1.“Lately, when I look at my toes I think of my Gramma Jewel ~ hi Gram! Thanks for the toes. You were so good to me.”
This came to me written on a tiny piece of confetti that floated down onto my palm one day, i.e. I read it on Twitter. It was written by Suzzy Roche, of the singing folk group The Roches. Something about the line resonated. I could picture it: a woman staring absentmindedly at her toes and thinking about her grandmother.
I forgot all about the line for a week or a month or a year — my sense of time has gone to hell — until it came back to me the other day.
I was driving along in the car alone. I could play my own music, an unexpected treat. I played “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan. If you search Spotify by track, you get every recording of a particular song, and a lot of people have recorded “Lay Lady Lay.” I had been listening to the variations. This sounds tedious but in some cases — think Bach and Glenn Gould and Salinger — variations are rewarding. In a way, generations in a family are a kind of variation.
I was driving along and suddenly the line about the toes, above, came back to me. I don’t know why. I started to think of my grandmothers. I had three. The one I knew best was the one technically not related to me. Her name was Lilo.
2. “I feel cheated of Lilo time,” Elizabeth said the other day.
“Oh, you got to spend time with her,” I said. “We had a lot of fun. She liked you a lot. It was nice. Except for the wedding. You did get a bit cheated there. Or she did.”
“I liked her,” said Elizabeth. “I wish I had more time with her. She had such a great sense of humor.”
Lilo had suddenly appeared as a topic because while unpacking our stuff, we had come across a garbage bag full of loose papers and random objects that Elizabeth wanted me to throw out. I pulled out a random object on which the bag’s fate would be decided. If it was junk, I would trash the whole thing. What emerged was a picture of Lilo, taken on one of our last visits, when we drove out to the Retirement community for her birthday.
She been adamant about being moved out of the nursing home where they put her after a stroke and back to her home at the retirement community. She had good friends there, in particular a gang of old ladies who socialized, commiserated. One of them, Mildred, was a hundred years old and the most wonderful person. She was kind of girlish — Something about the haircut, her white hair, and its side part held in place by a beret. The way she sat on the couch with her hands crossed in her lap, expectant.
Also present in the photograph was a woman I will just call Harriet. She and Lilo knew each other from when they were growing up in Berlin. When I first heard this I was shocked — a friend from several lifetimes ago in another era, another continent, ends up in the same retirement community? And you are hanging out as part of a gang? How wonderful!
But no, that wasn’t the whole story. Lilo, it turns out, never liked Harriet.
The terrible irony of generations came flooding over me.
Lilo confessed her distaste one day after afternoon tea. Harriet, she said, had always been bossy, meddlesome, judgmental. What killed me about this was that the feeling I got from Lilo was the feeling you might get — or infer — from your kid who is aggravated by someone at school. I haven’t even had this experience yet, as a parent, but of course it’s bound to come. And I knew I had that feeling as a kid. Surely this is the universal experience: where there is this one person you can’t stand, who really annoys you, and who is somehow completely, inextricably, in your life.
What killed me was the idea that Lilo had gone from Berlin to London to Chicago to Philadelphia to New York to a retirement community in Connecticut — her life spanning continents, wars, the Holocaust, even. Then at the end, that person who annoyed her when were she was nine years old is there when she has her afternoon tea with her grandson and her friends.
All this was rattling around in my thoughts as I drove through the baking landscape of New Orleans. The streets are kind of touching right now. All the debris from hurricane Isaac has been tidied into piles by the side of the road, waiting for the city to come and cart it away. The memory of that disorienting episode of worry and chaos and powerlessness (literally) is encapsulated in these piles, each of which brims with everyone’s general eagerness to put the whole episode behind them. Within this moment I thought about how Lilo never got to meet my children.
As I said, Lilo was my third grandmother. Driving along in my car I thought first about Lilo and then all of them, all my grandmothers, and how they never met my children. Which is common enough, but suddenly seemed unfair.
They met me, though. And I met them. But did I? What can get communicated in those short years of childhood when grandparents and children interact? Even with Lilo, who lived until I was over forty, there was suddenly the sense of the questions I should have asked, or pressed her further on, and the wish, in turn, that she could see how things turned out. The terrible irony of generations came flooding over me.
It was a quick sequence of events: tearing up. Regrouping. Brief eruption of tears. Regrouping. And then the flood.
I was driving. And holding a cup of coffee! I looked around, both worried and vaguely hoping I would see a familiar face floating along in the car beside me while some voice in my head said, “You are fine, you are fine, there is nothing abnormal going on,” while my face was doing an excellent approximation of my one-year-old having a very bad moment.
I have to mention here that I was wearing my Knicks shirt. Whenever I wear my Knicks shirt in New Orleans things get a little weird. I may have to consider this next time I put it on.
3. Maybe it has to do with all the tears we absorb as parents. It’s amazing to note how often you are exposed to complete and utter losing it when you have little children. The breakdowns. The hysteria’s. Tantrums that are not about anything, really, nothing rational enough to qualify as sadness. And yet the sadness is no less real for being irrational.
“They’re just tired,” you think.
“They need to eat to eat something,” you think.
“They are tired and hungry!” you think.
But really even though this is technically true — their blood sugar is low, or they are exhausted — it’s also total bullshit! They are also really, really sad!
And you must be composed. You must not only give them food and shelter, you must calm them. They are sobbing. Even the part of you that rolls your eyes absorbs some of the sadness. You understand, on some level, that you must be a flotation device on to which they can cling until they get their bearings.
I wondered if I was, in an unguarded moment, simply offloading some of that.
I calmed down and started thinking about the little bits of communication, the little tender gestures and words that get passed from grandparent to grandchild, and how they sit there inside the child, who grows up. The grandparents are gone by then. In my case, the real ones were long gone. Lilo lived to see pictures of my daughter just after she was born, and died two weeks later.
One day the grandchild will look at their toes and think: “Thank you.” She will jot it onto a piece of confetti and blow it into the wind.
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