Friday, April 10, 2009

My Gramma Connie

Connie had, as she herself put it, a shitty childhood spent mostly in the homes of foster parents who took foster children as a supplementary source of income.

I remember her as someone who spent her entire adult life trying to learn to stop holding grudges. She mostly succeeded, I think.

Her husband died in a botched procedure at the VA hospital when her oldest son (my father) was 17. She also had a 15-year-old and a 9-year-old.

In her later years, she would only speak of her deceased husband in glowing terms, as though he was some sort of Jewish saint. My father, however, recalls that his folks yelled at each other a lot.

I saw 'The Color Purple' with Connie in the theatre. "You know what I like about Whoopi Goldberg? I like when she says the word 'shit.' From most people, it would be vulgar. From her, it sounds like poetry."

Connie stopped speaking to me for years after my Bar Mitzvah. My maternal great uncle Phil's racist use of the word "schvartze" (in this context, the word is Yiddish for "nigger") had upset me and I had shouted at him that it was bad enough for any American to be a racist- but that for a Jewish man who lived through World War II to be a racist was despicable and he should be ashamed of himself. Connie wasn't related to Phil and didn't especially like him, but she thought I showed an unacceptable lack of respect for my elders...and pretty much didn't speak to me for years.

We started talking again on the phone years later when I was in my 20s. I'd changed, she said. "You used to be a little shit, but you know what? I think you grew out of it."

Our long phone conversations mostly consisted of my asking her broad questions and listening to her long answers. She was happy to share her memories and was an entertaining storyteller. I learned a lot about my grandfather who'd died before my parents ever met and his WWII service in the Marines. I learned what her foster care experiences in New York City were like and heard about what it was like to be pregnant at 17 years of age in her generation. I asked her about her in-laws and her siblings and the neighborhoods she grew up in and she told me stories about my father that I'd never have heard otherwise.

Sometimes these stories would overlap or repeat, but that was fine with me. There were always new details and I knew that memory is a long, slow casualty of aging. Eventually, the stories repeated more often.

Connie was diagnosed as having some sort of dementia. It could be Alzheimer's or a vascular problem, but the diagnosis didn't matter a lot because the treatment and prognosis were the same.

My father and mother stepped up and moved Connie to an excellent group home that was a five-minute drive from their home. They flew to her house in Scottsdale, cleaned up her finances (which had become a mess in recent months- Connie had hidden her cognitive problems from her family very well), sold her house, and packed up her belongings- taking care to try to send to my father's brothers any items that might be meaningful to them. My father's brothers didn't even say "thank you" or offer to help with this enormous task. I'm not overly fond of them.

For the last 5 years, Connie has lived near my parents, been cared for by excellent physicians, and my folks have taken very good care of her as her dementia progressed. The last time I saw her, she definitely recognized me and greeted me warmly with hugs and kisses, but she never attempted to use my name.

Now I'm told that she has hours or days left.

Last night, I had a dream.

My wife and son and I had driven to Detroit for the B'nai Mitzvah of my youngest cousins (this is actually going to happen in May. Connie's youngest grandchildren, twins, are turning 13).

Connie was there, but it wasn't the thin, frail Connie she's been for the last 5 years or so. This was the larger, louder, fleshier Connie who wore too much eye shadow and, even though she promised my mother that she wouldn't smoke in front of her grandkids, always smelled a little like cigarettes. In the dream, I got to hug her and smell her and tell her I loved her with the confidence that she knew who I was, knew what I was saying, and felt the sincerity of my words.

I rarely remember my dreams, so I'm grateful for this one.

I've never understood Connie. I've never understood how my father could be her son when they have so little in common, but I have missed her since her mind stopped working. I mourned her then and I find myself mourning her again now that her body is finally following her mind.

3 comments:

Infosciphi said...

oh David. I'm so sorry that you are losing her soon. But with dementia you sort of lose them slowly along the way. I envy your conversations with your her. The only grandparent I knew was my mother's mom, who died when I was six. I have wished for times like you have had and have done everything I can to make sure that my children have them.

Our parents and grandparents were all fallible people, just like us. I think that each generation, if they have any integrity at all, tries to improve upon the mistakes of those who have come before, while preserving the best we received from them. It's how we evolve as a species and as individuals.

I have said this before, as this is not my first account I have read of Connie, but she sounds like a wonderful, authentic person. Partially because of, and not in spite of, her flaws and character.

I had several dreams like you had after my younger brother died. Whether it is our unconscious coming to terms with their passing and saying good-bye, or if their soul or spirit is making those good-byes on it's own, the meaning is there nonetheless.

Cherish your memories and make notes on them so you can pass them along to your progeny. You memory will fade as well and the details will become fuzzy.

No matter what, I can see the influence Connie had on your life and it is beautiful. These are the aspects of the human experience that continue to give me hope - that show that we are more than the sum of our actions, that we influence others, and that we the human spirit is worth perpetuating and preserving.

Good-bye Connie. You will be missed.

Infosciphi said...

Kurt Vonnegut's Great-Grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, planned his own funneral 32 years before he died. He wrote these words to his mourners:

"Friends or Opponents: To all of you who stand here to deliver my
body to the earth:
To you, my next of kin:

Do not mourn! I have now arrived at the end of the course of life,
as you will eventually arrive at yours. I am at rest and nothing
will ever disturb my deep slumber.
I am disturbed by no worries, no grief, no fears, no wishes, no
passions, no pains, no reproaches from others. All is infinitely
well with me.

I departed from life with loving, affectionate feelings for all
mankind; and I admonish you: Be aware of this truth that the
people on this earth could be joyous, if only they would live
rationally and if they would contribute mutually to each others'
welfare.

This world is not a vale of sorrows if you will recognize
discriminatingly what is truly excellent in it; and if you will
avail yourself of it for mutual happiness and well-being.

Therefore, let us explain as often as possible, and particularly at
the departure from life, that we base our faith on firm
foundations, on Truth for putting into action our ideas which do
not depend on fables and ideas which Science has long ago proven to be false.

We also wish Knowledge, Goodness, Sympathy, Mercy, Wisdom, Justice,
and Truthfulness. We also strive for and venerate all of those
attributes from which the fantasy of man has created a God. We
also strive for the virtues of Temperance, Industriousness,
Friendship, and Peace. We believe in pure ideas based on Truth and
Justice..."

lalcorn said...

Just beautiful, David. Families are complicated at best, but it sounds like you found a way to appreciate this clearly complicated - and interesting - woman.