Growing up on the East Coast, grubette and I would spend a couple weeks every summer at our grandparents’ house in California.
Most of the time we were sent there to get out of our parents’ way so they could have some alone time.
One visit, we left our father to care for our beloved hamster Sam who had outlasted all the other hamsters. My father was succinct and straight to the point in his letter to us about how Sam was doing: “Dear kids, Sam’s dead.” No beating around the bush there.
Another visit, we arrived home only to find that the house was sold and all our stuff was packed up in boxes, ready to move into a new house.
Though we weren’t military brats, we moved around quite a bit in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
The one stable place was Grandma’s house.
Like a typical o’er the river and through the woods house way away in the magical California desert where the tumbleweeds roamed free, it was in a small neighborhood that contained a Foster’s Freeze with a seemingly endless supply of free ice cream cones.
We spent more time outdoors in those two weeks than the entire year on the East Coast. Most was spent at cousins’ houses, getting sunburned at pools (and peeling off the dead skin), drinking generic grape and orange soda, playing hide-n-seek, riding bikes, and then crashing back at Grandma’s house watching uncut R-rated movies on HBO. The magical land of California had cable, and back home we were still adjusting rabbit ears.
Of Grandma’s three daughters, my mother was oldest by a number of years, and the other two – my aunts – still lived in the house and put up with us loud, snot-nosed kids over part of their summer vacation.
They showed us around town, playing miniature golf with the new boyfriend of the week, seeing a movie (I remember becoming uncomfortably aroused at Brooke Shields’ body double while watching The Blue Lagoon sitting next to my soon-to-be-uncle), eating pizza, buying us comic books, rollerskating (before rollerblading), eating all-you-can-eat salad buffets, and general horsing around (gambling had not yet entered our vocabulary).
One aunt called us “the horrible ‘orribles.”
Whenever we’d return to D.C., I remember crying myself to sleep, missing the relatives in California and all our tan misadventures.
In D.C., we had no family outside the four of us. In California, we had nothing but family.
I remember Grandma would be in the kitchen cooking or in the bedroom napping or in the sewing room that was a separate part of the house for some reason.
And boy howdy could that woman sew up a storm. During the day she worked at a department store, and we’d go on a spree, picking up clothes at a heavy discount, then Grandma would spend all night hemming (not hawing) on her Singer sewing machine based on the pins she stuck in our cuffs. She had a brief business buying old silk kimonos, cutting them up, and fashioning the material into new dresses for sale.
I remember her always sucking on some hard candy and feeding us See’s Candies like they were pills that were good for us (I liked the nuts and chews). To this day, I can always expect a box of See’s Candies under the Christmas tree.
I remember her huge mane of respectable gray and white hair, that had me wanting to spray my hair in tufts of white to mimic hers.
In Grandma’s house is where I wrote my first short story, typed up on an old manual typewriter with no white-out key. I imagined I could spy on the neighbors’ young daughter as she changed clothes, and wrote a Rear Window scenario (albeit with lots of blood and gore) before I’d ever heard of Hitchcock. After Christmas that year, I included Xeroxed copies of that story along with my thank-you notes. My first taste of rejection was not hearing back from any of the relatives about my perverted little story.
Christmases then were spent in California, and after Christmas dinner, the jewelry box would come out. Not wanting any part of this, the boys (me and my grandfather) would be in the living room watching war movies. All the girls would sit at the kitchen table in anticipation as Grandma fetched her prize jewelry box from a hidden location only she knew.
The girls would take turns trying on rings, necklaces, pendants, and earrings, laying claim to this or that, not realizing the implication was she’d get it when Grandma was no longer around. Grandma knew which bauble belonged to which daughter or granddaughter (at the time, grubette was the only granddaughter), and based on how she was treated during the year, she would change ownerships as many times as an old Ford.
Grandma treated her jewelry box like Santa treated his naughty-or-nice list.
In her heyday, Grandma was a force of a woman, going through an early and controversial divorce, possibly being pregnant before marriage, bringing up my mother practically on her own, then remarrying and having more kids. She never learned how to drive because she was too busy.
When I think of the house, I think of my grandmother, I think of the smell, I think of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, I think of the desk where my grandfather would write out Christmas cards, insert a $20 bill, and sign his full name, as if we didn’t know who he was.
My grandmother died this morning.
No beating around the bush, just like Sam the hamster.
She’d been sick and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple weeks ago. I had a flight booked this weekend to see her before things took a turn for the worse, but that turn came sooner than expected.
She’d complained of gallstones and was put on maybe too much morphine, because it had knocked her out for four days and they didn’t know when she’d awake.
Since her stroke a few years ago, she’d adopted a walker with the tennis balls for the rubber feet. She walked like Tim Conway as the old man on the Carol Burnett show, she had selected hearing when she selected when to wear her hearing aids, and she lost so much weight she was wearing her grandkids’ clothing.
But I prefer to think of her walking that department store as if she owned it, being greeted warmly by her fellow salespeople, and following that big gray mane of hair.
Rest in peace, Grandma.