How to Dance in the Rain: Another Lesson from My Grandmother

I wake Friday morning. Think: Another day. Another gift.

Full from Thanksgiving, I dress for a jog, or maybe the YMCA. Whim will decide.

A jog would mean fresh air and sunshine and — the big payoff — an expansive ocean view. The gym would mean maybe I pick up some weights, challenge my muscles. That’s important for a woman my age, I hear. I jog toward the gym.

I choose an elliptical at the end of the row, to put some space between me and the other post-indulgence machine-runners. It asks my weight and my age so it can choose how hard I should work. I lie about my age. By a lot. It’s not vanity; this machine doesn’t know how strong 49 can be.

My view from this machine is split: on the right, through the open double doors, I see the elementary school across the street. I am looking directly at the windows of Aaron’s first-grade classroom. I play a trick on myself; I time travel. “Imagine it is 11 years ago,” I tell my brain, “and Aaron is 6 and learning double-digit addition and subtraction, using the newspaper’s box scores to add each quarter of the basketball games.”

The trick makes me nauseous. I can’t sustain it for a second. That little boy is almost 18, graduates high school in months, then will leave for college. Fuck!

It goes so fast.

On the left side, my view is of televisions mounted to the wall. They are there to distract us, keep us pedaling, jogging, climbing, longer. Trying to stay healthy, longer. Trying to make our time here longer. On one TV is a college basketball game, all eyes on the coach. I time travel again, forward this time, and imagine that coach is Aaron, and I am on this same elliptical machine watching him live his dream. I believe in his dream. I smile. Thinking about the future doesn’t make me nauseous like returning to the past did.

The hardest challenge is being right here, now. I once wrote on a rock, “Be here now,” trying to create a reminder to help me stay present. Emmett found my rock and poked fun at my solemnity, writing on the back, “Where? HA! HA!” I found it on my desk. It was so Emmett, I had to laugh. I can take myself too seriously.

At the Y, a man I’ve known all my life walks in. We went to kindergarten together at that school across the street. Then his daughter and Aaron went to kindergarten together there. She’s also on the edge of what’s next. “How’s the college stuff going?” he asks. This can’t be happening, I want to say. They are only five, I want to say. Hell, WE are only five! “Great,” I say.

It goes so fast.

I walk home, it’s time to get ready to leave for the unveiling of my grandmother’s gravestone,. It has been a little more than a year since she died, and her name has been added to join my grandfather’s. We chose Thanksgiving weekend so all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be present.

We gather under a white canopy on a picture perfect fall day in Los Angeles. We have no clergy, we only need ourselves. Our memories. Where to beginThere are so many, my sister says. This is not the end of telling stories, my mom reminds us. My aunt shares, “Some people wait for the storm to end, and some people dance in the rain.” Lilli danced in the rain. My cousins tell of the evil eye she gave to anyone who asked her age, including her kids. We laugh. And on we go.

I have brought my “Be here now”/”Where? HA! HA!” rock to leave on her gravestone. I love how it marries her occasional word of wisdom with her abiding need to crack herself up. I have spent hours telling her stories about things my boys had done, hoping to give her a laugh, perhaps a funny anecdote she could retell herself when she needed something to cheer her. I tell my family the story of the rock, from my intention to Emmett’s rewriting. We crack up. It is perfect.

I try to be present now, to cover my ears to the siren call of future and past. I give thanks for a family that holds these memories with and for me, a family connected by shared love and history, by reminders to dance in the rain, and laugh as hard and as often as we can.

We all put rocks on the gravestone. They are decorated and glittered and painted, some with words evoking Lilli, like LOVE and FAMILY and BROOKLYN. We cover every space, we make that gravestone look like a party, the best party you ever went to. We ask each other what will happen to the rocks, noticing that all of the others around here are bare. There is talk of returning with Gorilla Glue, perhaps adding a new story to the canon.

There is something about a grandmother’s love.

I had dinner with my grandmother last night, with my husband and our sons.

It was her birthday. I can’t say her age. It is not allowed. But it doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is I had dinner with my grandmother last night. Here I am, a woman with a husband and a high schooler and a tween, my own half-century mark in the oncoming headlights, and I still get to soak in my grandmother’s love. I am not the 7-year-old girl sewing pink satin overalls for her teddy bear with her grandmother, or the 11-year-old practicing tap dance routines with her grandmother, or the 14-year-old swimming in her grandmother’s pool “performing water ballet” and imploring her to watch my handstands. I am a grown up. But she is still, as ever, her.

There is something about a grandmother’s love, and a grandfather’s. These days I identify mostly as the Mom, the middle generation, so when I think of grandparental love I think of my kids with their grandparents. I think of my parents and my husband’s parents, and the way their faces beam when they play with their grandchildren, and teach them, of the way they comfort and care.

My sister reminded me that for both of us, our vivacious redheaded grandmother is not just a model of positive attitude, but a source of solace when we are blue. I don’t know what her magic is, but I’ve always known I could find some relief on the other end of her telephone line when I needed it. When, at 15, I had just received the ugliest haircut ever, I dialed her number and she said, “Laura, it’s growing even as we speak.” That did the trick. I stopped freaking out, and she was right: it grew. When I felt lonely, without friends, I called her and knew that even her answering machine would tell me, “I really want to talk to you. Please leave a message.” I called back to hear her recorded voice say it again. It’s not just what she says, it’s how she says it. There is something in her voice that reassures, “everything is going to be okay.” She believes it, so I do, too.

There is something about a grandmother’s love. Even today, my sister, cousins and I feel it. On a phone call, I know that after I say, “Hi Grandma, it’s Laura,” I will receive the gift of hearing, “Laaaaaaurrrraaaa!” in response. As if the whole world is brighter because I am in it.

There is something about a grandmother’s love. It tells you: everything you are is enough.

“Happy birthday,” we say, and we each hug her goodnight. “I love you, Grandma.” I hope she knows how much.

 

IMG_1080

The Fabulous Grandma Lilli

 

And the next generation of grandmothers…

Grandma Joyce (aka "Jujee")

Grandma Joyce (aka “Jujee”)

 

Grandma Fran (aka "Nanny")

Grandma Fran (aka “Nanny”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking of You, Twelve Years Gone

January 27, 2000. I was sitting at the kitchen table finishing a bowl of cereal, soaking up the unlikely view from our window – a secret farm hidden behind a bland 4-unit apartment building on our crowded block of bland apartment buildings in West L.A. I used to call it Brentwood, but it was more Wilshire than San Vicente. Yet my morning walks took me past Monica Lewinsky’s father’s home and the townhouse where O.J. didn’t murder anyone. So Brentwood seemed a reasonable designation.

This view from the kitchen window was the selling point of our apartment. Where else in a densely-packed post-grad-school neighborhood could a person enjoy such fertile beauty? In the garden, my neighbor worked amidst his rows of lettuce, tomatoes and sweet peas, his wide brim hat spreading out as far as his shoulders. He must have lived there for decades, I thought, cultivating the soil behind his building, while on the other side cars competed for scarce parking spaces and tiny dogs soiled the sidewalk, oblivious to the existence of his magic garden.

We had lived there for two years, a long time for us at that point in our lives. It was our first apartment together, my husband and me, the place that put an end to the nightly question as our courtship advanced, “Whose place tonight?” Now we had only ours. Soon we would be moving to our first house, leaving this place that launched our marriage.

My next-door-farmer turned his head, caught me watching him from above, and waved to me. I waved back, an embarrassed voyeur. At the sound of the ringing phone I stood up like Pavlov’s dog and moved to answer it. The clock on the wall said 8:05. It was time to go to work, my other place in the world. I was dressed in casual clothes suited to my identity as a public interest lawyer. I had a touch of the self-righteous to me, working for equality and civil rights. My grandfather, long suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, had nonetheless managed to hold onto his nickname for me, “The Lady Lawyer.” It made him laugh whenever he said it, maybe owing to a disconnect between his perception of me as a little girl, and a lawyer. Maybe he thought I was playing dress-up. “Laura the Lady Lawyer.”

He was on my mind. After many years of being cared for at home by my grandmother, she had added a daytime caregiver. The woman was loving, kind, and strong enough to get him in and out of bed, and to the bathroom. But when the caregiver had to be out of the country for a week, my grandmother knew she could not take care of him on her own. Reluctantly, and at his doctor’s urging, she called a nursing home. After a few days there, he had developed pneumonia. Now he was in the hospital.

I had visited them every day. Them, because my grandmother was always there. I was as worried for her emotional state as his physical. She stayed in that room, fed him, sang to him, told him jokes, trying like hell to get her husband to come back, even for a second. She leaned up close to his face, shouting a punch line. “A million dollars, Al. Get it? A million dollars!” Eyes closed, he nodded. He tried, for her.

“Hello?” I answered the phone. I couldn’t see the farmer anymore. I knew he was still out there, moving down the row, removing weeds and dead leaves from the vegetables bursting out of the ground.

“Laura.” It was my mom. “Grandpa Al…died, honey. I’m so sorry.”

Instead of going to work, I drove to my grandparents’ apartment – their last shared home of a 63 year marriage. My parents, aunt and uncle, and a cousin were already there. My sister and three-year-old niece Rebecca arrived.

“Where’s Al?”  Rebecca asked her mom, puzzled as to his absence from the chair she always saw him sitting in.

My sister answered with words I didn’t expect: “Grandpa Al is in heaven now, with his mommy and his brothers and sister. And he can see you and hug you.” My sister’s eyes flooded as she spoke. We shared a look that said, “Do you really believe that?” and “I don’t know — maybe.”

“Oh,” Rebecca replied. Her mother’s explanation fit naturally into her magical world view. She reached her arms straight up, receiving and returning his embrace. I watched, jealous, wanting to be able to hug him, too.

Now I sit here at my desk, twelve years later, and reach for the sky.