My maternal grandmother Nadine was four feet eleven inches of barely contained fury, wrapped in the latest fashions from Filene's department store. She was as round as she was tall, and often commented with a mixture of disgust and disbelief, "You can't find pants to fit a duck." Dressing her was my mother's duty as a child and when I was old enough, and we were visiting, the responsibility became mine.
She rose every morning before dawn. Some days, it was to travel into the city for dialysis, to combat the lupus that so affected her body, and later her mind. Sometimes I would go with her, waiting patiently in the hall while they poked and placed needles, discretely covering them with blankets before letting me in the room. I'd crawl up on her big expanse of belly, smell her smell - equal parts Icy Hot and Chantilly - and fall asleep to the soft clicks of the dialysis machine.
Other mornings she would be up with the birds; their chirps and whirrs filling the small greenhouse off the kitchen of the rambling house on the corner of Central Avenue. We would wait patiently in the greenhouse, swinging on her favorite glider, while my Grandfather prepared breakfast. Coffee, heavy on the milk and sugar, toast, light on the toastiness, bent under the weight of a thick slab of cream cheese.
My grandparents were old when I was born, and I have no memories of my grandfather as anything but frail. Grandma Nadine, 20 years his younger, was robust in comparison. "Herb!" she would cry out and he would shuffle in the room, small and bent. She would rattle off her ridiculous demands and he'd nod his assent before turning and muttering under his breath, "Bitch, bitch, bitch..."
Nadine was not an especially kind person, from what I'm told. She was raised in a poor home in a poor town in Missouri, and married my grandfather to escape poor Missouri for exotic Oklahoma. She worked hard, and made sure he did too, to provide their daughters with fine clothes and cars and vacations, and the appearance of generations of wealth they'd never possessed. She was notoriously eccentric, fiercely protective and oddly charming.
My mother was the middle child, and lived up to the reputation of the station. Nadine's favorite refrain for her teenaged daughter was that she was 'wild as a buck, and wouldn't ever amount to anything'.
And so when that wild middle child got married young and had a baby girl, I wonder if Nadine was surprised at how that baby filled up her heart? She always preferred girls, and there would be no more granddaughters, and so that baby became the best baby, her favorite baby. And she had no problems letting anyone know.
Let me tell you, it is good to be the favorite.
I cannot recall ever witnessing her legendary temper, or being the victim of a cross word. I would sit and watch her shave her chin with an electric razor, or help her hook her 18 hook bra, or rub Icy Hot on her back, or sit and sip sweet coffee and listen to the birds, and was as completely devoted to her as she was to me.
I would lie in her big bed at night - my grandpa forced to the couch - and she would scratch my back. "Don't laugh, or I'll stop," she'd say, scratching so lightly I couldn't hardly tell if I wanted her to stop or not. But of course, I didn't, so I'd bite the pillow to keep from laughing, until I fell asleep with her heavy warmth next to me, a smile on my face.
She died when I was 8. It was shocking and heartbreaking and terrible. I slept in her house the night of the funeral, alone in a bed under a large framed and artistically lit picture of my five year old self. Earlier that day, I had kissed her lips and seriously considered climbing up in the coffin with her, just to hold her once more. It is a disturbing thought today, but seemed so natural at the time.
The absence of a person in the physical sense makes them no less part of our lives. After I had Katie, and I lay there in the dark hospital room watching her sleep, I could hear Nadine - "A girl," she would say, "Well done."
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