My grandmother Irene wasn’t an elegant woman. I often remember her sitting at the small oak table in her dining room enjoying a cup of coffee while more than one cigarette at a time burned in her ash tray. At her side there was always an unfinished crossword puzzle, routinely tucked inside of one of the hundreds of books she read over her lifetime – always hardback and rarely less than 500 pages. She drove a truck for the better part of my childhood, a small white Ford truck. I never heard the story of why she chose to drive a truck, but she did, and that was okay by me, especially since she would take me and my younger sister on rides around the neighborhood. We were always allowed to sit in the bed of the truck but never on the wheel cover. That was far too dangerous, according to Irene.
Every Sunday Mama would take us to Grandma’s house after church for Sunday lunch. After lunch we’d sit around the table while the adults played Scrabble. I always loved going to Grandma’s house. She was a particularly tidy woman and everything in her home had a place. When I would get bored waiting for Sunday Scrabble to wrap up, I would sometimes find myself in her bathroom, snooping, amazed by the amount of self-care products she had organized so neatly in the bathroom’s linen closet. Countless times I cleaned my face with her bottle of witch hazel, peeked inside her denture cup to see if she was wearing her teeth, used her Q-tips to clean my ears, or tucked one of the 150 extra toothbrushes she kept below her sink inside my pocket. I loved taking the cap off of her drugstore perfume and taking a whiff or rolling her lipstick out of the tube to see if the shape of the stick was the same as it had been the last time I checked. Lipstick was the only makeup she ever wore. Occasionally I would find myself in her study, sitting at the large, executive style desk that was butted against the wall. My favorite fixture on her desk was a small wooden stand that held four equally small flags – one South Carolina, one Rhode Island, one American, and one Portuguese.
Grandma was a Portuguese-American but Rhode Island was her home for most of her young life. She didn’t leave the Northeast until after she married a Sailor from Georgia. They made their home just outside of Atlanta until business brought them and their young family to South Carolina. That’s where, together, they would raise their family until their divorce several years later. Although she’d married a man from the south and lived here more than 50 years, she never lost her thick New England accent. In fact, she passed much of it along to her grandchildren and great grandchildren. My daughter’s first word was “cah” instead of “car,” thanks to Irene. The only time you would hear my Grandma without her Yankee accent was when she was mad. Piss her off enough and the Portuguese came out, probably because she was cursing and didn’t want us children to know.
Grandma was proud of her Portuguese heritage but not more than she was proud to be an American. Her favorite holiday was July 4th and she never shied away from wearing clothing inspired by Old Glory. She was a stars and stripes, a red, white, and blue, kind of woman. She loved this country and all that it stood for. In fact, she was more proud to be an American that most Americans that I know.
As much as Grandma loved America, she loved nothing more than an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not because she was an avid eater or anything, but because she could eat for an entire week for around $7.99. She was known for taking a box of Zip-lock bags to the buffet and loading them with bread and roast beef and turkey from the buffet’s carving station. She’d make sandwiches for the week’s lunches. Grandma also loved Christmas, IHop, Hamirck’s, the ocean, board games, brandy and Wal-Mart. She hated Madonna (Grandma called her a pig), Rosie O’Donnell, her gas tank not being full, throwing things away and being late. She always made her hair appointments 6 months at a time, she saved every single piece of paper ever sent to her by her bank, and she collected light houses – they reminded her of home.
My Grandma was my rock. After Mama and Daddy’s divorce in ’85, she was a semi-permanent fixture in our household. She drove me and my sister to school each morning and picked us up in the afternoons. She drove us to dance lessons while Mama worked and we’d often find ourselves at her dinner table when groceries were running low at home. When Mama made me mad, it was Grandma that I called. Most of the time she took my side; or at least that is what she made me believe. I was her first grandchild and she loved me like grandparents love their first grandchild. We shared a special connection. Our unique bond was one that we never talked about, but we both knew it was there. She understood me during a time in my life when I was widely misunderstood. She protected me.
I can remember being no more than 6 or 7 years old and lying in bed at night, saying my prayers. I always began with “Now I lay me down to sleep” and ended with “God, bless Mama, my sister, Daddy, Grandma,” and I would make my way down the family tree. But before I said amen, I would remind God just how very much I loved my Grandma and then each night I would ask him to prepare me for the day that she would no longer be in my life. “I know she will die one day, God, but please give me a warning first,” I prayed. I remember thinking that I just couldn’t bare life if one day I woke up and she was gone forever, without warning. I probably prayed this prayer well into my teenage years not really ever believing that God would warn me before my Grandma’s days came to an end. But He did.
It was May, 2003 when Mama called me at work, mid –afternoon. She had been to the doctor with Grandma that morning and the news wasn’t good. It was cancer. Although she’d stopped smoking nearly 20 years before, her lungs were filled with cancer and it had spread. Her brain and liver were also affected. With chemo she might make it 6 months, the doctors said. Without it, she would last weeks, maybe. I was sitting in my office when Mama broke the news to me. In that moment, even as ominous as the news was, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of peace come over me. And then I got the “warning” I prayed so hard for as a child. “She’ll die on Thanksgiving,” I told Mama. God answered my prayers. He told me how much time she had; how much time I had.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Grandma had gone through several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and eventually stopped taking any treatment at all. She’d gone from walking slowly, to using a wheel chair, to being confined to a hospital bed which had replaced the double bed in her bedroom. She was on oxygen and slept most of the time, only opening her eyes occasionally to gaze at the lights on the 4 foot tall Christmas tree Mama had set up in the corner of her bedroom a month earlier. We wanted her to enjoy one last tree since we knew she wouldn’t make it until Christmas.
On Thanksgiving Day, Mama cooked in Grandma’s kitchen, Grandma in her hospital bed. She hadn’t opened her eyes in days. It was a small dinner, the smallest we’d had in years. It just wasn’t the same without Grandma at the table. After dinner we loaded the fridge with leftovers, washed dishes, tidied the kitchen, then, as a family, gathered at Grandma’s bedside. We knew she could hear us, so we talked to her. We wished her a happy Thanksgiving, told her we loved her, leaned down and kissed her forehead, held her hand. Her only great grandchild, The Kid, was 3 at the time. The Kid climbed on the hospital bed, cuddled next to Grandma and with a quick kiss, uttered the last words she would ever say to her, “I love you Gamma.” The Kid climbed off the bed and left the bedroom. As soon as she rounded the threshold, Grandma took her final breath – on Thanksgiving Day, just as God promised.
November 27 will be 10 years since my Grandmother left this world but it’s not the day of her death that I choose to celebrate her. It’s today, what would have been her 85th birthday day. Today is the day that I choose to celebrate the most influential woman in my life. She is the woman I counted school buses with on the way to morning kindergarten. She is the woman who let me eat cheese right out of the Tupperware container that she kept inside her fridge. She is the woman who would serenade me with “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder” and “Yankee Doodle.” She is the woman who gave me speeding tickets for riding my tricycle into her kitchen cabinets and the woman who always let me use her Avon bubble bath when I would bathe at her house. She is the woman who would roll down her window at red lights and ask the driver in the next lane if he had any Grey Poupon. And she is the woman who would threaten me within an inch of my life if I left fingerprints on her storm door. My Grandmother was stern yet gentle. She was sharp and funny. She was impatient and soldierly. She was perfect.
So today, Grandma, I celebrate you. I celebrate the joy you brought into my life and the mark you left on this world. I celebrate your Air Force songs and every moment you intentionally set out to embarrass me. I celebrate your love of the sea, your knack for scheduling hair appointments, and the 40 year’s worth bank statements and cancelled checks we found in shoe boxes in your closet after you died. (It took us weeks to shred all of that, by the way). Today, I celebrate rides in the back of your little white truck, your Yankee accent, your Portuguese curse words, your penchant for drug store perfume, and your love of all things red, white, and blue. And tonight, while you are watching the flare of the early fireworks from up above, do me a favor and remind God of one thing. Remind him once more just how very much I love my Grandma and tell him how thankful I am that he gave me until Thanksgiving.
Happy Birthday, Grandma.
I love you.