Celebrating in spirit

Today, my grandmother is having her ninetieth birthday party.

She actually turned ninety back in March, but our family has never been bound by dates. We party when the time is right.

My aunt told me that Gran has been scouring her address book and her long memory to come up with dozens of people to invite. People are coming from all over the local Dayton area and from all the way across the country – some people whom she hasn’t seen since my grandfather died in 1999 (when we had a backyard cookout instead of a funeral), and some people whom she hasn’t seen in decades.

We cannot be there. Gas prices being what they are, the cost of airfare for three seats (CJ is still a lap child) is out of reach in itself. Add in the time off work for Kyle (mid-month is his “month-end”), and it would be downright fiscally irresponsible.

Happy birthday! We love you and will see you soon, one way or another.

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I love my grandmother. She is my only grandparent who is still living. As a child, I often told her, “Granny, I want you to live to be 100 years old!” She has ten years and one month to go.

I grew up only a ten-minute drive from the house where she and my grandfather lived. It’s also the house where my mother spent most of her childhood, along with her two younger sisters and younger brother. My grandparents moved into that house on Valentine’s Day in the mid-1940s, and every year we have celebrated by going out to dinner.

My grandmother has always been the ideal grandmother in my eyes. She is unfailingly indulgent, infinitely patient, and genuinely enjoys spending time with her grandchildren.

Gran would tear open a sleeve of Thin Mints and serve them on a plate, admonishing us that “the package is open, so you had better finish them.” She would warm up tray after tray of Morton’s frozen cinnamon doughnuts on Saturday mornings after we had spent the night. Gran’s motto is: “There’s always room for ice cream. It melts and fills in the cracks.” I never left her house empty-handed, or with an empty stomach.

As a child, I didn’t sleep well. I stayed up until all hours (watched Johnny Carson far more often than any child ever should have) and woke at the crack of dawn. My grandmother woke up with me, and even though she was rarely able to persuade me to go back to bed, she never became frustrated (or at least she never showed it).

She let me dictate what games we would play, let me ramble on and on about what I was doing at school, let me explore every inch of her house while she answered questions about whatever I discovered. She provided drawing paper and markers. She let me scribble on her bank deposit slips, pretending that I was writing checks. She took me on walks to the nearby shopping center, to the playground, to the “city building” (the city government complex), on the bus downtown to go shopping and out to lunch. I still remember that the toy department was on the 8th floor of Rikes, and she would always let me pick out a paper doll book. Then we would stop on the 1st floor on our way out to pick up some candy. Spearmint leaves were my favorite.

Even when I was no longer a child, I still visited regularly. My grandmother was always happy to see me, and her house was a welcome walk down memory lane. Gran had also become a staunch ally of mine, defending me when my behavior exasperated my parents.

In the fall of 1990, during the World Series, she and my grandfather were robbed at gunpoint in their home. It was obviously a terribly traumatic experience for them, and it apparently sparked cycles of manic-depressive behavior in my grandmother. She has been taking Prozac ever since, and my aunt, who is a RN, monitors her cycles closely and does her best to predict Gran’s highs and lows. Together, they manage the situation quite well.

When Gran is up, it’s as if she is in her sixties again. She can do anything. She wants to call her family and friends, get her hair done, go out for dinner, make grandiose plans to fly across the country to visit her great-granddaughters. She stays up half the night making fudge and puttering around the house. My father once nearly called the phone company to report an error on the phone bill – my mother couldn’t have called my grandmother and stayed on the phone with her for over 400 minutes, could she? According to my mother, she sipped her wine and went to the bathroom every hour or so, but most of the time was spent listening to my grandmother.

But when Gran is down, she sits. She doesn’t want to do anything. She doesn’t cry or become distraught; she simply disengages. It doesn’t matter what may be happening around her – nothing holds her interest.

We visited in July 2003 for a wedding on my father’s side of the family (who also lives in the area, but much farther away). When my aunt picked us up from the airport, she confessed that Gran was in the hospital. Apparently, her depression had become more severe, including a few episodes of outright paranoia, and it had been determined that she was better off in the hospital where her medication and her behavior could be monitored much more closely.

I was not prepared for what I saw in the hospital. It just wasn’t my grandmother. I had never seen her look so frail, nor had I ever heard her so incoherent. And I had never been so scared that I might lose my Granny.

(She remained in the hospital for a few weeks. My aunt came to visit her one day after work, and inexplicably, my grandmother was herself again. Completely. She had been moved to the psychiatric ward, unbeknownst to her, and she remarked quietly to my aunt that “some of these people just don’t seem right.”)

We visit her as often as it is feasible. I remember to tell her that I love her each time that I speak to her or write her a letter. I send her pictures of the girls. I listen with great interest when she reminisces, and I join in where I can. I want her to know how important she has been to me all my life. I want her to know how much I still love her and always will.

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