there’s no way around it. Embrace it. Surrender to it. Laugh at it. That’s the thing about life: Nobody makes it out alive. Life is better when you don’t rage against the inevitable.
There’s nothing like a dirty joke. Oh, how my Oldie loved a dirty joke. Not filthy, but dirty. There’s a fine line, but I knew where it was and I could tickle her funny bone with any one of a hundred I had collected over the years, knowing she would love them. As she started to get dotty, I would just stick to the four or five that made her laugh the hardest, because every time I saw her, they’d be new to her. (Thanks, Forgettery!)
For the longest time, I never wore no underwear. Drove my boyfriend Ernie nuts! One day I got a cold and headed to the doctor. Unbeknownst to me, Ernie called the doctor and told him, “Doc! Tell Soph that the reason she’s sick is because she don’t wear no underwear.” So I get to the doctor’s office. He looks down my throat and says, “Soph! You ain’t wearin’ no underwear!” I says to him, “Doc! You can look down my throat and see I ain’t wearin’ no underwear?? Do me a favor. Look up my ass and tell me if my hat’s on straight!”
She taught me that old people are just old young people. And they love to laugh.
In the end, it’s just going home. After many years, Oldie started wearing her wedding rings again. She’d taken them off when Grandpa died declaring, in her classic unsentimental way, “I’m not married anymore. I promised til death do us part.” When I asked her why the about-face, she said that Grandpa had visited her in a dream and said, “What’s the matter, Dearie? You don’t want to be married to me anymore?” She was excited to see him again, to be with him and with her God. Her strong Catholic faith and a sixty-five year old love for her husband, whom she knew was waiting for her, alleviated any fear about dying. She knew where she was going and was eager to get there.
I am honored to have known her, to have loved and been loved by her, to have teased and been teased by her. She will live on in my heart, in my memory, and in the scintilla of my favorite constellation.
Here’s to you, Oldie! Orion shines brighter for having known you. And so do I.
This post is dedicated to the staff of St. Dominc’s Village in Houston, TX. They treated my grandmother with the kindness, dignity, and respect she deserved. They gave my mother endless comfort and worked tirelessly to help her maintain my grandmother’s finances and care.
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ Matthew 25: 35-40