Friday, May 27, 2011

Eulogy for a Grandmother

I’m not sure how you begin to talk about a life that spanned nearly a century—a woman whose time included half a dozen wars, The Great Depression, and 17 different presidents. But of course, this isn’t about history. It’s far more personal. For some people, we’re here to celebrate “Lou.” For others, “Mom.” For others, “Great Grandma.” For some who are here in spirit, it’s “sister,” “daughter” or “spouse.” For me, and many others, it’s “Grandma Lou.”

As Lou’s grandchildren, let’s face it, we were spoiled rotten. A lot of people don’t get to spend as many years with their mothers as we did with our grandmother, and she made every moment count. For those of us who grew up in and around the Twin Cities, Grandma was an everyday part of our lives. Even for those who visited from New York, Chicago or Anchorage, Grandma Lou was still a presence we always felt—someone who gave life some much-needed grounding. She was the center, the heart.

For me, as a child, I usually only got to see Grandma Lou and Grandpa Bob once a year, in the summer. After the interminable 500-mile drive from South Bend to the Twin Cities, you finally took that glorious left turn onto Avon Street, where the sight of the ivy-covered house at the bottom of the hill meant that you would soon be eating exotic sweets like Poppycock, running around a huge back yard that had a maple tree planted in your name, and glancing at faded black-and-white photos in the TV room—images that proved that even your grandma and grandpa were children once. At the end of one trip, I famously cried my eyes out when it was time to leave. Even more famously, I once served as a teenaged bartender during a mortgage-burning party in the basement. (For the record, I needed instruction on how to make every drink.)

Fortunately, my “Grandma Lou time” increased greatly when I moved to Minnesota in the winter of 1993. The first stop was Grandma’s house, where I would stay in the basement for a week before securing an Uptown apartment. My first memory of this experience is walking up the steps the morning after arrival to see a strange man eating bacon in the dining room. Grandma Lou strolled into the kitchen as if this was a normal occurrence, and when I finally cornered her to ask “who is that?”, her response was nonchalant: “Oh, that’s Don, the plumber. He seemed hungry.”

Like many in this church, in the last few years, my visits to 756 Parker Avenue took on a different meaning. We all tried to pay back some of that surplus of nurturing that had built up over the years, as impossibly wide as that deficit was. Some did the hard work—stopping by frequently to look after Grandma’s medical, household, financial, social and spiritual needs. I played the role of the hack documentarian. Armed with lunch and a laptop, I would visit sporadically—usually, it seemed, in winter—and we would talk for an hour or so over chicken chow mein and coffee. I was discreet about where I placed the USB microphone, but Grandma would always look at it as if it were an alien, a cockroach, or (worst of all) something from Minneapolis. The idea of recording our talks clearly made her uncomfortable. And when I started our first session by asking her standard oral history-type questions like, “please state your name,” “where were you born?” and “what were the names of your siblings?”, it felt more like a test than a real conversation. So I decided to wing it.

Of course, when it came to memory, Grandma’s long-term was far more lucid than her short-term. But even with the distant past, she wasn’t as quick to elaborate as I had hoped. I craved detail. I wanted room-to-room descriptions of her childhood home on Manomin Avenue. I wanted deep character sketches of her parents and siblings. I wanted her to remember what she got for Christmas when she was 6 years old, the smells of Thanksgiving dinner, the feel of her wedding dress—anything to give me a cinematic portrait of the past. I also wanted to capture actual recordings of the stories I already knew and loved—especially Grandpa Bob’s visits on the streetcar that ran from Midway to Cherokee Heights. And the story where she gave Grandpa an ultimatum during their courtship: “If you don’t get a car, I’m going with the other guy” ... and how Grandpa promptly spent all his money on a used Whippet and covered the torn seats with old suit jackets. (At family functions, my cousin, Erin, would often elicit a big smile from Grandma by reminding her that none of us would be here without her. I used to think, “Man, without that Whippet, I am toast ... ”)

I captured fragments of these well-known stories, but not as much as I would have liked. I did, however, uncover the occasional gem, like the story about a train trip to see family in Chicago, during which one of Grandma’s cousins basically proposed to her. Or the one about going to confession at the German church, and being told by the priest through the screen to “keep walking” another six blocks to the Irish one where she belonged—a story that I later snuck into a screenplay. Or the one about how during the Depression, her mother would gladly welcome complete strangers into their home who were going door to door looking for work, or a meal—something that we agreed would never happen today, and a story that suddenly made sense out of the whole “Don the Plumber” incident.

Over time, I realized that Grandma Lou’s dementia wasn’t erasing memories randomly. It was hierarchical ... a process that I thought of as distillation—like a fine spirit. The most important memories—the real flavors of life—clung on. And that makes sense. After all, in the big picture, “what did you have for dinner last night?” isn’t really that important. I came to expect that Grandma would tell certain stories in every session. Like the time she gave birth to her first baby, and the doctor said, “Wait, there’s another one in there.” Memories of her father’s strictness, which she regretted for the distance it placed between them. The unfairness of having to iron her brothers’ clothes and make their beds. The joys of the family’s summer cabin, and swimming across Lake Owasso to visit a boy she had a crush on. Or ice skating in Cherokee Park, and the thrill of having “a fella” skate up from behind and put his arm around her (something that I found rather forward, if not downright creepy, but that always brought a smile to her face). When she would inevitably ask me if they still “let kids skip a grade in school these days,” I finally caught on that the proper response wasn’t “I think so,” but “didn’t you say that you once skipped a grade, Grandma?” I tried to get her to say “colorful” things about her own children—Annette, Anita, Bob, Tim and Sue—who, let’s face it, all seem a little too good to be true. But she wouldn’t dish on any troubles or fights. The challenges of motherhood had all disappeared. I could see by the twinkle in her eye, all that was left was the joy.

Grandma Lou never stopped eyeing my microphone with suspicion, but over time, she did come to enjoy our sessions. I imagine that for a person who lives in a confused present, the chance to spend an hour or two walking through life’s deepest, clearest and most vivid memories is somewhat of a relief. Truth be told, I wish I had started sooner and done a lot more, because she always seemed a little younger when we were done.

But what I remember most about these sessions are the times when Grandma Lou would seem to drift away for a few seconds. Sometimes she would look out the window at that big back yard, and talk about deer sightings, or the days when the kids would skate or swim down at the pond beyond the fence. But other times, her gaze would turn inward. After talking about her childhood, her parents, her siblings, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren ... after finishing her second cup of coffee and looking at endless pictures in photo albums and on the refrigerator that documented the tremendous amount of life that she brought into the world—as I would wait for an answer to some specific inquiry like “what was your favorite Halloween costume as a girl?”—Grandma Lou would let the question drift away and say, almost to herself: “I’ve lived a good life ... ”

And I knew that this was the ultimate distillation. The memory, the feeling—the spirit—that would never leave her. Or any of us, for having known her.

2 comments:

Diane said...

Thank you for posting this beautiful eulogy, Marc. Much of the story is familiar to me because some of the principals (you know who they/you are!) are among the dearest people in my own life. And I was privileged to spend some time with Lou herself over the years. Farewell to a lovely woman, who did indeed have a good life. With love and sympathy, Diane

Michael Maupin said...

Wonderful, Marc. Thanks for sharing it!