My son and I recently unpacked our Christmas trees and decorations. We spent an evening drinking hot chocolate, setting up the decorations and watching The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s a ritual I have had since the mid-90s, no need to exclude the kidlet from my fun.
As we were unpacking the decorations, I came across a familiar box, one that I have lugged around for over three decades. It has not changed much over the years, but this year I was struck by the peculiarity of my having kept an item for so long. Given its roots, why did I carefully tend to this heirloom?
It is simple ornament, a delicate, hand-blown glass orb with a few nibs in the shape of circles. I distinctly recall being highly unimpressed upon receiving it. And yet, I have kept it safe and sound despite its inauspicious roots.
I told my son that I vividly remember the circumstances of receiving the orb. It was a gift exchange in elementary school. Back then, I do not believe that these events were voluntary, and every kid had to draw a name and bring a gift. Or god forbid you did not bring a gift, and then the recipient went without…the horror! This was back in the days when you could only bring Valentines for the kids you like, so gift exchanges were odd. Given this Lord of the Flies setting, I also recall the poverty lines being very distinct in school. We were divided up into the: rich kids, poor kids, in-between kids, immigrant kids, unpopular kids, and the misfits. We were slowly forming the cliques and social groups that would carry over into middle school and beyond.
Why I vividly recall this is likely because the kid who gave me a gift this year was one of the poor, unpopular kids. Now, I fell somewhere into the in-between/misfits group, so I wasn’t high up on the food chain myself. However, I can still remember in detail the soft features of this pale-complected girl with gentle brown eyes and mousy brown hair. But I cannot tell you her name, and I know I do not have any yearbooks to discern who she was.
I sat with my child and showed him the beautiful ornament, which he admired, and I told him I would likely pass it on to him, should it withstand even more time. And I told him its origin story, emphasizing how disappointed I was when I opened the gift, which came in the same plain, brown box that houses it now, wrapped in nothing more than bubble wrap to protect its delicate contents. I could not tell you what anyone else received that day, I just know I thought that a glass ball was lame.
And yet, here we are, more than thirty years later, and that same fucking, glass ball endures. And it allowed me to show my child that one should never be ungracious for anything anyone gives to them, because you never know what will last.
I had a conflicted relationship with my grandmother. Growing up the dark-eyed, dark-haired one in a family of Germanic blondes was somewhat difficult. Add to this the fact that she was a hardcore nuclear housewife and believed all women were destined for lives of domestic servitude; it can be easy to understand where the friction came from. Since I did not fit the California Blonde ideal that my cousins did, I would have to learn other skills to find and keep a man. And grandma felt it was her duty to reinforce this into my thick skull.
Grandmother was also of diminished capacity from several “head injuries”, or so the adults in my life told me. There had been a nasty interaction between my maternal family and the father of cousin. One of their California Blondes had gotten knocked up at 17 and been forced to marry the guy, which was common in the late-60s. Within a few years this shotgun union had soured and he attempted to kidnap the kid. During commission of this crime, he ran both of my grandparents down with his car in the street in front of their suburban home. And thus began the lifelong story of not taking what either grandparent said to heart because they were both physically damaged. Funny what stories adults will tell to make sense of their dysfunction to children, but I digress.
Oddly it was my mother and I who always ended up caring for grandma whenever she needed it. The California Blonde, Orange County relations were always too busy to assist, in spite of their positions as grandma’s favorites. After her aneurysm in the late-80s, I was the one who moved into the guesthouse in Burbank and cared for her. In her later years she moved in with my mother, who served as her primary caregiver until her death. She spent more time around my son than any of the other great-grands. The other side of the family had been completely unable to deal with the stress and proved to be utterly useless. Occasional phone calls, rare visits and gifts in the mail were all grandma got in the end from her favorites. And she was mean and batshit crazy until the very end. And I was there until that end, still able to perform feats no one else could.
One morning when I walked into their house to drop off my young son with my mother, I was struck by the realization that I was going to find my grandmother dead on the floor someday. It was a profoundly creepy feeling, but I left and went on my way to work. Later in the day my mother informed me that my grandmother had been admitted into the hospital during the early morning hours. Having been found unresponsive in bed by mother just after midnight. My mother indicated that grandma was somewhat out of it, but able to communicate. I was filled with a sense of knowing that my grandmother had already left and that was what I had felt when I entered the house that morning.
Things did not improve; in fact, the prognosis became dire within the first day of the hospital stay. Grandma had suffered a major brain hemorrhage and would likely never recover. My grandmother had been very aware of her health in her latter years and had refused dialysis for at least two years prior to this catastrophic event. My mother had discussed with her the implications of her decision to forego medical intervention. “Eventually something will quit working, you will likely fall into a coma and then be placed in hospice until you die.” Grandma was totally cool with this, ever the progressive Californian she had signed all the right documents to prevent heroic measures.
When they transferred grandma to hospice I decided to make a visit. I had not seen my aunt or cousin in several years at this point because as an adult I did not have to interact with toxic people. It was a hardcore move, but one that my mother respected because there was no denying the dysfunction that had always existed within her family. To have a reunion of three generations of women in a hospice room was poetic. My cousin had traveled from her east coast life where she is essentially a housewife having married well. My aunt is a bitter, toxic person having been traded-in by her successful husband for a younger, newer model before she was 40-years-old. The first words my aunt said to me were regarding my body. Always the one for noting appearances, I guess it astounded her to compare me side-by-side to her trophy daughter, who had acquired the middle-age spread that can accompany the housewife lifestyle.
There was tense small talk between the others and myself. All of which was conducted over the death rattle coming from my grandmother. I had been in this situation several times before this, but it was all new to my cousin and aunt, who are control freaks. My cousin was most visibly affected by how my grandmother looked. Gone was the dyed hair and well-kept appearance. “Yeah, she didn’t want to go to the hairdresser anymore,” I had quipped. The cousin had not visited in several years, and grandma’s decline during this time had been drastic. Dying is not always a quick process. I had been at the side of several of my ex-husband’s relatives during their deaths. It’s not an easy cycle to watch, but you do get accustomed to the stages of it. Grandma was said to suffer from dementia during her last years. I believe her true, ugly self was showing thru the façade, but that’s just my opinion. And the sound of grandma’s death rattle was unnerving me because my cousin kept asking what was wrong, why was she making that sound. My mother and I were the only ones aware that grandma was dying.
The hospice grandma was in was a nice facility. Thankfully she had not been admitted to the location with a children’s ward because who-the-fuck wants to see the ugly reality of dying children. In fact I had never considered that this type of service was necessary before. I spoke briefly with my cousin, who was obviously shaken by this entire situation. She had kept an image of her grandmother in her head and had not had to face the reality for quite a few years now. The grandmother in her head could not be reconciled with the one that now lay dying in the other room. When we went back into the room, our mothers were silently staring at their mother and the sound of the death rattle was deafening. I requested a radio, which a nurse quickly provided. I tuned it to a 40’s swing music station because I knew this was grandma’s favorite. Grandma’s hands were now very claw-like and my cousin was attempting to put lotion on them, but it upset her too much. As we four congregated in a corner and discussed the inevitable in hushed tones, grandma started to choke.
The panic in the room was palpable. Especially with my aunt and cousin. They were still coming to terms with the fact that no one was feeding grandma or giving her water. They had provided sponges that we could use to moisten her lips and tongue, but that was it. Everyone rushed to the bedside and the chatter revolved around what to do, should they do anything because it simply delayed the end and why was no one coming to assist. My mother reminded them that there was a medical directive to deny intervention. But my aunt and cousin looked sickened by this realization, so I stepped up and asked them to hand me one of the sponges on a stick. I opened my grandmother’s mouth, stuck the sponge deep into the back of her throat and swabbed out the contents. As I removed the sponge every other person in the room reacted with revulsion. My aunt gagged and had to turn away. My cousin did the same, except she turned green and walked away. My mom was able to hand me a plastic cup before she too had to leave the room. So it was just my grandma and I and a cup full of sickly phlegm and I had just given her a bit more life to appease others.
Afterward all women present joked with me about how they had reacted to my actions. The also lauded by ability to stay calm and intervene when they had all choked and been unable to act. I mostly thought about how this would now be added to our family lore. I would forever be known as the only one who helped the grandmother I had never been very fond of. I left shortly after this event and grandmother passed away peacefully the next morning. I visited with my cousin once before she left. She seemed disgusted that there would be no memorial service, but we are all California natives and have no relations in our current states. Grandma had a few siblings who were alive, but none had indicated any desire to travel for a funeral or memorial. So this was all there would ever be to commemorate her passing. The cousin stated she would likely never return once she left, which made sense to me. Not like I’d miss her.
Several months later my mother and I delivered grandma’s ashes back to Southern California. We visited her mother’s grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills and placed some of her ashes there. A graveside, I might add, that had not been visited in probably two decades or more. I broke the law, but fuck it, my grandparents were pioneers in the area. We also placed some of her ashes behind the family home, which has been torn down and replaced with a McMansion. I had gathered up a carload of my friends and we went on a covert mission down the alleyways of Burbank. Due to the overbuilding in the area, we were initially unable to find the family home and placed the ashes along the wrong fence. But we went back and made it right an hour later after realizing our mistake. We then took some of the ashes to the beach and tossed them off a pier. Once again breaking a law or some city ordinance. But we’ve a saying that has always applied, cop didn’t see it, I didn’t do it.
In the end I am left with the only legacy my grandmother left me and it is this: we are not women who outsource the end-of-life tasks to others. She tended to her mother until her death, my mother tended to her mother until her death, and I am set to tend to my mother until her end. This is simply what the women in my family do and I am no different. I have included the scan that clearly shows the hemorrhage that finally killed my grandmother. I keep it as reminder that life can be over in an instant and the bitches in my family are prone to bursting blood vessels in their brains. 🙂