Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy Happy Family Vacay, Chapter 3

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.

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