Tag Archives: aging

Happy Birthday, Gramma

Modern invention has banished the spinning wheel, and the same law of progress makes the woman of today a different woman from her grandmother. ~ Susan B. Anthony

My grandmother turned 99 this weekend.

Yes, that’s NINETY-NINE.

Here’s a fashion plate from the winter of 1913, when my Gramma was a bitty baby:

Fashion plate illustrating a dress by Jacques Doucet Title: “Le Soir Tombe” (from Wikipedia Commons)

She is a second-generation German American who grew up in a New York City tenement, and she retains the accent to this day.  She talks (too-ahks) a little like this fella:

She always told us that she dropped out of high school at sixteen because of the Great Depression, but we suspect that it just provided an excuse. She’s not an academic — smart as you’ll get, but not much for the book-learning.

She worked as a receptionist in various places, and if she earned $10 per week, she always sent $5 home to her mother. The rest provided lunch at automats, subway fare, and the occasional new dress.

Gramma always told us that she met my grandfather when he was working in a basement office, and she would walk by his window every day. She said that he fell in love with her legs, and that one day he went up to meet the rest of her. Later, she revealed that their meeting was much more prosaic — they worked together, and they would argue about the petty cash. It was true love.

New York City Midtown from Rockefeller Center, 1936. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They couldn’t get married right away, because for some mysterious reason his family thought she wasn’t good enough for their youngest son. Eventually they just went to City Hall and got married anyway, my Mehrmama and Mehrpapa be damned.

My grandfather was a successful entrepreneur, back when that really meant something — he had a coffee business, and made a whole lot of money selling coffee to big brands like Chock full o’Nuts. They went to swanky parties and rubbed elbows with swanky people. Gramma tells a story of going to a reception for General MacArthur, in which the ice sculpture of the Big Chief’s head was melting and dripped water from his formidable nose.

(From Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually they moved to New Jersey, to live the American dream in a big house in the country. They had two daughters, nine years apart. Why the gap? I don’t know. I suspect that there may have been some miscarriages, but nobody ever talks about that.

When my mother was ten, my aunt was nineteen, and my Gramma was fifty, my grandfather died. That was the year that Gramma’s hair turned white.

She has never for one minute stopped missing him.

He left her enough money that she never had to work, and she was able to send their two daughters to college. She wasn’t much for book-learning, except when it came to her daughters.

She complicated our family tree considerably when she married my grandfather’s nephew, who was actually a few years older than him. They had been like brothers, and my mother and aunt always called him Uncle. Gramma said he was her Husband Numero Two-oh. I was at the wedding, sort of — I provide a baby bump under my mother’s late 1970’s party dress.

By the time I came along, Gramma was already old, or at least I thought she was — she was sixty-six. My earliest memories of her are of a woman in her seventies, who looked fifteen years younger, with snowy white hair which was kept meticulously coiffed. She was a bit vain: she wore contact lenses, and before she left the house she would put on blush and lipstick, because otherwise she looked “like death warmed over”. She took great pride in not looking her age.

The universal old-lady haircut, as worn by the beautiful Betty White. (Photo by Alan Light)

After my parents split up, when I was four, Gramma took care of me and my brother several days a week. She would drive us in her horrible tan Oldsmobile to doctor appointments, dance classes, tae kwon do lessons. When I had an ear infection in first grade, she stayed home with me, putting my head in her lap (with a cloth under the infected ear to let it drain) and petting me until I slept. When I was older, and missed school because of my terrible menstrual cramps, she would arrive with a bottle of blackberry brandy and give it to me by the tablespoonful. It helped.

Like many older people, she had her own language. If I was getting ahead of myself, she’d tell me to “keep your shirt on”. If I was taking too long, I was “as slow as molasses”. If I didn’t want to eat something that she put in front of me, I “just don’t know what’s good”. She always said, “If it wasn’t for me, you kids would shrivel up and blow away.”

Her language gets crazier than that, though. Adulterated German words and phrases that have been passed down, almost unrecognizably German. I don’t have earlobes, they’re “ear loffels”. The little bits of meat that fall to the plate when you carve a pot roast? They’re “gribbas-grabbas”. Tiny bits of paper are “schnipples”. Babies in our family are regaled with rhymes that start, “Gehbten tallah, geh auf deh Mart” and “Hop so lang kein mush mir gesse”.

If I was messy, she’d call me a Stribblepadder. (From ‘Der Stuwwelpeter,’ photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Her second husband, my mother’s ‘Uncle’ and my Poppop, died when I was twelve. Gramma never married again.

She was vibrant and active for a long time, but eventually age and illness caught up with her. At 99, she has difficulty walking and hearing, and she requires full-time, live-in care. She has become cranky in her old age, and I believe that she has also succumbed to the family curse of depression. But on her face you can still see her hard-won smile lines, the apple cheeks, and the soft skin that comforted me so much as a child. Her hair is still white and coiffed. Her old, familiar smile still lights up her face, especially when she looks at my son, her great-grandson. She says that she’s fully intending to see her hundredth birthday, and I’m confident that she’s strong and stubborn enough to see it through.

She’ll never read this. She won’t touch computers, and if I told her that I write a blog she wouldn’t even know what I was talking about. Never the less, this is a love letter to her. To my Gramma. Who has seen the events of a century, and lived through it all with a smile, a Manhattan in her hand and a dirty joke on her lips.

Happy birthday, Gramma.

I Saw A Real Live Cowboy, Too

It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m back!

The last two weeks have been physically grueling and emotionally intense. First, I drove with my Loving Husband and with Sausage up to western New York state for my grandmother’s memorial service and to help my father deal with her possessions, which felt like a strangely mournful looting. Then, less than 48 hours after our return home to Maryland, we were driving again — this time to New Jersey, where Sausage would be staying with my mother-in-law while we flew to Oklahoma for a friend’s wedding.

Oklahoma, OK?

It sounds trite to say that in all this I learned a lot, but it’s true. I don’t think I’m ready to talk about the things I learned with regard to my grandmother’s death — that’s all too raw. But I will happily talk about the things I learned in Oklahoma City, where I attended the beautiful wedding of a dear friend and attended the damn good party that she and her new husband threw afterward.

Lesson The First: Oklahoma City Is … Special

Things that are great about OKC: the Bricktown Brewery‘s wheat beer is pretty damn good. The people were invariably nice and polite, and did their best to be helpful. The streets are clean. The botanical gardens are beautiful.

Things that are not so great: we could not find a salon that could accommodate four mani-pedis on a Friday afternoon. There are no proper drugstores in downtown Oklahoma City (so don’t bother looking); but we did find a convenience store that sold Band-Aids for my blistered feet, at 25¢ a pop. And, after some searching, we found a place that was open at 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon and would sell us drinks, which saved us from a very long day with nothing to do.

If you go to Oklahoma City, you’d better rent a car because it’s the least walkable city ever; don’t forget to pack sunscreen, because there are very few places to buy it downtown; and in general, don’t schedule too much time out of your Oklahoma vacation to spend in OKC. Go see the buffalo or something instead.

I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him.

Lesson The Second: I’m Not 22 Anymore

I forgot, for a little while this weekend, just how ancient I am. I danced, I drank (oh, man, did I ever drink), I shouted to be heard over loud music. I slept two hours before catching an early flight home, stumbling onto the plane still a little drunk from the night before.

And then I suffered. I suffered the pain of physically realizing how far I’ve come from my 22-year-old self. For example, some things that I learned the hard way:

  • My feet can’t handle all that carousing anymore. Blisters and bunions and badness, oh my!
  • I can’t jump up and down on the dance floor anymore. At least, not unless I have a REALLY empty bladder.
  • I start to get sleepy at around three in the afternoon, so events that start at 8:30 in the evening will largely find me tucked in a dark corner, nursing a beer and my bunion, struggling to stay awake.
  • My appearance has changed enough that people who knew me in my late teens and early twenties don’t recognize me.

There I am. Partying like it’s 1999.

Really, I should have known better than to try to party like I did back in college, but after more than a year as a stay-at-home-mom, finding myself sans child and surrounded by adults and freely flowing booze, I felt like I had escaped from some sort of cheerio-scented, diaper-filled prison. And as for not being recognized, well. It had been fifteen years in some cases. Who doesn’t change in fifteen years? I will choose to think of it as being caused by my more-flattering haircut and hard-earned confidence, and less as a result of crow’s feet and lost youth.

Lesson The Third: I Have Some Wonderful Friends

I was lucky this weekend in that an old friend, one whom I hadn’t seen in eleven years, was also able to come to the wedding. We stayed in the same hotel and spent a lot of time together, catching up. We had been very close way back when, and somehow that closeness and trust had survived the years. This got me to thinking about just how lucky I’ve been in my life to have so many friends like that — people that I’m friends with no matter how much time and distance there is between us. This weekend’s lovely bride is one, my eleven-years-gone friend is another, and I can think of several more women who I know I could call on any time, even though we haven’t been in close touch for years. Women with whom I’ve had such a great connection that we’ll always be friends, no matter what. For someone who has trouble making friends and who finds social situations to be anxiety-inducing, this seems pretty remarkable. I’m so, so lucky to have this kind of friendship in my life.

We always said we’d be friends forever. It’s starting to look like we really meant it.

So now I’m returning to normal life — blog, baby, theatre, and all the accompanying craziness. But I feel better having cut loose a little, having reconnected with some of the people I love the most, and heck, having been to Oklahoma. Who would have thought?

Sing It, Granny!

I’m happy to report that my inner child is still ageless. ~ James Broughton

A few weeks back, a video made the Facebook rounds. You probably saw it: an old man in a nursing home, virtually unresponsive to the people around him, listens to music from his youth and lights up, singing, dancing, and interacting freely with the interviewer. It’s a wonderful video, and if you haven’t seen it (or want to see it again), here it is. Have a box of tissues on hand, you’ll need them.

Now, me being the snarky snark that I am (in other words, this made me cry and so I had to start making jokes in order to distance myself), I got to thinking. The music from my youth wasn’t exactly Cab Calloway. What songs will Sausage play for me, if and when I end up in a similar state to Henry from the video?

I’m sure he’ll play The Beatles for me — I know all the words to most of their songs, and they’ve always been a go-to for me. Then there’s Simon and Garfunkel, and Blondie. I guess these are all innocuous enough, and I shouldn’t embarrass him too terribly by rocking out to Magical Mystery Tour. But I’m not ultimately a child of the 60’s and 70’s. My formative music was from the 80’s and 90’s, and the 90’s in particular were not a decade of sweet innocence from songwriters. It was a decade of screaming obscenities and equating sex with death. So what are some of the songs that I’ll most respond to when I’m 95 years old, belting them out and grinding in my seat, I wonder?

I plan to start wearing a hat like this one as soon as I turn 65.

Here’s a small selection of songs that I always turn up really loud and get dancing to. I know all the words to every single one.

5. Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”. I had this on vinyl as a kid, and it always makes me feel like a happy, bouncy six-year-old in neon leggings. I can’t imagine that I’ll feel any differently about it when I’m 95.

4. The Offspring, “Bad Habit”. My poor mom. I used to put on The Offspring and turn it up really loud, just to annoy her. She never said anything about it, but she had to have been wondering why I couldn’t be one of those girls who was listening to bubblegum pop instead of to angry punk. Whatever. This song still makes me headbang (though I get a headache from it now).

3. Fiona Apple, “Criminal”. This song makes me feel naughty, and I expect that if they play it for me when I’m old I may just become a pincher. Nurses, take heed.

2. Jill Sobule, “I Kissed A Girl”. This will mostly be embarrassing because my poor son really doesn’t want to know that much about my college experience. He just doesn’t.

The official video, the one I watched when I was 15, is not on YouTube. It’s here, though. Not to be missed. Did you remember that Fabio was in it? I didn’t.

1. Divinyls, “I Touch Myself”. Years ago, on the radio, I remember a female DJ talking about how all women have a “Secret Stripper Song.” It’s a song that they do their sexy dance to every time they hear it — and they hear it every time they do their sexy dance. This is it for me. Even if I’m in public when I hear it, I’ll always do a mental striptease to this song. When I’m 95 and doing a chair dance in the nursing home, I anticipate that my son will be as mortified as it is possible to be. And that’s always fun!

What songs will you be belting out from your wheelchair?