Celebrating Gramcracker’s 104th

Gramcracker with my Dad c1935.
Gramcracker with my Dad c1935.

As everyone notices I often write about my Grandmother, who I lovingly called “Gramcracker.” She has been missing from my life for several years now. If she was still living, today would be her 104th birthday.

Recently, I was the recipient of the most fabulous gift...this photo of her my cousin found in an old box. I shared it with my dad a couple of days ago. In his 81 years, he had never seen it. Everyone recognizes it though; clearly it is the full-size version of my dad’s baby photo.

I‘m guessing, just like many young mothers today, Gramcracker had herself cropped out of the prints she shared with family. I’m afraid that says something a little bit sad about women and body image and our inner-drives for perfection. Ah, but that is another story!

Today is a day for my own quiet celebration of her life and the gift that both she and this long-lost photo were to me. Every year on July 2nd, I try to sit quietly for a while and recall the most mundane actions of our times together. 

Sometimes I think about the epic, summer-long yard sales we ran together–that’s where I learned math and negotiation skills. As a result, my husband sends ME to the car dealer to make the family purchases. No one can rough up a sales manager like Mom. For all the extra nice cars I’ve driven through the years, I can thank Gramcracker for teaching me to wheel and deal before I started Kindergarten.

Of course, I spend a lot of time thinking about food too.

Her house was Kid-Land-Deluxe where non-enforced nutrition was concerned. There was an enormous chest freezer out on the enclosed back porch filled with boxes of Fudgies (I believe the common and trademarked name is Fudge-sicles) and Popsicles. At Gramcracker’s house it was totally acceptable (and expected) that the red and purple ice pops were for eating…the orange and green ones were only fit for the trash or to share with our beagles on hot summer afternoons.

Other “foods” at Gramcracker’s included bowls of Lucky Charms. And by that I mean literal bowls full of Lucky Charms without the pesky bits of tasteless, vitamin enriched “cereal.” At Gram’s it was fine and dandy to eat only the good part and dispose of the rest without being forced to “at least taste it.” I ate many dinners consisting of only sliced cucumber salad without meat or other icky stuff forced onto my plate.

There were stacks of wooden soda-pop boxes filled with assorted bottles of fizzy stuff too. Flavors like Orange, Grape, and my coveted personal favorite–Strawberry–were always abundant. Oh she wasn’t all sugar and empty calories…there was always milk in the fridge…chocolate milk.

Did I mention the “cornies?” That was the house-name for cheese puffs. Chester Cheetah and I were orange-finger-tipped friends all summer, year after year. My mom used to grumble it was a wonder that I didn’t die of Rickets by the end of each extended visit.

Good Times

As age and time took her mind, my grandmother slipped into a non-specified form of dementia. I was her some-time care giver during those last few years. My uncle lived with her full time and cared for her around the clock. Fortunately, she was never given to bouts of “Sundowning” like many folks with memory issues. So there was no out of character, combative fits, or terrifying times when she was scared to death because everyone was a “stranger.”

Her form of dementia had a good dose of across-the-board memory loss–with short-term and long-term lapses being about equal. And there were certainly confusion issues. Most nurturing acts such as bathing her and hair brushing she thought were being performed by her mother, no matter who was holding the brush or wiping her face.

When Gramcracker first started having issues, it was as a combo of her eyesight (may have been an early cognitive impairment marker) and her arthritis. She had worked a “man’s job” inspecting rubber tubes at Uniroyal for years. Here entire body had suffered the effects of the long shifts standing on her feet, bent at the shoulders, doing her job. As a newly divorced mother of three, she had been lucky enough to be hired during the War years. When peace was declared, she was again fortunate to retain her position because she had proven herself as a hard worker and excellent inspector.

Perhaps one of the earliest indicators of her decline was that she could no longer hold (her hands hurt) or see (her eyes were bad she said) her beloved romance novels. Over the years she must have read every single “Harley Quinn” Romance ever available at the grocer’s check out lane.

When the corner market lacked a fresh paperback for her to take home she was an avid reader of the National Enquirer–which I was also allowed to read…hmmm. That might explain some stuff 🙂

So, she began watching Soap Operas in place of her Romance novels. She called them her “Programs.” Inadvertently interrupting a “Program” by telephoning or stopping by to visit with Gramcracker without checking the time and TV Guide first could get you hurt!

After a few months, she began speaking as if she were a narrator for a real-life soap opera. It was funny, trippy, and only a wee bit worrisome.

As her body fell into a quick downward spiral, her mind followed along for the ride. Soon she dropped all social filters and spilled several very juicy family “secrets” with no cushioning or delicate prancing around the cold facts. She became brutally honest and very straight forward. A few of those tales are what I would refer to as “hair curlers” and I cannot be sure which ones were leftovers from her Soap Opera Narrative stage.

Over recent years, I have chased down the many of the stories she told me from that period and have found evidence of truth in each one–so far.

In my eyes, those few months of odd lucidity concerning the recollection of painful events was short lived. Suddenly she moved on to the last stage of her mental affliction; the “continuous loop.”

And that brings us to the day that I think I killed Gramcracker.

I know that sounds weird, nefarious, confessive…but I kind of worry that is what happened.

Let me explain

One day while my Uncle went out to a doctor’s appointment and to run a few errands, I came over to hang out with Gramcracker. Her state of “crazy” never really bothered me. I always thought of it as life in reverse. When I was little and living with her, I know that I did, said, and caused more than my share of absurdity. Like the afternoon my mom called the police because she thought I’d been snatched. I was hiding among the coats at the rack beside the telephone desk. When I heard her making the report I began to giggle. She hung up the phone and I got a heck of a whooping–Gramcracker wasn’t there to save me, she was sleeping after a night shift. I also know that I loved to sleep with her on her big feather bed. And she always let me, never complained, not a wink…even though I was a notorious bed-wetter.

The woman was a Saint in my eyes.

Her need to ask a question, re-ask, and then ask again– or to repeat the same sentence over and over didn’t annoy me in the least. Plus, among all the people she would see and not recognize–she always–always–knew me. She often couldn’t remember my given name, but she did remember that I was Goldie. Remembering me by the pet name she had given me, that was a gift for me to hang my heart on. All else aside, recognizing me as Goldie let me know she recalled our special bond.

On this particular day there were two questions that Gramcracker could not, would not let go of. Although they were nothing along the lines of what was shared between Bernadette and Our Lady of Fatima–the two things she kept asking me will never be revealed. And in reality, in the bigger scheme of things in the world, they were very small little matters, but they clearly were nagging her.

She asked me the same questions over and over in a carousel fashion.

I felt dizzy as she would ask, I would answer, she would ask the other question and before I could get the “brush it off answer #2” past my lips, she would hit me again with query #1. 

And then I snapped. Even though I had been told–don’t tell your Grandmother about blahblahblah#1–I did. 

She didn’t flinch. She moved on to question #2–I had been “sternly told” to not upset Grandmother with that situation either.

Well, she knew she had me cornered–I buckled–gave her the answer and then I watched as her entire demeanor changed. She relaxed, became quiet and a veil of serenity dropped over her. She was not upset. Gramcracker was a very intuitive woman and she knew she had been lied to about these two small issues for a long time. That hurt her, obviously pressing her with a great deal of unease. She was not shocked or upset. Relief is what happened. The two people and their “situtations” she had asked me about like a “ring around the rosy” were things she needed to know about. Without the truth, she could feel no peace.

When that understanding crossed the room from her adled mind to mine I audibly gasped.

Oh crap! I just killed Gramcracker! 

Seeing the great weight lift off of her I sensed that these were two very important answers that she needed to have. She was always a mother to many more than her own children. She worried about and protected and fiercely loved us all. She had to know that we were all safe–that was the end game for her life–to be sure that those she loved were capable without her. I felt like I had just given her the permission that she had been seeking to leave.

Several weeks later she “took a turn” and within days was gone forever. I knew it was okay with her, because she knew the truth about two nagging questions her heart couldn’t let her relent on. 

Living without her still hurts though.

But she taught me some important stuff and so I am strong. She taught me to fend for myself, only keep a man around if he was good to me and my kids, and to take good care of my hair–because it’s “a woman’s crown and glory.”

So Happy Birthday Gramcracker, I’m pretty sure you can see me–but just in case, I want you to know– I can buy my own car, I have a good husband–and my hair looks really good!  

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If you or someone close to you is a caregiver or love someone who is experiencing a dementia spectrum disease, do yourself a favor and check out the excellent blog “Going Gentle Into that Good Night” the information and stories there are worth a read! See it by clicking on the name. I highly recommend it.

And Many Joyous Returns

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Aunt Lolly wrote on the back of her own photo the date it was taken and “Aint I a sight”

 Mom recently had a birthday. I don’t think I am ready to admit which one, but let’s say that I’ve done enough of them to hope I still have a certain percentage left! I am also old enough to recall getting greeting cards in the mailbox from a generation or two older than my own grandparents. I wish I still had some of these treasures, but I don’t.

Year after year, I recall getting a card from a mystery aunt. I do not recall ever seeing the woman alive. She was the aunt of my great grandmother if you can fathom that! I also don’t think that she ever left her own house at any point during her golden years. Maybe she couldn’t fit through the door? I don’t know. I remember my uncles and dad joking that she’d have to be buried in a piano crate.

Sometimes they would talk about it and laugh and someone would start up a rousing riff of “Fatty Fatty Two by Four” on Gramcracker’s old upright piano. Everyone would sing along. I liked the song. It was naughty…especially the part: “couldn’t fit through the bathroom door–so she pee peed on the floor– poor old Fatty Two by Four!”

I never felt bad about singing along when I was a kid. No one seemed to notice that I joined in on the “bathroom talk.” They were too busy laughing and singing themselves! And I also liked it because they seemed to be crooning happily about this mystery aunt who always sent me empty birthday cards. Never a gift–always a card, with odd old lady sayings on them. “Happy Birthday, and Many Joyous Returns.” No $5. Signed in swirling old lady script (which I have inherited by the way) “With Fondness, Aunt Lolly.”

As a child I was dragged to more than my healthy share of funerals, I’m sure. But since I do not ever recall going to one with a piano case front and center, I’m pretty sure I missed Aunt Lolly’s. Maybe I had tonsillitis or something when she died. I got out of a lot of stuff because of my tonsils. They were pretty much terminally ill.

So, with that off my chest…yes, I’m getting old and I count my unappreciative, non-sympathetic attitude toward Aunt Lolly and her agoraphobia/obesity woes as things to repent for. Let’s move forward with the birthday thing shall we?

I am asking you all to talk about, write down, and reflect on the day and circumstances of your birth.

Wow, did we just step in a little bit of something there? If you are very fortunate, you may now have, or perhaps have had in the past access to an “unfiltered” elder. You know, someone with loose lips and one foot in the grave. I’m telling you now, suck up to these people and then hold on! They are golden if you want the real truth on a whole lot of stuff. Prepare to have your hair curled!

In my own family, my dad has a rather compulsive obsession (see how I skated around that one…I used the words slightly out of their standard order) with calling me or visiting each year specifically on my birthday. He needs to tell me the story of the day I was born. Now, my mom joins in with her part of course, but mostly, this is the territory of my dad. Since they are both past 80 now, when Pop called this year to tell me the story once again, I wrote down the phrases that he uses doggedly year after year to describe that day. Here are some excerpts:

December 11th it started snowing– That morning your mom said she thought she was having some pain– I put the chains on the tires– It was our 57 Chevy–We drove out the old highway–Doc said “get her here”– The snow was “Ass deep to a 10 foot Indian”– You were born 13 minutes before Midnight on the 12th– Mom said she didn’t want any kid born on the 13th.

I’ll fill in the details some day in my Memoir. The point is, I have heard those exact words year after year in the telling and retelling of my birth. I don’t want to forget them, the words. I know the story, but now, the exact words are what I need to get down on paper, for my OCD dad and for me– a chip off the old block–and for my own kids on down to and including Dollbaby.

Of course I have taken to doing the same for my kids now. Boring them each year over their festive dinner and cake…talking about the way they came into the world. One was a late fall baby, two were born in the summer time. I haven’t found colorful words to cling to and repeat…no 10′ Indians or tire chains. But some day, they might be glad that they can tell the stories to their own families. Perhaps they’ll sing naughty piano songs about their crazy grandmother? Who knows.

Maybe someone WILL write that down…

 

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