My grandmother died last week. She was 93 years old. She died in Seattle, where she had moved last December after my wife and I decided to decamp from New York and head West to Tucson. After living in New York City for 92 years—first in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan—she decided to do what her son had been begging her to do, and move close to him. So he was able to be with her and take care of her at the end.
Good timing, I guess.
My grandmother scared the crap out of me when I was a boy—although in retrospect I realize that it was really my grandfather who scared the crap out of me. At the time, I didn’t distinguish between the two of them. They were a team—unified and impenetrable, sour-faced and judgmental. When my grandfather died—he was 14 years older than my grandmother—I discovered that my grandmother was actually a separate person from him, and that phrases like, “what on earth is the purpose of buying the boy a puppet?” were not things she was ever likely to say on her own. It took a long time for me to discover this.
It wasn’t only my discovery, though—she had to discover it as well. She had moved from being The Doctor’s Daughter as a child to being the Doctor’s Husband as not-much-more-than-a-child. And she was The Doctor’s Sister to boot. She was surrounded by know-it-alls, and they pretty much ruled her world and her mind. Once she was widowed, though, she began to emerge from that cocoon. She moved to Manhattan and became something other than Mrs. Doctor. And she and I began to have a real, adult relationship.
It was because of my grandmother that I was able to move back to New York after my divorce and start life over again. She gave me a place to stay and the warmth and comfort I needed to pull myself together. I would come home from teaching and attending theatre rehearsals and sit at the edge of her bed with her, watching TV and talking about the day. I remember one evening when we were watching Seinfeld, and the characters began discussing faked orgasms. My grandmother launched into a monologue about what things were like in her day, and how little she and my grandfather knew about sex when they first met, and on and on like that, until I screamed for her to stop. In some ways, my grandmother was far hipper than I.
And she had every right to be. She was the epitome of the hard-core, sophisticated, New York Jewish Grandmother. She saw every play, attended every museum show, went to lectures, took classes, and collected and disseminated opinions about everything. As a younger woman, she had helped to start Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn, or at least had sat on the board during the early days. She did not give herself credit for much, but she was plenty tough. Tough enough to lose her husband, her daughter, her neice, and most of her friends—many of them far too young to be taken—and still endure. She was a young woman during the Depression, raised her children during World War II and its aftermath, and had to watch her children enter adulthood in the turbulent 60s and 70s. Yes, sometimes she was sour-faced and judgmental. But there was a lot swirling around her that deserved sour-faced judgment.
And yet, as the years went on, I think she became far less judgmental and far more accepting of the world around her--its variety, its craziness, its refusal to sit still and behave. She even, I think, began to enjoy it. The world was as stubborn and fierce as she was, and ultimately, she had to respect that.
I wonder what my parents’ generation will look like in their 80s and 90s. I wonder what my own generation will look like. Will we be open to experience, still—or will we think we already know everything, and force the world to conform to our vision of it? Will we use our later years to seek wisdom rather than teach it--and to give love without qualification? Or will we simply keep seeking possessions—more of them, even at the end—and give back to the world nothing but excuses?
I just wonder.