When I took my first summer vacation home from college, there was an airline strike of some kind — pilots, flight attendants, something.
“We’ll drive,” my mother said.
We packed my stuff and my grandmother into Mom’s 1963 powder blue Lincoln Continental, a magnificent road yacht, and set out from the Tampa Bay area to New York City, with Mom and me sharing the driving.
My grandmother’s life had, for all purposes, come to an end by that time, the fall of 1966. She was born in Dakota territory in 1885, just ten years after Custer’s last stand. Chester A. Arthur was President. She married my grandfather in a house that he and his brothers built, and she lived there for more than fifty years, in a town of fewer than 1,000 souls.
I used to stay with Grammy and Grampa in the summers, for ever-longer stretches of time. “Three weeks!” I remember bragging to one of my pals when I was perhaps eight years old. By the time I was ten, I was spending the entire summers there, living a kind of boyhood that had more in common with Tom Sawyer than with the Mickey Mouse Club.
MY GRANDFATHER DIED IN 1959. Grammy and I sat together in the first pew in church at his funeral, and afterward she told me I was her little man now.
That lasted, I believe, for two summers. Then it became obvious it could not work anymore. I was growing up. She was growing old.
In photos taken in the early 1950s, my grandmother was very fat, probably 190 pounds. When she was diagnosed with diabetes, she was able to control her blood sugar with diet and with pills, and she lost weight, finally ending up about 155.
Old women do not look like this anymore. What exercise she got, she got from hard manual work around the house and garden. She had no real shape, other than that of a wrinkled potato. She had never been good looking. She wore dentures, and her lower jaw jutted awry from an injury I had inflicted on her with my hard head when I was a baby sitting on her lap.
She had a shapeless, pitted nose, and whiskers sprouted from her upper lip and her chin. Every day, she wore a brassiere, a lace-up girdle, large underpants over the girdle, and a slip over the entire ensemble. Stockings fastened to garters on the bottom of the girdle. Over all went a dress of some filmy material, and, often, over the dress, went an apron. She wore chunky shoes with a thick heel.
She walked bow-legged from arthritis, and her fingers were bent and lumpy.
IN JUST SUCH SHAPE, AT THE AGE OF 81, Grammy saw Manhattan. We took a day and a half and toured what we could. I had to lean into her and give her a boost up the tall steep steps of the 42nd Street crosstown bus — I believe we were on our way to the Empire State Building. The bus driver treated us very kindly and took his time.
Mom and Grammy stayed in a hotel on 49th and Lexington. In the attached restaurant, behind a yellow-lit window, the chef made a flamboyant gesture with his knife and greeted us effusively in Spanish.
“Land sakes!” Grammy exclaimed again and again. “My, my!”
She acted as if Spanish were the first foreign language she had ever heard. I know now that’s not true. There were old-timers around Arlington — some of them Grammy’s relatives — who spoke Swedish and Norwegian and German. On the other hand, she had grown up with those languages, and they were not foreign.
MOM AND I WERE DEDICATED, EXPERIENCED MIDWESTERN DRIVERS. On Sunday, we drove the Lincoln across one of the roads at the northern end of Central Park, and found ourselves on Fifth Avenue. I was at the wheel, and we started downtown, aiming to see all of Manhattan at one shot before Mom and Grammy headed home.
Block after block passed. We hit every light on green. After twenty-odd blocks, the thought came to all three of us at once: Can we make it all the way downtown on green lights?
Uptown blocks passed smoothly. In 1966, on an early Sunday afternoon, there was almost no traffic in Manhattan. Fifty-seventh Street, green light, into the vast canyons of midtown. Forty-second Street? Smooth as glass, green light. I could tell, as we approached the vast open plaza of Herald Square, at Thirty-Fourth, that we might get stopped there, so I looked ahead and pushed it a bit, and we just slipped through on amber.
My mother chuckled. We were home free. The remaining thirty blocks we drove without a hitch, green light after green light, till we came to a halt at the Washington Square arch, the end of the grand avenue.
In the back seat, my grandmother gave out with her high-pitched laugh: “Hee!”
THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE LAST GOOD TIME my grandmother had. By the following year she had given up. She refused to put in her dentures, refused to eat, refused to leave her room.
When she died, we buried her in the Arlington cemetery, next to my grandfather. We held her funeral in our old church, which has long ago been torn down.
Almost nothing remains of her life: A hymn book from that church, with a dedicatory name plate inscribed in her hand to my grandfather’s memory, a recipe for lefse tucked in an old cookbook. I use her sugar spoon in my coffee canister. We have “Grammy’s good dishes” in our cupboard.
I still have dreams where I wake up in her old house and imagine myself living in Arlington. No one has ever influenced me more.