My dad calls me while I’m in the middle of a sketch. I’m drawing a bird with a top hat. It’s just a bird that I wanted to be a little more entertaining. Entertaining to no one in particular. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never figure out the elusive audience question. I keep drawing.
“Can you bring your grandmother a blanket?” my dad asks over the phone.
“Yes, a blanket,” he says.
“It’s no problem,” I say. “Hey, you holding up okay?”
“Don’t even get me started,” he laughs, and then it’s silent. I think the line goes dead, until he clears his throat and tells me goodbye.
I took off work the day after I found out my grandmother was dying from pancreatic cancer. I visited her but managed to say few words. It’s hard to see a busy body restless in a hospital bed. My grandmother, was a caretaker for her children and her children’s children — my siblings and cousins — at various points of our lives.
I shade the bird’s top hat, trying not to lean into the dark parts and smear the drawing with my fists. My coonhound, Maya, sleeps on the ground next to my feet. She kicks her legs, and I place my hand on her side, calming her in her eventful dreams. Getting a puppy a few months ago came in handy. After visiting my grandmother in the hospital, Maya curled up next to me in bed while I rolled myself into layers and blankets like a packed piece of sushi.
My grandmother scared me growing up. I thought we annoyed her. She signed strict notes as “DA BOSS” and left them on the furniture. “SHOES OFF IN THE HOUSE.” “DON’T TOUCH THIS BUTTON.” “CASSEROLE IN FRIDGE.” She used to leave these notes in her absence when she went to bingo. She wanted to give us a lot of time with our grandfather, who had an unearthly amount of patience with children.
We’d be hunched over a TV dinner tray, polishing off a triple-decker turkey sandwich and watching All That or CatDog when she’d return. The first thing she did when she walked into the house would be to heat up some soup or lay out a bowl of fruit for everyone.
She was not a notoriously warm woman. Very critical at times. She complained about our clothing, spending habits, tattoos, loudness, long hair that got all over the carpet. She hated the sound of me picking my fingers and told me so.
She showed her affection in nonverbal ways. Food and things to remember her by. Like her spirit lies in the golden candlestick holders that belonged to her mother. It took me a while to understand. She wore practicality like armor. She helped my sister open her first checking account. She introduced me to her gynecologist.
Don’t get me started on her meatballs. The secret ingredient was veal, which bothered me a little because of the baby cow thing, but I cared more about having a relationship with my grandmother than eating ethically.
We ate on trays in her living room and watched black and white films together or Nickelodeon. And yes, you could eat food off her immaculate floor. Her home was always warm, and there were blankets that smelled like her folded in a basket next to the couch. Pictures of Italians lined the walls. The Sicilian side of the family had dark skin and were frowning in their photos. My grandmother was a young bride with a round face and a modern tea length length dress. This was my favorite picture on the wall. She looked like a glass doll. This is why everyone called her “Dolly.” Her real name was Santa. Yes, like Santa Claus.
After my grandfather’s passing, my grandmother and I grew closer. She texted me a lot. She still sent me coupons and birthday cards, even when they were for other people. When I visited her we’d watch Family Feud together. She thought Steve Harvey was a great host.
Sometimes she texted me late at night because she had a hard time sleeping. It must have been hard sleeping in a home without the man who lived with her for 63 years. They slept in separate rooms. Not because they grew distant from each other, but because my grandfather’s snores rattled the walls.
I walk into her hospital room, and she’s ordering tilapia off a menu. She’s wearing her glasses on the edge of her nose. Her hair is matted in the back, and she’s sitting up in bed. Her color is good. Her cheeks are sunken and pink. She wants mashed potatoes. She asks if they have any gravy, the brown kind. She asks for tea. She reminds the person on the phone that she has ice cream in the freezer my dad got her (Ben and Jerry’s vanilla) that she’s saving for later.
In between our conversation a nurse joins us. She has thick bangs and big eyes. She bows low like a well-trained dog, and all I can see are her bangs. She talks really slow to my grandmother.
“Santa. Would. You. Like. Me. To. Raise. This. Table? she asks. The nurse raises her arms as if to show that she is not full of sudden movements.
Another nurse comes in. She’s thin and fidgety. Her hair is tied into a fishtail braid.
“If you’re giving me another one of those pills, I don’t want it. They make me gassy,” my grandmother tells her.
The nurse laughs when my grandmother refuses the Ensure shake on her tray, which she says tastes like chalk and asks for her ice cream instead. Then fishtail nurse helps her to the bathroom. She compliments my grandmother’s cane, which has butterflies on it. My grandmother closes the back of her gown, embarrassed. I’ve never seen this much of her skin before.
I show my grandmother a post on Facebook that my sister Cassie wrote. My grandmother begins to cry when she reads the post. It says that my grandparents practically raised her and that it was a hard thing to do. My grandmother says, “Yeah we raised her like she was our own kid,” and she sniffs loudly.
My dad appears in the doorway. His work jeans are stained and torn at the knees. He’s wearing a Cubs hat that’s not all the way on his head. He looks worried. He brushes his eyebrows the wrong way and stares off into the distance. He seems happy to see me with his mom. He puts a hand on my shoulder.
“How are you doing, Bear?” he asks me.
My dad sinks into the chair opposite of my grandmother. We’re all silent for a while until my dad recounts the story about how his mother made him get a vasectomy after my brother was born.
“Ma grabbed me by the ear and took me to ‘Dr. Snip Snip.'” My dad sucks in his spit, making the sound of snipping. He uses his fingers like they’re scissors, slicing the air.
“Yeah the doctor who performed the surgery asked me if I had played a lot of sports growing up. Because there was a lot of damaged tissue. They had to dig it all out,” he laughs.
“Dad, no offense, but I’m not interested in hearing more about your vasectomy,” I say.
My grandmother chimes in. “I remember your grandfather’s vasectomy. He was so worried that his thing no longer worked,” she smiles devilishly. “It worked just fine when we tested it out. He gave me the ‘twinkle eyes,’ and I knew we were good to go.”
My stomach hurts. No one ever cares about being appropriate in my family.
I show my grandmother the magazine I put together. She is proud. So is my dad. He asks if he could keep the magazine. I’ve lost track of the amount of these things I’ve helped put together, and this is the first time I’ve shown anyone in my family my work.
I suddenly want to show them all the things. I show them a picture of the bird drawing. I show them pictures of my dog. They respect that I’m taking care of something. It’s not a kid, but it’s just as good, they both assure me. It surprises me how accepting they are. I’m not sure why I think my family won’t accept me.
My grandmother asks me, “Is there anything you can’t do?”
I want to ask my grandmother questions. Little does she know I’ve put together a little Q&A for her. It’s hiding on a sheet of paper in the magazine I brought. I write Q&As for work all the time. Company profiles. Chats with the president of such and such company. Sometimes I’m lazy and ask the same questions instead of coming up with new ones.
“Hey Grandma, can I ask you questions about your life?” I’m afraid of her reaction. She is mostly a private person.
“I don’t see why the hell not. I’m gonna be dead soon anyway,” she tells me.
Q: What made you most happy?
A: Being married to your grandfather. His support, love, passion, understanding, and humor made my life full and happy. There wasn’t a selfish bone in his body.
Q: When you get down on yourself or are in a funk, what do you do or tell yourself to make yourself feel better?
A: I tell myself to be strong. Face whatever.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: No regrets. Though, I do wish I would have been better with money. But then again, your grandfather and I enjoyed ourselves.
Q: If you could have told your parents anything while you growing up, what would it be?
A: I would tell them to be more understanding and supportive of me.
You have to remember my mother was very young when she had me. She was unhappy when she moved from some little hick town in Sicily and came to the U.S.
My grandfather had been in the U.S. for 12 years before he sent for his family. My grandfather was very mean to my mom. She couldn’t wait to get out of the house, and she rushed into a marriage with my father. My father was a cold man. I can’t remember many times when my parents weren’t arguing. Always arguing. My father couldn’t handle my mother. She had a nervous breakdown at one point. She was very sick. She wasn’t the nicest to me either. She stabbed me with a fork, even bit me once. She got better with age, though, and we eventually became closer.
I used to watch my sister, who was 12 years younger than I was. I was like a parent to her, practically raised her. I almost hated her for it. At 17 years old, I had to take my kid sister with me on dates with your grandfather. But he was understanding. On Saturdays he would wait patiently for me to clean the entire house, and then we’d go out.
Q: What did you like to do for fun growing up?
A: I played on a volleyball team for two years. And then I loved roller skating. I went two to three times a week. That was therapy to me.
I liked to travel. I worked at a travel agency and had a great time doing it. My favorite place I visited was Aruba. I liked the entertainment, the live shows. The gowns, dancing, and music.
I met my friend Lari on a plane going to Mexico. We had a blast. I was thin and blonde then.
This one guy came up to me and said, “Hey Seniorita, I want to show you a good time.”
I told him I had someone waiting for me back home. I told him no thank you.
He said: “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
I told him: “No, YOU don’t know what you’re missing.”
I used to love going out with your grandfather. I was happy no matter where we went.
I didn’t like our trip to St. Louis though. We got really bad sunburn, and there were snakes in the water. It was terrible.
Q: What were your hopes and dreams as a child?
A: That’s hard. I think for a while I wanted to conquer my inferiority complex. I thought I was inferior because of my disability. I lost my hearing in my ear when I was three years old. I was in the hospital for a month with a really bad kidney infection. The doctors thought that was the cause of the hearing loss. My parents treated me like I was stupid. I was a loner.
I started going to a school for the mute, deaf, and dumb. I spent one class a day learning how to read lips, which I didn’t take seriously because I was embarrassed. There were really smart students at my school, though. This one chick was completely deaf, and she was a truly gifted ballerina. She used a phonograph to feel the beat.
I didn’t know how bad my hearing was. I didn’t get a hearing aid until I was in my 60s. My kids begged me for years to get one. Finally, I did. The one I have now is an amazing piece of technology. My otolaryngologist did great work.
Q: What three words would you use to describe yourself?
A: Stubborn, private, and strong.
Q: What advice do you have for me and other young people growing up during such dark times?
A: I feel so bad for you guys. What a mess. So much anger right now.
Life is not fruit. Take a piece of it anyway. See if you can salvage it, make it better. Also limit who is in your life. Keep the people you know who care close to you. For the most part people like to gossip about each other. This always bored me. That’s why I didn’t hang downstairs with the rest of the folks in the bingo area. That’s all they like to do –talk about people who aren’t there.
Q: What brings you comfort?
A: When things are going good with the family. That was the same with your grandfather. He always worried about the family. When something went wrong, someone got hurt, he wished it happened to him instead. When Steven got sick, it crushed him. He was the softie, I was the bitch. He loved his grandkids. Being with them was his favorite. I’m glad my grandkids loved me even though I was a bitch.
“Grandma, the world needs bitches.”
Q: Are you worried about anything right now?
A: Not too much. I was worried about my credit card, but nothing is happening with it. It just drops off. And then I’m worried about the pain from the cancer. I mean I’ve gotten through plenty of surgeries (my kids don’t even know about half the surgeries I’ve had) but this is different. I hope I can hack it.
Q: What about after you die? Are you worried about that?
A: Well, I’m trying to pray, but it hasn’t been working. All throughout my life, I had faith without practicing any religion. I tried going to church with your grandfather for a while, but I disagreed with so many things. I felt like a hypocrite all the time too. Your grandfather respected my choice not to go. He always told me that I made up for it in strong values and a good heart.
I don’t know if my grandmother made her peace with God, but I know she’s at peace.
“I’m ready to be with your grandfather. I am 86. My mother was 84 when she died. My grandmother was 94.”