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It's genetic (part 1)

October 8, 2002

 

Like most people, through much of my childhood I had two sets of grandparents whom I adored. One by one, they drifted off into the ether, as the elderly do eventually; and now I have none.

 

But as I grew up, I realized how all four of my grandparents were extraordinary people in different ways, some more obvious than others: Grama Mary, my soul mate, showed me the worlds of art and mythology which I cherish still. Her house was full of dragons, carved and painted and documented in books. She was a research librarian at UCLA, and even though she had five kids of her own she was always adopting some foreign student to join the family for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner.

 

Grampa Fred, the rocket scientist, worked with Werner von Braun at the zenith of his career, and finished his career working on the Space Shuttle, after his humble beginnings designing vaccuum cleaners. If I ever mentioned some gadget I couldn't find at a store, he'd pop down to his workshop and make one for me, out of materials as homely as masonite and glue.

 

Grampa Bill, a chemical engineer, small plane pilot, and amateur photographer, found a perfectly preserved mammoth tusk while working on the Alaska Pipeline for Mobil Oil; and while bedridden with emphysema, he taught me to recognize Bach from Beethoven from Handel by ear from his extensive library of hand-crafted music cassette tape recordings.

 

They were pretty extraordinary people. But the fourth one, Grama Geri, didn't really have an extensive career or exciting interests or notable skills. She was the best and the worst of humanity wrapped up in one. She used to drive me crazy -- but it's she who, it turns out, I miss most of all.

 

Geraldine was a bank teller before she was married. She always loved a manly-man, and Grampa Bill was an outdoorsman who hunted deer and tended to build much of his own furniture, which never looked homemade.

 

She and Grampa Bill had one (surviving) child, my mom, who grew up in their Puget Sound home up in Seattle, before moving down to Southern California in the '60's.

 

Grama never seemed to age at all the entire time I knew her; photos, for the most part, confirm this. Very old picture, from the '40's, show her naturally darker hair ("mousy brown!", she'd snort, wrinkling her nose), but for the 28 years I knew her she dyed it blonde and always wore it exactly the same way, in large, golden curls around her head. 

 

She dressed daily in casual but sleek chino trousers and chic blouses with Pucci-inspired prints or modern blocks of color, unbuttoned to the start of her bountiful bosom; or trim, close-fitting knit sweaters, in elegant tones of tan and chocolate and white, or else black or navy. When she went out, she wore a scarf over her head and large sunglasses, like Jackie O.

 

I loved when she hugged me, and I could breathe her wonderful mixture of scents -- sweet oriental Tabu perfume, and the lingering alcoholic tang of aerosol hairspray.

 

She had a different handbag for every occasion, and she always, always wore high-heeled strappy sandals. She was about five-foot-one in stocking feet, and in my early teens I surpassed her height, even with the strappy  sandals.

 

Grama Geri's jewelry box held such fascination for me! When I was ten I would go through all the sparkling cubic zirconia necklaces and clip-on earrings, so glam and unlike my mom's simple gold chains and practical stretch-band watches. At Grama's, I could drape a jewel-encrusted choker over my forehead and turn into a princess; or put a different wedding cake-style diamond cocktail ring on each finger and say, "dahhling!" with a syrupy, Zia Zia Gabor voice. I could sift through the neatly arranged shoes on the floor of her closet (while I was still young enough to fit into her size 5's), and prance around in her sexy high heels. I had never looked twice at my own Mom's plain navy blue or brown loafers. Does glamour skip a generation?

 

My mom never wore much makeup, has natural chestnut brown hair, and still prefers jeans and a sweatshirt over anything tailored or trendy. She wears very little jewelry, and what she does wear goes with her to bed. She is a low-maintenance woman, an earthy alternative to Grama's celestial sparkle.

 

We always lived close to Grama Geri and Grampa Bill, and much of my childhood was spent in Grama Geri's company. She would take me with her shopping, to Macy's, or Bullock's, or the grocery store. Bank tellers and cashiers would always stare at us - me, at age four or five, with my halo of flaxen curls, and my youthful, glam little Grama with her dyed-blonde curls - and ask if I was her daughter.
 

"No," she'd smile, flattered at the misinterpretation of her age. "She's my granddaughter. Isn't she beautiful?"

 

"Yes," the teller would say sweetly. By the time I was six I had quite a complex. I really felt as if nobody loved me like Grama Geri when she was hugging me, cooing, "My precious, beautiful granddaughter," slowly and emphatically pronouncing each word as was her tendency, and I would close my eyes and smell her sweetness, and snuggle into her soft, motherly bosom.

 

"Aren't you a pretty little girl," one supermarket clerk said to me, as Grama and I waited for the bagger to finish up. Grama grinned proudly.

 

"I know," I sighed, looking the other direction. "Grama tells me all the time." Both adults looked horrified. Grama had created a monster.

 

Until I was literally as big as she was, my little Grama used to give me rather vigorous piggy back rides. "Gallop-a-trot! Gallop-a-trot!" she'd chant, skipping around from one room to another with me bouncing and giggling. She often did excercises while standing in front of the stove cooking dinner, and would jog in little circles in between each set. She had an exercise board, a square of wood on a rotating base, which you were supposed to stand on and swivel your hips this way and that. I used to sit on it and spin around and around, but she took it very seriously as a figure-enhancing exercise. I always told her she would live forever, because she was so healthy.
 

When I was little I would ask her how old she was, and her answer was always the same: "Forty!", with a chuckle. I believed she was forty until after my parents got divorced, and my Dad and I were discussing Grama Geri. "You know she's only forty?" I asked him.

 

"Uh, honey," he surveyed my naive eight-year-old face, "Your mother and I are thirty-two years old. Do you really belive your grandmother had your Mom when she was your age?"

 

I did the math, and was saddened and perplexed by the fact that he was right, she couldn't be forty.

 

"But, why would she lie to me?" I felt as if I would cry. Dad explained that ladies of a certain age often exaggerated their ages downward, and finally I felt satisfied that her lie wasn't malicious - only vain, which was acceptable.

 

One afternoon Grama and I were in a department store looking over some picture frames. Back then, a live piano's gentle strains could be heard in the background at every fine department store, broken often by a "bing... bing," chiming over the intercom followed by the genteel over-enunciation of some saleslady's name, repeated twice.

 

"Eh!" grama said, placing a silver-plated frame down onto its display table in disgust. "They sure don't make things like they used to." She said this about everything. 

 

"What's wrong with it?" I looked up at her quizzically. 

 

"It's," she searched for the word. She squinted down at me slightly, lips pursed. "It's... shoddy," she hissed. I nodded and silently added this word to my vocabulary.

 

We headed for the elevator lobby, and Grama let me push the "UP" button, which glowed in a bright orange-yellow circle. As the elevator doors opened, a stout, balding man emerged smiling courteously at the two of us. We smiled back in unison as we passed him to enter the elevator.

 

Grama cackled sharply as the doors closed again. "Did you see him? He looked like a turtle! Fat and bald!" She began making faces, pushing her upper teeth out over her lower lip. "Ayuk!" she said, and chuckled to herself. I had thought he was nice, smiling politely at us like that. But then I realized he was smiling at the wish that he could be like us, to be able to tell a shoddy picture frame when he saw one, which he probably couldn't.

 

"Ayuk!" I said back to her, with my forced overbite, and we giggled madly. But I felt a little guilty for making fun of the nice man.

 

After the divorce when I was eight or nine, Mom started working full-time. Since there was nothing else to do with us during summertime, Mom started sending my brother and me from our home in Northern Caifornia down to Grama Geri and Grampa Bill's house in in Southern California. They lived on a short cul-de-sac, and I knew all the neighbors. Grama didn't like most of them; The Axelrods were "Weird people," and dared to be jewish in a WASPy town like Camarillo; the Richards's dog never stopped barking and "Ought to be strangled," the Guerras were "Okay for Mexicans, but you know, more classy," and so on.

 

Mostly (and quite inexplicably), she disliked the Lowes, a youngish French Canadian couple across the street. I could never figure out what she didn't like about them - she'd just say, "You know they're not really French."

 

They had two children, younger than my brother and me. Mr. Lowe was a veterinarian, which was cool in my book - and one of the stray cats he brought home, Smokey, had adopted my Grampa Bill, and was my best friend while I visited. Smokey and I enjoyed quiet, hot summer afternoons together lying in the grass in the back yard, he perched like a sphinx on my stomach and purring. I was glad they didn't make us give him back.

 

Grama and I were just getting in the car to go to my swimming lessons when Mrs. Lowe walked down her driveway to get the mail. She waved at us, squinting in the sunshine, and Grama chuckled quietly and waved to Mrs. Lowe, leaning back and shading her eyes with one hand. We got in the car.

 

"That woman has got such a big bottom! Why doesn't she do something about that big bottom of hers? Just because she's a woman does not mean she has to have a big bottom."

 

I turned to see Mrs. Lowe waddle back up the driveway. She did have a pretty big bottom, and cheesy thighs showing out from under her white walking shorts.
 

When we arrived at my swimming lessons, Grama locked the car, then stood in front of me and turned her back.

 

"My hips aren't wider than my shoulders, are they?" she asked over her shoulder.

 

"I don't know," I said, looking at her boyish but not altogether narrow figure. She was pretty much straight up and down, except for her big Marilyn Monroe boobs.

 

"Well," she said, turning back towards me, "If my hips ever get wider than my shoulders, for Pete's sake, tell me!"

 

After we got home, and many times afterwards, I stood in her full-length mirror, trying to gauge the width of my hips and my shoulders. They seemed about the same. I was too young to have hips anyway; but definitely seemed like something to keep an eye on.

 

When I was in high school, Mom and David and I moved to the same town as Grama and Grampa, and we lived probably about a mile from them. Grampa Bill, who had emphysema for a long time, finally became gravely ill and was put in the hospital, about 50 miles away. Grama went every single day without fail for two years to spend the entire day at the hospital with him as he grew weaker and weaker.

 

Finally he was unable to speak because of irritation to his vocal cords from the oxygen tubes, and Grama brought a pad of paper and tried to keep his spirits up. She was not about to leave him alone in the hands of the hospital staff. She brought cocoa butter lotion to rub on his rough elbows, and sometimes, when I had come along to visit with Grampa, I saw her touching the back of her fingers to his cheek, saying, "my precious, precious love." It was strange seeing Grampa Bill, handsome icon of masculinity without even a single grey hair on his head, lying there helplessly for months on end unable to speak or do anything at all of any use.

 

One evening the phone rang at home, and Mom answered it. David and I were at the kitchen table doing our homework. She didn't say much, and the conversation was over quickly. She hung up the phone.

 

Her voice was hoarse. "Grampa died," she said. Though she had never felt particularly loved by him, now there was no chance for reconciliation. Her father was gone, Grama's husband of forty years was gone, and the conversation between them had lasted about two minutes. Mom had little to say to the the woman who had hated my Dad and had told her, when he left her with two young children to raise alone, "I told you so!"
 

When the time came, the three of us drove over to Grama's house to pick her up for Grampa's memorial service. Nobody else would be there but us; it was solely for our benefit, as Grama designed it, excluding all others, against Mom's desires.

 

Mom's Honda pulled up outside the house, and we made a well-dressed but slow procession up the driveway to the front door to get Grama Geri. Grampa Bill had died about a week ago, and for a whole week I hadn't seen Grama, though she hadn't been at the hospital all day anymore. I figured it must be nice for her to be able to spend some time at home again.

 

She answered the door and said, "Let me grab my purse, and I'll meet you outside."
 

We went back to the car and waited, listening to the radio play some QuarterFlash song. Ten minutes passed, and though she was a notorious primper, this exceeded her usual bathroom mirror time.

 

"Susan," Mom said with annoyance, "Go see what's keeping your grandmother."

 

I trudged back up the driveway in the flowery dress I hated, which Mom had picked out. The front door was unlocked, so I went in. Grama was indeed in the bathroom where I expected to find her; but instead of primping in the mirror, she was kneeling in front of the toilet with yellow rubber gloves on, scrubbing it with a toilet brush.

 

"What are you doing?" I asked, ignoring the obvious.

 

"Oh," she grunted, "This toilet. It's so hard to keep it clean."

 

"Grama, everybody's outside waiting for you."

 

"Well, tell them I'll be five minutes," she said, and with determination went back to scrubbing. I turned around and went back outside.

 

Mom glared from the driver's window of the car. "What's she doing?"

 

"She's just cleaning the toilet," I said casually. "She'll be right out."
 

"She's doing what!" Mom wrestled herself out of the car, smacked everything along the dashboard with her crutches as she pulled them out, and went back inside to get Grama.

 

This episode was forever referred to by Mom afterwards as a sure sign that Grama was "a little off" (said with a mystical expression, and intended more to explain their differences than to malign), whenever we have discussed her merits and shortcomings. I think she was just in shock after Grampa's death, and being thrust back into prosaic life without her usual daily hospital visit. Anyway, I always felt that I understood Grama better than Mom did.

 

When I started college locally, Mom and I started having some difficulty getting along, and we decided it would be good to get some space between us. I suggested calling Grama Geri and asking if I could come live with her for a while, and Mom agreed to the idea.
 

"Why, of course you may, Sweetheart!" Grama cooed sympathetically over the phone. "You can stay with me as long as you like."

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