In my head, my grandmother will eternally be seventy-three years old. I have this dysfunction that people stay however old they are when either I met them, or became aware of how old they were. The little boy I used to nanny is “ten months old” even though he turns three in October and now has a younger sister. When I was five, I attended the 80th birthday party of my Mom’s piano teacher….so Mrs. Phillips will be 80 forever even though she had several more birthdays after that before passing on. Mary-Hall of course is the exception to this rule…since we’re only 5 days apart, I’m very aware of her changing age as it is directly linked to mine. And on that note, we both turn 31 in less than a month.
Two weeks ago my “Grandma” turned ninety-nine years old. She’s been alive through so many events that it makes my head spin. She was a month old when World War I began; two months old when the first boat sailed through the Panama Canal. She lived in New York City during the Great Depression, waited for her husband to return from the Second World War, called herself an American even as our nation was struggling with Civil Rights, the Summer of Love, presidential assassinations and scandals and walking on the moon for the first time.
Some time ago, when all her memories were still quite clear, Granny wrote out her autobiography. Some of the stories are ones I know well like when her sister squandered money intended for soap on an ice cream cone, and some of them were new to me; precious details about a china clock with a painted pink floral design, and block parties for soldiers returning from war. One story made me laugh as it talked about the incredible care her mother took of their backyard chicken flock and the sadness that fell over their house when a favorite hen met with an untimely death, which of course made me think about my obsession with my own chickens. I never met my great-grandmother, but it seems that some things just run in the family. She talks tenderly of her father: a visionary who was the first one on the block to own a car, an indoor shower, a washing machine and gas lines for the stove. She recounts childhood mischief and a trip to Scotland and Ireland as a teen. She mentions a song that made her laugh:
“Oh Charley, take it away
Oh Charley, take it away
It’s the little bit of hair you wear
Upon your upper lip
It tickles me Charley
Oh, take it away”
As a kid, my Grandfather was always reading and thinking, and my Grandmother was always doing things for others. She could whip up platters full of baked goods at a moment’s notice. She once made an entire wardrobe of bras and undies for my Barbie dolls, by hand I might add, with tiny tiny careful stitches. In fact, every Christmas I could guarantee that two of the gifts under the tree would be a set of proof coins from my Grandfather and a handmade gift from my grandmother. She’d groan in mock-annoyance when I’d come padding down the hallway in my nightgown and bare feet to join them at the breakfast table at 5:00 AM. “I heard the sugar bowl ‘clink,’ Grandma! Will you toast a scone for me?” She’d get my Grandfather another bowl of coffee, black, and slide a Scottish scone my way on a blue and white porcelain plate.
A few years ago Granny started getting more than a little forgetful and unfortunately this past March, a broken hip forced her to move into a nursing home. It was a little rocky at first, but she seems to be adjusting pretty well now. If you stop by to see her she’ll enjoy it if you take her to look at the parakeets and fish that reside in the lobby and she’ll probably tell you an abbreviated version of the story about the goat that they called the “traffic patrol” in the village in Scotland she once visited…locals said you had to have the goat’s permission before you crossed the road. And she’ll ask you if you’re having a “happy life.” She always smiles when you tell her that yes, you’re having a very happy life. “Well that’s good,” she’ll say. “Do what makes you happy.”
She’s been talking lately of wanting a cat, so for her birthday I sent her a card that sang “Happy Birthday” in hamster voices and a stuffed cat that she promptly dubbed “Priscilla” for reasons unknown. The day before her actual birthday my mother had asked her, “Do you know what tomorrow is?” At first she said No….then “Could it be my birthday?” Yes! My mother informed her that she was turning 99. “Well!” She exclaimed. “I never could have imagined I’d live that long!” If family tradition holds, then I’ve got at least another 68 years to go. Not too shabby.