When I was a child, I called her Grammy. All of my cousins did, too. As we grew older, she became Gram. All of our friends called her Gram. She is and will always be the biggest influence on my character.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of Gram’s passing. I remember the day well. I received a phone call in which I was told she only had a few hours to live. Even if I was the richest person on Earth, I could not have arrived in New York in time to say goodbye. My last conversation with Gram was a few days before. We had talked as we did every week. The conversation included plans for a trip the following year and all the things we would do together.
At 11:11 a.m., 1:11 p.m., New York time, on Saturday, June 11, 2011, I received the call. “She’s gone.” My mentor, my friend, my grandma had taken her last breath. What she left behind is imprinted on my soul. She is a large part of who I am because she shaped my character in small, seemingly insignificant ways for the 41 years we walked this earth together.
The Whatchamacallit may just be a chocolate bar to others, but to me, it reminds me of Gram’s caring spirit and how she always thought of others. It first became available for sale in 1978. I don’t eat candy and chocolate often. I never have. But, boy did I want this one. My mother wouldn’t buy me one.
The week after I saw the Whatchamacallit ad, Gram sent me to Colello’s, the corner store, to get a gallon of milk. She gave me an extra quarter and told me to make sure I ate the Whatchamacallit before I got back so “your mother doesn’t yell at me.” Eight-year-old me made sure there was no evidence.
Gram seemed to always understand my shy and introverted manner and provided solid advice throughout my life. She saw how often I was alone. She told me, “if you can’t enjoy your own company, you’re going to have a hard time in life.” She was glad I managed to be independent and do things on my own, but she continued to sneak in life lessons when I didn’t know it.
In the heat of the summer, we would sit on the back porch snapping green beans and listening to katydids. “Katydid. Katydidn’t,” she would say with a wry smile. She would lean into me, encouraging me to smile and be a little less serious about everything. As we snapped the ends off the green beans to prepare them for cooking or canning, Gram would tell me the reason you could hear them “speaking” were because the males and females were arguing over who was cooking dinner that night. If I closed my eyes and listened closely enough, I could hear “Katydid. Katydidn’t,” and swear her story about the insects was real.
Picking green beans, tending to tomato plants, and pulling weeds in the garden were all part of my chores during the summer. Nearly all the vegetables were canned for winter eating. I didn’t always like doing my chores, but they always gave me a feeling of regularity and predictability in my otherwise chaotic life that I was unable to tell anyone about.
The katydids were a comforting, reassuring sound and Gram’s joy over hearing them and telling me stories showed me how there is awe and wonder in everything if you take the time to stop and breathe it in.
In 1979, Gram drove to the Orange County Trust Company bank and obtained three new, shiny, Susan B. Anthony dollar coins. It wasn’t our bank, but it was the first place in town to have the coins. She waited in a long line of cars to get them. She gave one each to my aunt, who is six years older than me, my sister, and me. I don’t know what my aunt and sister did with their dollar coins. I looked mine over many times. Between a cup of tea and fruit punch, we talked about who Susan B. Anthony was and why it was so cool to have a woman on our money.
It was the first of dozens of conversations we had over the years about coin collecting and cool historical women. We often took her coin collection out of its hiding place in her bedroom, lay them out on her bed, and talked while half-stretched across her bed. I kept that coin in my pocket until some asshole stole it in February 1996. Today, when I look at her coins, I smile. The memories are worth so much more than the coins.
When I was a teenager, I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was a cool concept for a horror movie, or so my teenage-brain thought so. I had a poster of Freddy Krueger on my wall. Somewhere along the line, the poster started to terrify me. I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares that Freddy came out of the poster at night and came after me. Eventually, I was so terrified, I was convinced he was staring at me even when I was awake.
I was afraid of taking the poster down. In my mind, if I tried, he would reach out and slash me to death while trying. One day, Gram came into my bedroom. I don’t know how or why the conversation turned to the poster. I told her I wanted to take it down, but I couldn’t. She didn’t ask me why. She walked over to the poster, pulled the tacks out and asked me if I wanted to keep it. When I said no, she tore it up and threw it in the garbage. I asked her if she could take it downstairs to the kitchen garbage. “Yes,” was all she said.
My love of traveling came from Gram. We often spoke about our trips. She loved talking about the places she’d been as much as I do. She always listened intently, asked questions, and made me feel like my stories were the most important thing in the world.
When I moved into my first apartment and I was visiting her, I asked if I could have my fork from her house. Growing up, I didn’t like the forks in her “proper” set of silverware. She had a few strays and I ate with the same fork whenever I was at her house. It was my only fork for several years. I didn’t see a need to buy another one.
A few years later, she was looking for proper aluminum baking pans for me. She found a few matching pieces of silverware for my fork. I have a proper set of silverware today, but I still use my fork.
On many mornings, I have caught myself staring at my comb. It’s nearly 30 years old and is identical to Gram’s except her comb was green, her favorite color, and mine is orange. The comb was specially designed for getting through the knots people with curly hair suffer from.
Whenever I came home to visit, I washed my hair at her house and use her comb because it worked so well. One day, I received a package from Gram with a new comb inside. I called her to thank her for gift.
“Irene? I’m sorry,” she said. “I looked in five different stores, but couldn’t find a green one for you. All they had was orange and an ugly blue. It’s the same comb, just a different color. I hope it’s okay.”
Of course it was. It was never not going to be. I still use that comb every day.
When I mentioned in passing I couldn’t find a proper can opener, she gave me her spare one. She had purchased it in the early 1970s. I used it until about five years ago when it broke because the spokes were smooth and no longer cut open cans. I’m still never getting rid of it.
Over the years, Gram gave me many things tangible and intellectual. We seemed to always be working on critical thinking skills. She had a kind heart and lived by the ideals, “if you don’t have anything good to say about anyone, don’t say anything at all,” and “don’t ever judge others. You don’t know what they’re going through.”
Gram tempered my spirit in a way no one else has ever been able to do. She always found a way to soothe my inner rage. She always had time for me. She always took the time to listen, offered advice when asked, and provided a shoulder to cry on in tough times.
Whenever I visited her, our departures always consisted of long, reassuring, strong hugs and a dance of money. She knew I was ticklish and made a point of tickling me as she shoved a folded $100 bill in my pocket.
I’ll never get another hug like Gram’s. Whenever she embraced me, my head instinctively rested on her shoulder and I felt safe. All at once, her hugs told me she loved me, she didn’t want me to go, and that everything was going to be all right.
Gram also taught me, “whatever you put in your brain, no one can ever take away.” I could lose everything physical tomorrow, but the knowledge in my head will help me to start over. Those things helped me to get through the some of darkest times in my life. It helped me in making decisions and how to ask for help when I need it.
Most importantly, I have a book of fond memories of Gram in my head. No one can ever take those away. I rely on the memories, lessons learned, and the sense of awe and wonder in the world she gave me to get me through the tough times. I’ll be spending the day today remembering her and how much I miss her gentle and guiding spirit in my life.