<--Christmas 1953. From left to right on sofa: Grandma El (father's mother), Grandpa Larry (mother's father), my mother, my father, me sitting on his lap, Mona on the floor. Yes, my grandparents were dating at the time. And yes Mona has her hand on Grandpa's knee. And oh yes there's a story there!
Part 13? Uh oh. That sounds ominous. (Maybe that's why I totally and completely spaced on the date last month and blew my blog day.)
Then again, there's something about the holidays that makes me remember my grandmother in vivid technicolor complete with Dolby sound. I can see her now as clearly as I saw her when she was still alive: a vital, red-haired shrimp of a woman who was somehow larger than life in every way possible. Wickedly funny, fiercely critical, sneaky, manipulative, devoted to family (in her own way), totally independent, hungry for life and laughter and whatever adventures might be lurking around the next corner. She wore Tigress Perfume, drank gin, danced the mambo, loved men, and never, ever acknowledged the fact that she was growing old.
I often wonder how she would have felt if she'd known what a miracle her growing old really was.
Let me explain:
The bleeding started on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1979. I was twenty-nine years old. For most of my life I'd been in a battle with my reproductive organs: irregular periods, DES exposure in utero, an ovarian cyst that led to surgery when I was fifteen. "No reason to fear the worst," the doctors had said to me time after time. "Give things a chance to work
themselves out." So that's what my husband and I did. We'd been married eleven years at that point but time was on our side. We were happy. We were content. A baby would have been a wonderful addition to our lives but not wonderful enough for me to climb aboard the medical merry-go-round. Looking back, I think I knew where that quest would lead and I
didn't want to rush the inevitable.
But, of course I wasn't thinking about any of that when my last period started. I was crampy, uncomfortable, bleeding a little heavier than usual but nothing I couldn't handle. My husband was an AT&T union worker at that time, stuck with all the night shifts and holiday tours so the
workers with seniority could be home with their families. My parents decided to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, complete with Mona and Grandma and everyone else, so we could be with them.
As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse. All the women had advice to share. Aspirin. Tylenol. Hot water bottles. Heating pads. Whiskey in a cup of tea with lemon. A woman's lot. Men just don't know what pain really is.
"I used to suffer so with it," Grandma said as we sat in my old bedroom and talked after dinner. "Terrible cramps all my life, right up until my operation." She was still menstruating at 56 when a hysterectomy called a permanent halt to the proceedings.
A funny feeling came over me as I listened to her. No, I wasn't having a paranormal moment. It was that I knew more about my grandmother's surgery than she did. Grandma El had been told she had fibroid tumors at the time of the operation. The truth was, she had advanced uterine cancer. Back in the dark ages of the mid-1950s, doctors didn't have the miraculous tools available to them that they have now. Doctor Z removed her uterus and ovaries, removed as much diseased abdominal tissue as he could, then sewed Grandma up and crossed his
fingers. She never asked questions. Maybe if she'd asked, someone might have told her the truth but she never did. Not even when she was rolled under a massive radiation machine that burned the skin on her belly every week for six months. She didn't ask and they never told. And somehow it worked out.
But we didn't talk about that on Christmas Eve. She talked instead about her old friends Gracie and George Small, of how close they were. Just the two of them. "They didn't need children," Grandma said. "They had each other." She told me they had two twin beds but slept together in
one because they couldn't get close enough to satisfy their need for each other. Not even after fifty childless years.
To this day I don't know why we spoke about the Smalls that particular night. Or why I didn't realize it was my own future we were discussing.
The cramping eased up on Christmas Day but the bleeding still seemed a little heavier than usual. I curled up on the sofa and read all day while Roy was at work. I figured the worst was over but the pain started up in earnest on December 26th. Rhythmic, cramping pains that had me pacing the living room like a caged animal. I called my gynecologist but he wasn't concerned. After all, I'd just seen him three months ago and all seemed well.
It wasn't. I miscarried on the morning of December 27th. Torn between disbelief, sorrow, and absolute amazement that such a thing could actually happen--that we got that far. The D&C was routine and I was home the next morning. I felt simultaneously fragile and blessed and deeply sad. A whole new world of possibilities had suddenly opened up for us.
The telephone rang at two o'clock on the afternoon of January 2nd. I was upstairs, folding laundry in the bedroom "Doctor Soffer's office calling for Barbara," said a cautious female
voice. "Please hold for the doctor."
Trembling hard, I sat down on the edge of the bed. I grew up watching Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare. I knew what it meant when your doctor called you out of the blue. A rushing sound filled my head. I swear to you I could feel my heart slamming against my ribs, over and over, until I found it hard to breathe.
"Your path report turned up something totally unexpected," he said. "A lesion in the uterine wall. I'd like you to come into the office and we'll talk about it."
"Malignant?" I asked. Why not cut to the chase? "Is it malignant?"
He hesitated. "It's not benign," he said. He called it C-A as if the
word itself held too much power to speak aloud.
But then you didn't talk about cancer in 1979. Cancer survival rates were much lower thirty years ago and the odds were you weren't going to make it.
My grandmother never knew how much she helped me to be less afraid. My husband could hold me in the darkest part of the night and tell me he'd always be there but he couldn't tell me how to stop feeling a stranger inside my own skin. Only Grandma El could do that. I would talk
to her about surgical menopause, ask her questions, share the changes in my body and my head. But the bigger questions were questions I couldn't ask.
Were you afraid you were going to die? Were you afraid this whole wonderful crazy life would be taken away from you too soon?
I wish I could tell her that the greatest gift she ever gave me wasn't the alexandrite ring when I turned sixteen or the truth about hot flashes when I was twenty-nine. It was the gift of her survival, her long and amazing life. She had made it through and so would I.
I've told you many things about my Grandma El and I have many more to tell you. Not all of them are flattering. I didn't always like her but I always loved her and I am so deeply grateful that her strength and her resilience are part of my genetic cocktail.
The curly hair and dimpled thighs? Well, that's another story. . .
Merry Christmas, Grandma! I miss you.
If you read this far, you deserve a smile to take away with you so here's a totally embarrassing family Christmas story from the year 1979 with love from me to you:
Let me set the stage for you: it's late Christmas eve. Dinner is over. Everyone has gathered in my parents' living room to exchange presents. The games are about to begin.
My father always loved to watch Grandma and Mona trade holiday barbs and, to my shame, many's the time he made me laugh as they went at it. I'd look over at him and see his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter and that would be all I'd need to set me off, too. He either had a well-developed sense of the absurd or a really wicked streak when it came to his mother and sister. Even he wasn't sure which. The strange thing is, nobody ever acknowledged the fact that we were howling with laughter. We'd be laughing so hard that tears rolled down our cheeks while the insanity continued around us as if we weren't even there. I've always believed that my grandmother knew exactly what we were doing and that our laughter egged her on to new heights, the same way oxygen feeds a fire. Mona was simply oblivious, caught up in her battle with the woman who'd given her life. My mother pretended she wasn't related to any of us while my husband must have thought we were all certifiable. Looking back now, I wonder what on earth I ever found funny about any of it.
Year after year, Mona would pile presents on Grandma's lap--two, three, twenty of 'em, all beautifully wrapped and ribboned. Grandma, lips pursed, would open each package the same way a demolitions expert might dismantle a bomb. She'd push aside the tissue paper, remove the present, then hold it up for all to see. A frown would pleat her brow. If her lips
pursed any more she'd be in danger of swallowing them.
After a long moment of studying the gift in question, she'd say, "What is it?"
Mona, her voice tight, would answer, "It's a nightgown, Mother."
Grandma would consider the pink flannel object again
"A...nightgown?" You'd think English was her second language, the way she said the word.
"Yes, Mother, a nightgown. Sleepwear."
"Hmm," Grandma would say, inspecting the lace around the neckline and discovering a loose thread or two. "I suppose you went to Alexander's again." Alexander's was an infamous discount clothing store in Queens, the retail equivalent of Spam.
"Actually I bought the nightgown at Macy's, Mother."
"Well," Grandma would say, "you probably overpaid."
That was the Christmas Grandma gave her then fifty-five year old daughter Spandex bicycle pants and a khaki green army blanket.
My husband and I didn't have much money back then so we made most of our gifts. Collages. House repairs. Afghans and sweaters and hats and scarves. Grandma loved my
sour cream coffee cake so each year I made one for her. (I still make it every Christmas in her honor, believe it or not. And I bake the cookies from her old recipe.)
You know what's coming now, don't you? Mona would spend God-knows-how-many-bucks, trying to gain her Mother's approval and I'd come bouncing along with a $1.50 coffee cake and rake in all of the love and affection and gratitude Mona had been hungering for since her stay in utero.
It got worse as the years went on. You wanted to take Mona and knock some sense into her. Why are you doing this? Why do you want her approval when you hate her so much? You're never going to get it, so why put yourself through the humiliation? But the presents grew more elaborate as the years went on. Television sets. Fancy phones. Carpeting. All of them
met with the same icy stare, the same what-IS-that look of puzzlement in Grandma's blue eyes. And every year my coffee cake was greeted with the excitement usually reserved for an eight carat tennis bracelet in a platinum setting.
One year Mona decided to cut her losses, at least a little, and vary her gift-giving pattern. After five or six gorgeously wrapped presents, she handed Grandma an envelope. (Did I mention that Grandma had that Depression-era reverence for money? Did I mention that she took thrift to a
"I give up, Mother," Mona said. "If this is what you want, this is what you're going to get."
Grandma opened the envelope and removed the greeting card, read the verse--lips pursed, of course--then began extracting twenty dollar bills.
Mona leaned forward expectantly but was greeted with silence. Grandma sat there on my parents' sofa, clutching a bouquet of twenties, as silent as the Sphinx.
"Now what's wrong?" Mona exploded. "You don't like the clothes I buy for you, you don't like the appliances. Don't tell me there's something wrong with the twenties."
"There's nothing wrong," my grandmother said. "I just thought there would be more of them."
For real holiday spirit, dial 1-888-GRANDMA-EL!
PS: I'm Barbara Bretton and you can find me here and here. Or at least you will when I start posting again. Which will be very soon. Seriously. Hope your holidays are wonderful. See you in the New Year with more stories.