My grandmother is, hands down, one of the coolest people I know. She dealt blackjack on a riverboat on the Mississippi. She raised seven kids by herself, serving dinner night after night on a table she made out of a door nailed to some old posts. And when she could finally afford it, she fulfilled a lifelong dream by picking me up in a beautiful shiny convertible, where we ditched whatever we were supposed to be doing so we could drive to the beach with the top down and the wind whipping our hair everywhere. “I DESERVE THIS!” she yelled, to no one in particular. She got me in big trouble when, after a trip to Grandma’s, I proudly proclaimed that I was the best at “between the sheets,” which not only is a Midwestern colloquialism for a type of poker game, but also a sexual euphemism which sailed over my head at the age of seven. Also, I’m pretty sure she let me win.
She also lives far away. I pretty much only see her at weddings, which are simultaneously beautiful and joyous celebrations of love and commitment, and also places where you will eat a fish dinner surrounded by people with eerily similar eyes and bone structure, most of whom you have only a vague understanding of who they are and where they live and what their spouses’ names are again. So being able to latch onto my grandmother at big family events is a blessing. I’m usually on pretty firm ground about who she is, where she lives, and whom she’s married to nowadays.
I hadn’t seen her since my mother’s second wedding two years ago, in which my grandmother looked beautiful in a big blue church-lady hat and dutifully sat through all ninety-endless hours of a Latin Catholic mass. We sipped vodka tonics at the reception as a jazz trio played slowly in the background, and my grandmother stared across a sea of well-wishing, good, honest, respectable, upstanding citizens. Her eyes got teary as she beheld her eldest daughter, in a modest off-white wedding dress, the perfect image of Emily Post-mannered propriety. “Oh, Katherine,” she said, as she pointed towards my mother, her voice cracking slightly with emotion, “now there goes a woman who could really benefit from just saying the word ‘fuck’ every now and again.”
That’s my grandma.
She’s getting older. She’s slowing down. It’s strange to see, as she’s one of those people whose default mode is perpetual motion whirlwind action. She’s like me – obsessively passionate about an idea, a project, a career – until the day arrives when suddenly it’s less exciting than it used to be, and it’s on to the next thing. She’s been working as a proofreader at a small local newspaper in Illinois, where her top headlines tend to be “Voters Take Part in Municipal Elections” or “Ghost Hog of Route 16 Haunts Rural Carlinville.” She edited her first e-book this week for what would have been a two hundred dollar fee, had she not decided to work pro bono once she realized that the book was a poorly written ripoff of Fifty Shades of Grey and authored by the daughter of a friend. (“I figure, here’s the deal: I won’t charge you to delete all those extra exclamation points and I’ll come up with some better words to describe the leading man’s, uh, personal body areas …. and you just promise never to introduce me to your husband at a dinner party. I think that’s more than fair.”)
She arrived at my cousin’s wedding this weekend swollen from steroids, drugs pumping through her bloodstream, her hair newly restyled to cover the patches that have been cut away so doctors could scrape malignant melanomas from her scalp. She got up and spoke beautifully and simply, in front of a packed church of well-wishing people, about how important and how beautiful and how difficult marriage can be, about the deep and unconditional love that is needed to make a marriage work. She looked tired. I held my breath. That was new. I had literally never seen my grandmother look tired before.
At the reception, I held her hand and stood with her in the line for the bar. I asked how she was feeling. It’s so tempting to put on your sympathy face early, to be sad in preparation for hearing bad news. How are you feeling is really just a form of saying I am so sad because I know you are not well, and getting old and sick is terrifying, and I don’t know what else to say. Why can’t we just say that to one another? “The doctors say I can celebrate a little tonight. Just one glass of ‘something special.'” She paused for a moment, and looked at the bar.
“I’m gonna need a bigger glass.”
That’s my grandma.
I don’t want to think of her as tired, or sick. So I won’t. I want to think of her as laughing like a lunatic with the top off that convertible, driving into the sunset. I’m writing this to remind myself to call her more often. To write her more often. To talk to her more often. Before she gets too tired, or too sick, to feel like herself.
At the end of the night, the wedding had gotten to that delicious stage where everyone was drunk and the music was loud and no one cared anymore. My cousin’s expensive updo had fallen and the shoes had come off and the train of her beaded ivory dress swung around the floor, as generations of cousins and relatives sweated and shouted and clapped and got down. And while we danced in that one big circle of love, my grandmother sat in a chair across the room, staring at the family she had created, a slow smile on her face as she saw her children’s children tearing it up, yelling out lyrics and pumping our fists to the thumping beat of Ke$ha. “Do you know when the virgins will be arriving?” she asked the guest seated next to her. “The kids seem like they’re having fun and all, but it sure does sound like we’re about to sacrifice a virgin in here any second now, and I’m not sure if that’s my kind of party.”
That’s my grandma.
Happy Mother’s Day.