diagonals

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Lizzie

The sound of a truck backfiring woke me like a gunshot. Taking in my surroundings, I sleepily remembered that I was at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the weekend. The guest bedroom window faced Sherman Way, a busier street than the quiet residential one where I lived with my parents, and I often woke with a start to the sounds of an unfamiliar neighborhood. I turned over in bed, saw that it was 6:50, and felt my stomach rumble with hunger.

In the gray morning light, I got out of bed and traversed the short hallway to the master bedroom where my grandparents slept peacefully. I made my way to the right side of the bed and studied my grandmother’s sleeping face, freckled like my own. After a moment, I lightly touched her arm and whispered, “Matzo meal pancakes. Grandma, matzo meal pancakes.” She stirred and opened her eyes, reaching with one ever-shaky hand for the glasses on her nightstand.  Glancing at my grandfather, she slowly got out of bed and put on her familiar house robe, took my hand and led me quietly out of the room.

As my grandma prepared my favorite breakfast in her small townhouse kitchen, we chatted about school, about what I would do that day with my grandpa, and about books. A sometimes-harsh and always-stubborn woman who could be the sweetest you’ve ever encountered or take you down a peg with her pursed lips, Grandma had a soft spot for me as her youngest grandchild and didn’t bother to hide it from the rest of the family. Those mornings with my grandmother are some of the fondest memories of my childhood, and her constant affirmation that I was the smartest and prettiest little girl in the world certainly made me feel that, if nothing else, I was the most-loved.

Matzo meal pancakes are ready to eat when the edges turn brown and start to bubble. I liked them best served with sugar sprinkled on top, and after eating my fill I watched TV sprawled on my stomach in the living room, waiting patiently for my grandfather to come downstairs.  Grandpa was a gentle giant, overweight and soft-spoken, with a sweet demeanor and a light-hearted sense of humor. I began to giggle softly as I heard him approaching, knowing that as soon as he reached my spot on the floor he would step on my feet and tease me good-naturedly. “Good morning, second-favorite granddaughter,” he said with a straight face.  Over the years, this joke never lost its magic for me or for my only other girl-cousin Sarah, also his “second-favorite granddaughter.”

Depending on the weather, Grandpa would take me swimming or to the petting zoo nearby.  He would tell me stories about my mom, his only daughter and pride and joy, and about his dog Peter, long-dead by the time I came along. For lunch, we would have McDonalds; my grandparents both loved fast food, and would rave about their Big Macs and “flapjacks.”

After our outings, we would come home to my grandmother and settle in for the evening. Grandpa always kept a plastic jug of pine nuts to snack on while watching Magnum PI and Murder, She Wrote.  I’d curl up on the arm of his recliner, and together we’d shell and eat mountains of them.  Sometimes I’d retire to the second floor landing, where my grandparents set up a desk at which I would read, write and draw.

During my early teen years, as my interests shifted from matzo meal pancakes and petting zoos to cute boys and learning to drive, Grandma and Grandpa moved two hours away to Palm Springs.  With each visit, I noticed that Grandma’s eyesight and hearing were rapidly deteriorating and that Grandpa seemed a little quieter, less steady on his feet. It was heartbreaking to watch my grandmother’s chair, from which she would bellow at her favorite Lakers players, as it inched closer and closer to the TV.  More tragically, her love of reading, which we shared, was destroyed along with her vision.

When my grandpa underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery, it was a difficult time for the entire family.  We practically lived at the hospital, and the stress on my grandma was immeasurable.  Grandpa would cry often, which scared me.  He spent several weeks in the ICU as his condition declined quickly due to an infection.

One day, my mom dropped me off at the hospital and I walked through the ICU doors to see my grandfather sitting up in bed, the doctor standing beside him and my grandma seated on the bed next to him rubbing his back as he gagged into a kidney-shaped receptacle. Fifteen years later, when I think of love, marriage, “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” instead of romantic strolls and passionate kisses, in my mind’s eye I see her rubbing his back and think how it must have killed her to see her husband of over 50 years so gravely ill, and how love made her strong. I, on the other hand, turned on my heels and ran; I ran out of the ICU and out of the hospital to the parking lot, where I waited for my mom to come get me.

Grandpa recovered but was forever changed by the experience. He seemed to have aged beyond his years. He was quieter, more introspective, less jovial and more sensitive than ever. The special relationship I had with my grandparents as a child had become distant, but they still found ways to tell me how much I meant to them, how proud they were of my accomplishments and how I deserved nothing but the best. I went away to college in Boston knowing that I had the support of my family and that my grandparents were in relatively good health.

The call came early one May morning. In an effort to spare me from worry during final exams sophomore year, my parents had downplayed my grandmother’s emphysema – the debilitating disease that robbed her first of her breath, then of her life.  Arrangements were made for me to forego finals to return home for the funeral. Alone, I packed my belongings and distributed them amongst friends who would store them for the summer.  Alone, I took a cab to Logan Airport and boarded my flight to Los Angeles.

As I prepared myself to attend my first funeral, I felt lost in the shuffle. My boyfriend was still finishing classes and my best friend was nowhere to be found; both absences were profound to me. I felt that I could only depend on myself to be strong enough to carry me through that terrible day and the empty weeks that followed.

When my uncle led me to the open coffin, I sobbed over my grandmother’s body. We took our seats in the family section of the chapel for her service, and I was deeply touched when my father broke down at the loss of his wife’s mother and they held my mom’s hand while I wrung my own in my lap. At the luncheon following the reception, I kept to myself and observed others’ grief.

Immediately following my grandma’s passing, my grandfather almost went right along with his beloved wife. He fell ill, became unresponsive and was hospitalized for a long period of time.  At one point, I went to say goodbye as he lay on what I thought would become his death bed. He made a partial recovery, but was confined to an assisted living facility until his passing five years later.

The call came late one Tuesday morning just shy of what would have been my grandparents’ 65th wedding anniversary. At 25, I was more prepared for my grandfather’s death than I had been for my grandmother’s, and I was relieved that he went peacefully. After speaking with my dad, I immediately called my boyfriend, Jonathan, who lived an hour away. Upon hearing the news, his response was simply, “I’m on my way.”

That day, I remained strong for my orphaned mom who cried, “He was such a wonderful father!”  I went grocery shopping for guests who came to pay their respects and made dinner arrangements so my mom would eat. When it was time to leave, Jonathan walked me to my car and put his arms around me.  I cried hard and long for the first time that day, because I had such fond memories of my grandparents and they were both gone. I cried because my mom was so sad and for the abandonment she felt. Most of all, I cried because for the first time since I saw my grandma rubbing my grandpa’s back in the ICU, when Jonathan said “I’m on my way,” I understood what love was and that I would never run away again. And finally, I cried because when I marry Jonathan next year, my grandparents won’t be there to see it.

  1. denise johnson says:

    This story made me cry. It makes me remember my grandparents (which I never visited for a very long time). This story urges me to visit them soon. Maybe I should spend more time with them. Maybe I could spend my Christmas with them.

  2. Jennifer Marlo says:

    Oh Lizzie, that is just so lovely. Very tender, and very beautifully written. I think your grandparents would be proud.

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