On this calendar day in 1980, my maternal grandmother passed away. I had just turned twelve, and she had been hospitalized for some weeks.
This was the first time I had lost a grandparent. She and my grandfather lived in Caldwell, NJ, roughly an hour away from where I lived in Jackson. Grandma was a soft-spoken, patient woman, rather frail physically for all of the time that I knew her.
One special memory of Grandma comes from the autumn of 1975, when my family had sold our home in Piscataway, and we had roughly two months to wait until we could move into our new house in Jackson. During the week, we stayed in Piscataway with a family with whom we were close. I was able to continue going to school for this reason. On the weekends, however, we stayed with Grandma and Grandpa Cahill.
My brother and I were energetic kids, and while Grandpa could tolerate only so much of us, Grandma never seemed fazed. On my weekends with her, I sat at the end of the long dining room table sketching birds, which fascinated me at that time. I was never much of a visual artist, so the robin redbreast seemed easiest for me to sketch. She always praised my work. Since I was a curious kid, I used to ask all manner of questions of adults, often on various topics. I would ask about everything from large numbers to planets to geography to distant cousins. She would let me look through stacks of issues of the Reader’s Digest. This would generate more questions. Grandma never seemed to mind.
Two summers later, my grandfather went to Lake Champlain, and Grandma spent a week at our house. My brother and I were thrilled to have her with us. Some evenings my parents went out, and Grandma would sit for us. If we ever acted up, she did not seem to mind. She never scolded us. In fact, when Grandpa returned from upstate, Grandma invited my brother and me to join them on a trip to Virginia to see my Uncle Donald, Aunt Barbara, and toddler cousin Bridget.
This began an odyssey that made even starker the differences between my grandparents’ temperaments. Looking back, I can only imagine that they had little idea what they were taking on for the next week. Suffice it to say, it was much.
As I mentioned, my brother Mark and I were kinetic kids, and the drive south was about four hours. We sat in the back seat of Grandpa’s big brown Lincoln Continental and were fascinated by the power windows, which we had never experienced before. To ask us not to explore their workings was simply not realistic. It did not matter that Grandpa had the air conditioner on. To see the windows glide up and down and to feel the warm wind fill the car made for some excitement on what seemed a long trek. Grandpa scolded, and Grandma softly laughed to herself, partly in a nervous fashion from seeing my grandfather vexed, partly out of amusement.
Grandpa soon found some relief, though. At a rest stop, a fly entered the car, and Mark and I adopted it as a pet. We called it Benji. Within a quarter of an hour, Grandpa must have wanted us to play with the windows again. Mark and I kept playing with Benji, trying to get him to land on us, or chasing him from window to window, trying to catch him. We argued, each saying to the other that if he were not careful, Benji would be squished. This went on for about two hours. Somewhere in Maryland, Grandpa lost his patience and stopped at another rest area, opening the windows and allowing our poor Benji to escape.
Once we returned to the highway, Grandma asked us to do our best to remain still and quiet for the last hour or so of the ride. Grandpa sternly warned us to leave the windows up. Grieving the loss of our pet, Mark and I were too dejected to do more than stare out the windows. Grandpa smiled for the first time since we left the house. Grandma tried to make conversation with us, but it was of no use.
Then, the last mile of the journey brought a miracle. As we turned on to the road my Uncle Donald and Aunt Barbara lived on, I saw a fly land on the hood of the car. Mark and I were certain that Benji in his devotion to us had flown along for the remaining hundred miles of the trip. We were elated, opening the windows and calling out to Benji to fly in to rejoin us. Grandma again laughed nervously. Grandpa grimaced and rubbed his forehead.
We spent the week at a nearby Holiday Inn, and Grandma was the buffer between Mark and me on one side of the room, and Grandpa on the far end of the bed on the other side. She also seemed to be the only reinforcement for Grandpa’s wits. Mark and I fought over crayons, argued over the television programs we wanted to watch, took twenty minutes to decide what to order at the restaurants we ate at, and embarrassed our grandparents at the pool with our bickering and splashing. To my grandmother’s mortification, I saw my grandfather emerge from the hotel room on his way to the pool–the first time I had ever seen him in anything apart from long pants–and noticed that one of his legs was atrophied, and his foot was shriveled into a ball.
“Grandma!” I blurted, “Look at Grandpa’s leg! What happened?”
Poor Grandma must have said a quick prayer that Grandpa was far enough away not to hear. Then she discreetly explained to me that he had had polio when he was a boy. Of course, I started with a litany of questions, and the next half hour of conversation kept me from arguing with Mark, and Grandpa enjoyed a peaceful swim. Grandma indulged my questions about her childhood and Grandpa’s with her usual grace.
Several days later, back in New Jersey, Grandma joined my brother and me as we excitedly looked over our bedrooms, which my mother had wallpapered and painted in our absence. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Grandpa greeted my mother with two words: “Never again!”
Grandma died exactly one month before my confirmation. I had never been to a funeral home before, and I felt numb when I saw her in the casket. I listened as people talked about her. I felt confused by the varying emotions I witnessed and felt–light banter in one part of the room, fond recollections in another, laughter in yet another, and tears here and there.
I am happy to recall these memories today and recently to have been given old family pictures of Grandma. I know she is still with me, whispering patience to my soul and praising me to have learned all of these years later to settle myself and stop fidgeting.