Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It’s Later Than You Think

I started this blog three and a half years ago, as most authors do, to call attention to my books in the hope readers might be motivated to purchase them. I've tried to keep the blog interesting, filling it with social commentary, philosophical musings, and humorous anecdotes, but unlike many other authors who blog, never discussing my personal life. Today will be the first, and likely only, exception.

Today is my birthday. And it’s my first birthday in more than half a century that my grandmother will not be here to celebrate it with me. Somehow, that makes me feel much older. The last survivor of her generation in my family, she died four weeks ago, four months short of what would have been her 104th birthday. She outlived my grandfather, who was born the year the Wright brothers flew the first airplane from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and had lived to watch a man walk on the moon. When Grandma was born in January 1911, women did not have the right to vote in America; when she died, Hillary Clinton was the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

She lived through enormous changes in a lifetime that encompassed two world wars, a global influenza epidemic that killed 50 million people, the Great Depression, the atom bomb, the moon landing, and the inventions of talking motion pictures, radio, television, computers, and the Internet.
When Grandma was born, William Howard Taft (a fat, white man weighing in at 354 lbs.) was the 27th President of the United States; when she died, the 44th president, Barack Obama (a skinny, black man), was in office. Edward VII was King of England, succeeded later that year by his son, King George V. The Mexican revolution was in full swing; famine was killing thousands in China; and in New York City, 146 men, women, and girls, mostly recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, would perish in flames that year in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was the year the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved the monopolistic Standard Oil Company, and the first Indianapolis 500 took place.

A few other things happened that year, besides my grandmother’s birth. The first public elevator was unveiled (in London’s Earl’s Court tube station); Procter & Gamble brought Crisco cooking oil to market; the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre (they got it back two years later); Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole; airplanes were used as military weapons for the first time in history; and the first Marconi wireless transmission was received in New York, all the way from Italy. Also, the Titanic was launched; it would sink on its maiden voyage, the following year.

The American flag had only 45 stars when Grandma was born. The zipper had not yet been invented; nor had the aerosol spray can, frozen food, penicillin, the yo-yo, Scotch tape, or bubblegum. A postage stamp cost two cents, the average wage was 22 cents an hour, and the average annual income was between $200 and $400. There were 8,000 cars in the country and the speed limit was 10 mph. Only 14% of homes had a bathtub, while only 8% had a telephone. Grandma never attended college, but then, in 1911, only 6% of Americans had graduated from high school. Beer wasn’t available in cans, but the local drugstore did dispense marijuana, morphine, and heroin, over-the-counter.

This was the world into which my grandmother was born. I knew her my whole life, and yet I never really knew her. I've often said people, like diamonds, are multifaceted. When you hold a diamond, you can never see all of its sides. The side of her that I saw was that of a loving and devoted grandmother. There were smaller facets I also saw: that of wife, mother, sister, and aunt. Those were the roles I saw her play in my lifetime, but there were facets I had never glimpsed, because I hadn't been alive to see them. She had lived nearly half a century before my birth… what some would consider an entire lifetime in itself. She had been a daughter to my great-grandparents whom I had never met; a sister to several siblings whom I’d never met; and a cousin to individuals who were very close to her, including one who came to live with her family after being gassed as a soldier in World War I; all strangers to me.

These were the facets I never saw, yet these people were as important to her as those of our family who have survived her. She could never bring herself to talk about her oldest sister, Mollie, without tearing up, even though Mollie had died in 1926, before the rest of us were born. I learned secondhand, through Grandma, about all of these people, our distant relatives who were far from distant to her. Through the photographs and her stories, which she shared with me as I was doing my genealogy project, I saw a little more of the diamond, and was able to meet, albeit vicariously, some of the people who had shaped the early years of her life.

Grandma was delivered into this world by a doctor who was also a cousin. At the age of 19, she was a clerk at a New Jersey hotel, where she would connect phone calls for the guests, including some prominent gangsters of the time. She became a legal secretary for three lawyers, and married one of them. My grandfather opened a law office above his uncle’s dress shop, and he and my grandmother also worked in the dress shop during the Depression. Later, they opened their own dress shop in New York and ran it until my grandmother became pregnant. They retired to Miami Beach in the 50s, where my grandmother became a licensed real estate agent and, with my grandfather, were owners of two Collins Avenue motels.

At her funeral last month, I said in her eulogy:
“Grandma had a wry sense of humor, yet her other quintessential traits included stoicism, stubbornness, and perseverance. Her endurance of hardship and pain was a hallmark of her stoicism. Into her 90s and 100s, she would endure frequent painful spinal stenosis at restaurant meals rather than take a prescribed pain pill, because, as she explained, she didn't want to become addicted to them. As for her perseverance, we often referred to Grandma as the “Energizer Bunny,” a phrase that has entered the vernacular as a term for anything that continues endlessly.

“These past few months have been difficult. We didn't lose Grandma this week; we lost her piece by piece, as her advanced age gradually eroded her mobility, hearing, eyesight, and lucidity. With each passing month, we buried a part of the once vibrant woman we knew, until today, when we inter her final remains.

“I spent this past April living with Grandma. One night, she was lying in bed with her feet under the air-conditioning vent, and she said her feet were cold. She asked, “You know what that means? It’s time for me to go…” poignantly adding, “but I don’t know how.” Each day, Grandma would sit in her recliner, tapping her hand and leg to the beat of a song only she could hear. When asked what she was singing, she’d reply, “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.” Grandma had a great sense of humor. One day, I woke her to tell her I was leaving and said, “You fell asleep. You should go to bed; you must be tired if you were napping.” She replied, “I was just rehearsing.”

“Another night, she awoke confused, crying out for “Mother”. I asked her mother’s name, to be sure it was her mother she was calling for, and not mine sleeping in the next room. She replied, “Ida.” I reached across to the dresser and brought her a photograph of her parents. I passed her the photo, and said softly, “I never knew her, you know.” She studied the photograph, and whispered, “She’s gone, isn't she?” I nodded and replied, “We have her pictures and the stories you've shared, and that’s how we’ll keep her alive in our memories.” Grandma nodded and smiled, and I think that made her feel a little better.

“We have Grandma’s pictures, and lots of stories, and that’s how we’ll keep her alive in our memories. Maybe that will make us feel a little better.”

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