When I was a kid, grandparents grew on trees. I knew seven grandparents and met at least two more. As the sixties crashed into the seventies and my parents started their family, just barely out of college, their extended families were falling apart. There was a round of grandparent divorces before a round of new marriages. My brothers and I were big fans of Grandpa J, the man who married Grandma M.
Grandpa J, what we really called him, liked nice things. He loved cars, and he liked to talk about them and take pictures of them and trade them up; at one point, he proudly drove a Jaguar. He bought a beautiful big house with a pool in Novato when he married my grandmother, and it's one of those places that remains timeless in a corner of my mind, down to the black standing ashtray next to the toilet covered in red and black rugs.
Being offensive was not an obvious concern of Grandpa J's. He was finicky about his nice things, and he had this half joke/half issue with my father for always accidentally breaking something when we visited Novato. My mother asked J what color of sweater he wanted for Christmas one year - and he cracked himself up when he told her, "Titty pink! I want titty pink!" repeating himself again and again to his own delight. He wasn't one to keep his mouth shut, especially when not well received.
However, J was a first-rate grandparent. He taught me how to swim, he taught my middle brother how to play golf, and he taught us all how to play poker. I have fond memories of sitting with my middle brother and him, playing round after round of poker for golf tees, well into the night. He seemed to genuinely enjoy our company and gleefully picked on my brothers as a form of entertainment, sometimes crossing the line in what is considered appropriate communication with children.
The story Grandma M shared recently about her first date with Grandpa J captured my imagination, partly because she met him when she was roughly my age, post divorce. My grandmother's cousin arranged the first phone call. My grandmother said the first time J called to ask her out, she said no. He called back, and when she finally agreed, he told her to call his brother who would give her a ride to the airport. Grandma M, probably living in Manhattan Beach at the time, was taken aback, "Where do you live?!" He told her Mill Valley, which she was suspicious of as she had never heard of it. He told her there were several bedrooms in his house, and she could have her pick, and if she didn't like him, he could take her to a hotel. She reluctantly decided to go.
When she called J's brother to ask for the ride to the airport, he wasn't very polite, saying something like "Oh my god. OK, fine." She wondered what she had gotten herself into, especially when the brother picked her up in a car with a dirty windshield. The dirty windshield was a bad sign alright. But not to worry, she had taken "two and a half nerve pills." That my grandmother could remember precisely how many pills she took but kept getting her age mixed up when she told my mother and I the story - first she was 40, then 35, then 30 - tickled us. No Grandma, you were in your forties - now, let's get back to those nerve pills. What in the world were they calling nerve pills in the seventies, anyway?
J's brother got her to the airport, and she gladly accepted when he offered to buy her a drink. She was getting fuzzy when they parted like old friends. Then, "they" offered champagne on the plane. Keep in mind this was a short flight, so it's safe to say Grandma M was pretty buzzed when she met Grandpa J. She told him ahead of time she would be wearing a yellow suit, another bold choice, as they had never seen each other before.
At first sight, Grandma M knew she had made a mistake. She thought J was plain unattractive, and when he asked her what she thought of his car, she replied, "It's a car" and he repeated, surely a disappointed car buff, "Yeah, it's a car." Grandma said she noticed his purple socks and that he grew nice houseplants and cooked for himself in the home he built himself. She decided he was gay. That courtship was a long shot, but they fell in love and were married for more than 20 years, until he passed. And, I really do remember them loving each other, despite some cranky, yelling at each other, half-deaf years toward the end.
There's something about the image of my grandmother, all sweaty and high in her yellow suit the day she flew to meet J that I connect with, although it's not what she did exactly. It's a story from another time - before the internet, women's equality, and airline cutbacks. What I connect with is the awkward uncertainty at an age of experience. There is much that I finally understand with absolute clarity, yet I am also so clueless at times that I might as well put on a yellow suit, take a nerve pill, and hope for the best.
The last leg of our family vacation was a long overdue stop at my grandmother's, east of San Diego. I lost my paternal grandmother last year and was grateful that at least my kids knew her before she passed. Until this trip, my girls could no longer remember Grandma M, their last surviving great grandparent.
As many do at 86, Grandma M has health issues, some going back to her youth. At 16 years old, she was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor and underwent experimental surgery that she was not expected to survive. She remembers being rolled onto a stage during a teaching presentation, mostly only temporarily paralyzed after the surgery and unable to close her hospital gown that had slipped open as the doctors explained their methods. Those doctors must have done something right because she's outlived my other grandparents.
My mother works with patients in long term rehab, many with brain injuries, and the experience seems to have shifted her perspective a bit on her own mother's behavior. My grandmother is not known for her empathy and she's certainly not the best at filtering her thoughts. In my self-righteous early twenties, I argued with her angrily when she criticized women who work out of the home. She'd get just as heated, calling Hillary Clinton a bitch or whatever it was that Limbaugh was spouting off about that week. Those arguments were pointless as neither of us could possibly budge an inch.
During my childhood, Grandma M could be so incredibly disgusted with my brothers' and my lack of manners. I'm sure the three of us were really annoying, but you wouldn't expect your own grandma to be the one to point that out. After my parents had dropped us kids off for one prolonged stay, I can remember standing in the kitchen with my grandmother and quickly running my finger across the inside of the lid to an ice cream container for a little taste. She turned around to catch me, exclaiming like she was mad about it, "What are you, some uncivilized heathen?" No Grandma, I'm just a kid standing in front of an open container of ice cream.
And maybe it was the same visit with Grandma M, when she drove us kids into San Francisco from what was then her home in Novato. She apparently was having trouble navigating the sometimes steep streets of SF. Sweat pouring off her face, venting and cursing, as we inched slowly up, up, up then STOP! with a jerk at the crest, then down BRAKE! down BRAKE! down BRAKE! Through clenched teeth, she spit out, "I hope you know how much your grandma loves you for taking you to The City." All we could do was stare at her with wide eyeballs, wondering what the hell was happening and when our parents were coming back.
I have to say I was concerned about bringing my two wild ones with questionable manners to my grandmother's house this time. On top of that, I hadn't seen her since before my divorce, and I was anticipating comments that might hit a tender spot or two. Not about the divorce per se but possibly about my womanhood or general life outlook.
But no, for the most part, I was reminded of what I love most about Grandma M: she knows how to laugh at herself. My mother long ago learned to use humor to diffuse the tension with her mother. And from a young age, I was welcome to join in, gently calling my grandma on her bad behavior. She reacts with a sheepish look that is my favorite. My grandmother has always been insecure about her looks because her face remained half-paralyzed after the brain surgery, resulting in a crooked smile that she thinks scares small children - and it might, especially when she's cranky - but it's also uniquely attractive, and I see her beauty in her laughter.
Oh, and by the way, Grandma M can still party. We took her to her favorite Mexican restaurant, where she confessed to the hostess that it was so crowded there because she told too many people, and I learned she prefers the Cadillac Margarita. She explained she drinks half of it down before adding the shot of Grand Marnier, so "you really get the taste of it." Cheers to that, Grandma.
I was particularly happy to notice that Grandma M took an interest in Daisy, and Daisy rose to the occasion, using her very best manners. Too often, it's Violet adults dote on while Daisy looks on - it even happened at Daisy's last birthday party - but this was not the case here. In fact, Daisy left her great grandmother's with a very exciting secret to keep from her sister (we'll see how long). On the second and last night of our visit, after Violet had fallen asleep like a baby sister would, Grandma M showed Daisy, my mother and me her sparkly ring collection and without warning, handed one to Daisy. The other thing Grandma M is not known for is sharing. The ring she gave Daisy probably has no value in material terms, but emotionally, it's prescious. Everyone deserves to feel that special every once in a while, and it was Daisy's turn. It meant a lot to me.
You would think visiting my aunt after Disneyland would be a letdown for the kids. Not at all. Horses are her business; other attractions include ducks, chickens, cats, goats, chihuahuas, and birds; all pets - she doesn't even eat the eggs - in peaceful coexistence.
Some of my earliest memories are of visiting my aunt with horses. When I was little, I got to ride her pony bareback and will never forget when it spooked and galloped out of the ring as I clung to its mane for dear life, tears and snot streaming across my face. It was awesome. My aunt purchased English riding lessons at a stable near my home in Long Beach when I turned 13. At the time, I was obsessed with horses, pouring over horse mags, even trying to memorize the products in the ads. She gave me one of those black, velvety English riding helmets with the lessons; I was so psyched, I can still remember like it was yesterday. The downer was I had recently been prescribed a backbrace for scoliosis, and my first lesson was too painful to continue, leaving a ring of purple welts around the bottom of my brace. That was the extent of my breakup with horses.
But my aunt managed to never break up with horses. My girls and I hadn't seen her in years, and Violet told me she was nervous as Grandma drove us up to the barn. Then, a gigantic white horse - unpenned - walked up to say hi, and we knew we had entered a magical animal land of no worries.
I always loved spending time with my mother and her sister when I was a kid and not because of horses. My mother surprised me with the thoughts and stories she shared with her sister . . . wait a sec, I don't remember hearing THAT before.. And when I say hearing, I mean I always listened carefully to those two. You never knew what new interesting adult thing would be discussed, what skeleton in the family closet. I'm sure my brothers were around somewhere, but they never seemed to get the gravity.
My aunt also entered a new phase post-divorce in recent years, and she is stronger than ever. In her fifties, she finds time to trail run and surf in addition to running her business and caring for her various pet herds. My mother, in her sixties and no slouch herself, works full-time in a hospital and takes care of my kids in her "off" time. Having my kids spend time with Grandma and Auntie is a return to a source of my strength. Growing up, I learned by hearing my mother relate her vulnerabilities, make fun of herself, and prepare to take a stand in lively conversations with her sister.
Near the end of our one-day visit, my aunt's daughter joined the rest of us for dinner. Violet, of course, was immediately unreasonable before crashing in my lap. But over dinner, I caught a look of concentration on Daisy's face, and I knew she was listening.
This year, my parents gave my girls and me a very special
Christmas gift – a family vacation. A real
vacay. Here’s the plan: Two grandparents, one mama, and two
kids in one car and one hotel room. Sweet.
First stop: Disneyland. I grew up in Southern California and was feeling guilty that my kids, at five and eight, had never been. What I didn’t realize is how freaking crowded the park is these days. You just can’t move around there anymore without being rude. At one point, a toddler kicked my ankle so hard from behind that I felt like turning around and ripping someone’s head off. I had to remind myself that it was just a very young child trying to carve out a little space in The Happiest Place on Earth.
And it really was happy. My parents went all out with a two-night stay at the Disneyland Hotel
two days of passes to both Disneyland
and California Adventure.
breakfast with Goofy and friends
dinner at Ariel's Grotto
and front row at the World of Color water show.
My mother and I agreed that if we did it again, we would do one day of passes to Disneyland and another day to California Adventure. With the colossal lines, there was no need for full park access on any one day.
However, the special breakfast and dinner were well worth the splurge for the under 10 set. I have never seen a breakfast spread quite like Goofy’s – waffles, French toast, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, bacon, three kinds of sausage, eggs six different ways, omelet station, bagels and lox and everything bagel-related, enchiladas, chicken strips, fried chicken, mac and cheese, hot dogs, pepperoni pizza, peanut butter and jelly pizza, not to mention the ice cream, cakes, pies and cookies. Wow.
dinner was turkey meatball lollipops on
spaghetti, cioppino, and tri trip with a tower of appetizers and a platter of
desserts. Nice one.
On the second day, my mother and I split up with a kid apiece, easier
than trying to maneuver as a group.
I was excited to take Daisy on her first rollercoaster.
She was a good sport but obviously very nervous while in line for the
I promised I would hold on to her tight the whole time, and she wouldn’t be scared.
I was wrong. She slipped through my arms to the bottom of the car, where she
trembled in real fear for most of the ride. After, she gagged and showed me
where she was bleeding from biting her lip.
It’s a Small World was the clear favorite. Always the baby rides.
Even with the crazy crowdage, we had an awesome time. Not to say
the kids didn’t have their off moments. I literally had to restrain Violet, who
desperately tried to escape the restaurant when she got her first look at
Goofy, and carry her as she cried and struggled to stand with him for our before breakfast picture.
She loosened up, though, and by the time Sleeping Beauty visited our table, she
was entranced . . . and later, disappointed when there were no characters at
off moments, I did have one myself the morning we left the Magic Kingdom. My
mother had gotten up early to drive my father, who regularly works in SoCal, to
his office, and on the way back to the hotel, she called my cell. I didn’t
answer because the kids and I were sleeping peacefully in the lovely dark hotel room at 8:30 a.m. On a wake-up mission, she switched to the hotel room phone to instantly jolt us all out of
bed, and I didn’t take it very well. She was worried about the 11:00 a.m. checkout
time, which annoyed me so much I actually stomped my feet while whining to my
mama. Maybe too many baby rides.
And by the way, do you know they are calling this Tarzan's Treehouse? In my day that treehouse belonged to the Swiss Family Robinson. I don't like this one bit.
Daisy's really into making little gift boxes out of greeting cards.
Today, she was going through my reserve collection of birthday cards
and pulled out a card with a photo on the front of a very dexterous senior citizen
with her leg up a pole. I was hoping Daisy wouldn't open the card to the
greeting, which said something about still being able to get it up, and
I quickly thought up a rated-G explanation just in case. But that's not
what Daisy was looking at.
"Mom, should I just throw this away?"
No, why? I like it!
"You like this? An ugly old lady with her leg up a pole? Mom!"
I don't think that's ugly. Some day you'll be an old woman too. There are different types of beauty, you know.
"Tell me what's beautiful about this picture."
Look at her leg. She looks determined. There's a certain beauty in that.
"Mom, look at her face. Are you telling me that's beautiful? Really, Mom?"
I'm glad I got a chance to introduce Daisy to the deeper meaning of beauty.