The Graminator Strikes Again

My grandmother was ninety years old when she came to live with us. She stayed with us until her death at the young age of 101. Those eleven years are a treasure trove of stories ranging from the challenging to the ridiculous, and sometimes the cringe-worthy. Of course, perspective is everything here, and what may have started off to be a particularly dark moment is now the stuff of family legend.

Take for example my cousin’s wedding.

As luck would have it, I missed this particular event because I was at Girl Scout camp, but the basic premise was fairly routine: getting a large family which included a ninety year-old grandmother out the door on time for an event two hours away. It just didn’t happen.

So my family barreled up I-95 in the big brown van, running woefully behind, and strategizing how to quietly sneak into a wedding in progress. At least it was summer, so no overcoats would be involved.

As fate would have it, they arrived during the bridal procession. My mom corralled everyone in the parking lot to wait out all of the pomp and circumstance, planning to shimmy up the side aisle as soon as all the attention was refocused on the front of the church. It was a solid plan, and one I have also had occasion to implement.

It was at that moment that she realized Grandmom had made a break for it.

My grandmother was a smaller woman, not much over five feet, and she had a strutty way of propelling herself forward which involved a Kramer-esque head jiggle. She always nestled her one arm under her bosom and swung the other one a bit, leaning back as she went, seemingly fueled by her matriarchal pride.

And she was at that moment strutting herself toward the center aisle of the church, a few paces behind the bride.

My parents tried the loud church whisper, and whether it was grandmom’s failing hearing or a dedication decision to ignore them, on she went, right behind the clueless yet beautiful bride of my cousin, smiling and nodding at everyone she passed, certain they were all pleased as punch to see her.

Thankfully, my cousin’s wife is a gracious woman, and while this might have infuriated a good number of brides, she took it all in stride. Maybe Grandmom didn’t hear my mom, maybe she just relished the attention, maybe she was reliving her own wedding, no one knows. But at least everyone was able to have a good laugh.

Grandmom at nineteen.
Grandmom at nineteen, pre-wedding crasher days.

When An 80th Birthday Goes Horribly Awry

My mother is a bit of a saint.

There are many reasons, but for the purposes of this story, she is a saint for her desire to give an insane 80 year-old a proper birthday celebration. A saint, but also a bit of an overreaching optimist, as fate would have it.

When her father came to live with us, pleasant yet extremely forgetful, his wife also moved to town, but into a nursing home facility. Granish, as she was named by my older brother, was sort of our grandparent, but not really, as she was technically a step-grandparent. But that is quite a sterile-sounding term, so the cutesy Granish moniker was created.

Granish had never been married before and had no children of her own. She was somewhat emotionally fragile, and not that long after marrying Granddad, she started showing signs of mental illness. Living in our house wasn’t a safe possibility, so she went to live at the nursing home where we all visited from time to time. She was a frightening character, hunched in her wheelchair, her shocking white hair always jutting out in various geometrical shapes, never letting the nurses get close enough to tame it.

There was only one occasion that my mom felt it our obligation to spring Granish from the nursing home: her 80th birthday. As far out there as she tended to be, Granish was fond of reminding us all that she was “crazy, not stupid,” and so well aware it was her birthday. My mom set the dining room table beautifully with the best dishes and even some fresh flowers, and tried to make a nice celebration for Granish.

At the top of the long dining table were my parents’ chairs as well as my Grandmom’s, while Granddad was at the complete other end of the table. Every night, after the standard grace before meals, Grandmom had taken to adding on bits of extra prayers. I’m not sure when this all started, but by this particular dinner, we were in the range of two extra minutes or so. Most of us worked hard to tolerate the extra frills, but Granddad was not accustomed to hiding his disdain and had taken to interrupting her. I don’t know if Grandmom heard or not, but she always managed to press on, determined to add in all the priests, the police, and the names of every dead friend she had, which, at her age, was an impressive list.

As Granddad had no short-term memory to speak of, I assume each evening provided a new frustration for him, but on that night he went with his standard move: yelling AMEN! every three seconds or so. But on this occasion, that of her 80th birthday, our guest of honor chimed in with her favorite mantra.

“GODDAMNIT GODDAMNIT GODDAMNIT!”

And so went the rhythmic theme song of Granish’s 80th birthday: “God bless our priests -AMEN! – GODDAMNIT! – and all the firefighters – AMEN! GODDAMNIT! – and all the souls in purgatory – AMEN! -GODDAMNIT!” until Grandmom ran out of her prayers and the rest of us dug our nails into our legs to avoid laughing hysterically at the horror of it all.

We had the good sense to not light 80 candles, at least.
We had the good sense to not light 80 candles, at least.

One Little Letter Makes a Big Difference

For whatever reason, all of the genetic material needed for making meaningless conversation was maxxed out on me. There was none left over for my twin brothers, I guess. So when the three of us are dispatched to relatives for visits, I end up being the one who chats incessantly, filling any and all awkward silences, typically in an awkward fashion myself.

I’ve hopefully perfected these skills as I’ve grown older, making sure to ask meaningful questions, steering the conversation toward pleasant topics, etc., but let’s just say that in the early years, I wasn’t so much a skilled conversationalist but more of a nervous talker. I never met a pregnant pause I couldn’t destroy within seconds.

One summer break during our college years, my mom strongly suggested (read: here are the car keys, this is what you’ll be doing today) that my brothers and I pay a visit to our aunt and uncle who lived in Northern Virginia. While this was only a little over an hour away, we hadn’t spent a lot of time with them, and this was our first visit to their home. My uncle was my mother’s older brother and only sibling, and as things often are in families, it was complicated. But they were lovely people who loved us dearly and wanted to spend some time getting to know us more.

We had a quiet lunch, occupying ourselves with many bites of food. As it turns out, my uncle and brothers shared a love of sports statistics second only to their love of long periods of silence. Having an only child, I imagine their home was typically so quiet you could hear a pin drop. And while my brothers certainly knew the answers to my aunt’s questions, they sat still as stones while I prattled on, happy to let me do all the talking.

Which is how the most glorious of word confusions of my entire speaking tenure came to pass.

At one particularly long pause, as all gathered shifted their gazes from left to right, wondering who would be the brave soul to save us all from the growing awkward, I stumbled upon the topic of our older sister’s approaching wedding. Solid topic. No controversy possible. Material for days. Until the record-screeching moment when I announced their living plans for after the wedding.

“They’ve rented a condom in Annapolis.”

A condom.

And there sat my brothers, silent as church mice, understandably shocked and unable to move.

Now had this been essentially any other relative, I could have cracked a joke, laughed off my slip, but NO, it had to be the quietest of politest relatives we have. Couldn’t have made this mistake in front of my rowdy Irish aunt, of course. She would have found it hilarious. She would have said something along the lines of, “That’ll be a tight fit,” and we would have all chuckled and each year it would have been trotted out for more laughs.

There was nothing to do but quickly correct myself and pray for death.

We remained at my aunt and uncle’s home for a solid two hours after this dreaded moment. This may have been the longest two hours of my life to date.

quaint waterfront home or prophylactic?
quaint waterfront home or prophylactic?
As we piled in the minivan to head home, no sooner had the sliding door latched that my brothers launched into a chorus of, “Icannotbelieveyousaidthatwhatiswrongwithyou”s. The three of us shouted it out, completely exhausted from the past 120 minutes of containing our laughter, horror, and really, our breath.

Suffice it to say, while my brothers never did up their pointless chatter game and still trust me to fill the silence for some reason, I made a wise decision that day: ALWAYS say condominium, never condo. It’s just a risk I’m no longer willing to take.

Running an Octogenarian Sweat Shop Takes Work

When I was just finishing middle school, my paternal grandmother came to live with us. She’d fallen into a bit of a funk after her birthday that year, and it was best that she no longer live on her own.

She was ninety.

A few years later, after some similar events, my mother’s father also came to live with us. He was a bit younger, still in his eighties, but while my grandmother had a memory like a steel trap, Granddad had a great deal of dementia. He mostly had no idea who any of us were except my parents. Incidentally, while Granddad had always been a difficult man, he was quite a pleasant one in those later years.

Being of sound mind wasn’t required for helping out around the house, though. And while Grandmom was into more domestic pursuits, Granddad preferred being outdoors. As his dementia progressed, he could no longer be trusted to make it home after a walk around the block by himself, so we usually tried keeping him relegated to the back yard where it was fenced and he could be seen. But on one occasion, he popped on his fedora and escaped out front to rake leaves, unnoticed.

After some time, someone took note of Granddad’s absence and the search process began. Unlike some other occasions, this was a short search, ending as Granddad was discovered prostrate on the front lawn. Thankfully, he was conscious, but seemed to be in some pain. So my mom loaded him into the van and Grandmom as well, and sped off to Urgent Care.

It’s tricky when you care for elderly folks, because there are sadly a number of people who aren’t kind in this world, and some of them take it out on old people in their care. When you bring an older person in for medical attention, it’s not unlike bringing in a toddler who has been hurt. So when my mother showed up with not one, but two very old people, saying they both lived with us, and one had a broken arm, there were some speculations. The doctor had some questions, and he intended to get answers.

“Sir, what were you doing when you got hurt?”

“I was raking leaves.”

“Why?”

Granddad pointed fearfully at my mother and cried out, “She makes me!”

The doctor turned toward my mother, the disgust painted on his face. And my mother, ever in possession of a snappy retort, gestured toward my Grandmom who sat there, bright-eyed and declared,

“That’s nothing! I make that one do the laundry!”

No further investigation was ordered.

Granddad Jack with his broken wing.
Granddad Jack with his broken wing.