Monday, October 23, 2006

Just Grand

Grandparents--if you've got them, call them and tell them I love them. That you love them too, if you want, I don't care.

I no longer have any grandparents to slip me a Vicks or worry when they hear about crime in the greater metropolitan area. I started off my life with three, which is already one less than the standard issue. My paternal grandfather died when my dad was fourteen, so I never met him. Which is a shame because he had a weird middle name (Quintano) and lived through Pearl Harbor, which is something I would’ve liked to hear about.

My other grandfather, Andrew, checked out when I was in fourth grade. This feels like a very long time, and, counting up the years since, I guess it is. What I remember most about him now was that he was extremely tall and sounded sort of like Archie Bunker when he talked. Both perceptions may be somewhat skewed. I was approximately four foot nothing when he died, making everyone extremely tall, and cumulatively over the years I’ve probably spent more time with Carroll O’Conner than I did with my grandfather.

This left me with two grandmothers, Katharine and Maria, and I was named after both of them. They couldn’t have been less alike if one was a dude. Katharine was a hellion in a pink pantsuit, passing judgment loudly whether sitting in her dining room or at the Ground Round. Her moods were a sine curve. Her repertoire ranged from depressed martyr to bubbly “Golden Girls” enthusiast. She taught me how to play Pick-Up Sticks and that game with the dots where you have to make squares, but also once told me she knew I wanted her to die (actually, I can’t remember whether she said “die” or “suffer”) because I wouldn’t give her an aspirin.

That last episode came after she had a stroke and was living in our house. My parents were out for the evening and I wasn’t supposed to give her any medicine outside the bunch of pills she was already taking. After almost a year of increasing dementia, she got a spot in this incredible nursing home in an old Victorian mansion, where she lived out her days crying and her nights screaming. This is depressing, but at least it only lasted a few months.

Maria looked like a Norfin® Troll and complained about nothing. She smiled constantly, and mostly without her dentures. She bought us presents we didn’t want and had a one-bedroom apartment with no less than four candy dishes. She died while I was in college. I swore off eating root beer barrels. I think I’ve mostly kept true to my word; I remember putting one in my mouth, but spitting it out.

Maria had an eerily accurate sixth sense. She could pick winning lottery numbers but never bought a ticket. She made bland Italian food in abundance, into which my brothers and I would spoon overflowing mounds of salt and romano cheese when her back was turned. She had a big TV and she used worked in a factory that manufactured aerosol valves. Mainly, I took her for granted.

After my grandfather died, going out with “the grandmas” became a day to simultaneously anticipate and dread. I mostly lumped them together into one irritable, generous, slow, moody person with indigestion, and I regret not distinguishing their characteristics while they were still alive. Katharine was the one most likely to inspect my crooked teeth in the middle of a community production of Nunsense. Maria was the one who might describe the progress of the “bubble” in her esophagus until she belched. Katharine was secretly sad. Maria was heartbreakingly content. Both were fascinating in ways I didn’t notice until recently, which is just fucking great now that it’s too late to do a goddamn thing about it.

Anyway, the reason I’m even thinking about my dead grandparents is that the other day, walking down Prospect Avenue, I passed an apartment building that smelled exactly like Maria’s. It’s a smell particular to any building where old Italians live, and the only way I can describe it to list its likely ingredients: frying meatballs, coffee, tomatoes, oregano, and something sweet like pound cake. I wasn’t expecting to hit a cloud of it and when I did, it choked me up.

Then a little further down the block I passed a six or seven year old kid walking with his grandpa. The grandfather was sort of an eccentric guy with a big beard and a real live parrot on his shoulder, but the combined effect made him seem like a children’s show host, not a weird homeless guy. The duo was trucking along the like Prospect Avenue is some big adventure.

This is the point at which I cried, but not because I was so touched, or anything. I cried because I’m selfish and I was jealous. I want grandparents again. I also cried because I’m guilty of not thinking enough of them when they were alive. Most of the time I remember what they were like, what Katharine’s stuffing and Maria’s chicken soup tasted like (sausage and hot water, respectively), but stop short of remembering how many times I rolled my eyes behind their backs, or how much I looked forward to the twenty bucks they might slip me on Easter. I wish they could’ve stuck around to know me post-adolescence, which is what I’ve chosen to blame for appreciating them less than I should have. It may not be the whole truth, but otherwise I’d cry whenever I saw anyone over the age of seventy.

When you call your grandparents to tell them I love them, also tell them I’m sorry for being a fourteen-year-old jerk. You can get in on the apology too, if you like. Whatever.

4 Comments:

Anonymous NomDePlume said...

Exquisite entry, you made me laugh and cry. I only have one grandparent left, my grammy meatball, she's one of my closest friends and completely fascinating. I'm so fortunate to still have her with me at my age (32). The smell! Add a splash of Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps and that IS my grammies house. I'll be sure to tell her you love her and I'll apologize for both of our 14 year old selves, I was a nightmare at that age. Again, beautiful entry, I loved it!

8:02 PM  
Anonymous nicole said...

omg, i love this entry too. the other day when it was really fall -orange and red and yellow fall, that smelled like leaves and fire and dirt - i was walking my dog in the park, grace was at school, and i teared up thinking about how much my grandma would have loved gracie and how wonderful it would have been for her to meet her first great grandchild.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous anonymous mom said...

awesome post kathy.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous anonymous mom said...

what am i saying, i love all of your posts. my word verification is "wmrboy". at first glance i thought it was weiner boy.

3:27 PM  

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