Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Thoughts on the Loss of My Grandma

My maternal grandmother, Geraldine Youcha, died in her sleep this morning. I am 36 years old, and have enjoyed umpteen moments with her throughout my entire life, including my wedding (she and my grandfather walked me down the aisle) and the birth of my two children. And yet, incredibly, I feel utterly unprepared for this, and somehow robbed.

I know, these things are not unusual in the least. But my grandmother was entirely unusual.

She was not a milk-and-cookies, teddy bears and snuggles kind of woman. Though she did love sweets (especially ice cream, sour cherry strudel from Andre's Cafe on the Upper East Side, and scones with proper English tea), and kept a nice collection of stuffed animals (especially dogs), and her hugs were warm, she was no June Cleaver.

My grandma graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.  She wrote many books and articles throughout her life, including two of some renown: Children of Alcoholism and Minding the Children: A History of Child Care in America from Colonia Times to the Present.  A consummate intellect, I will remember her best for her comments to me regarding academia.  In particular, I will never forget her asking,"What is this gibberish? Can't you just say it in English?" And on my chosen field, remarking that "Sociology, it seems to me, is the statement of the obvious."  For the last ten years, as I work on manuscript after manuscript, I am constantly thinking of her, whether she will find it worthy and accessible and nicely written.  I have long sent her my work for comment, fearful as I am of the critique but always knowing it makes me so much stronger.

One of my lifelong regrets will be my failure to write and publish my new book When America Goes to College while I still had the chance to get her feedback on it.  I knew I should hurry, and I had the chance over the last several months to tell her about my hopes and plans for it. She's challenged me to ensure that I have control over what the cover looks like, and she affirmed my sense that the book should be free, or at worst cost no more than $20 to purchase. I'm sorry in advance to the publishers who will have to wrangle with me over this-- I'm not budging.

Grandma introduced me to both Dorothy Parker and William Carlos Williams when I was very young. She taught me to memorize their poems and I can still recite several. My favorite is Parker's "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."  Grandma's brother Mel Shavelson, once a writer for Bob Hope, "finished" that poem, she told me, this way "But they passed at the lass who emptied that glass, eh Dorothy, isn't that it?"

I say this while sipping a Bloody Mary, something I'm certain Grandma wouldn't approve of but somehow feeling that judgment brings her ever more present here.  No, I don't come from a line of alcoholics, she was just concerned with what she saw in the world around her and felt women in particular needed to know more about what alcohol could do to their lives.  She's directly responsible for my sense of moderation at family meals, and for my careful recognition that a glass of wine has the same amount of alcohol as a shot and a beer, and I've known this forever and ever.

I know, I digress. I am writing this blog as much for me as for her, but she did come, I think, to understand the blogging a bit by the end. She always wrote these short pieces for ladies' journals, and I feel like blogs are kind of akin to that-- expressions of daily life, captured in brief.  Whatever they are, I love writing them and because that means writing, and brings me to write often, it means being closer to Grandma.

Two weeks ago I shared a sour cherry strudel (and a poppy seed one) with her at 11 pm on a Tuesday night before she went to bed. She remarked how flaky the pastry was, and how talented the chef.  Last week I was there again in New York for business, and experienced administering her eyedrops for the first time, I recall dropping them in and exclaiming "Oh this isn't hard, just like I did to my cat!" and she giggled a little.  I also watched her endeavor to change for bedtime and it hurt so incredibly much to see her strength trying to peek through while worn down in a body that wasn't half the woman she still was.  She knew it, and more than once told me when I asked how she was: "Well. I am."

Last night, I asked my daughter if she wanted to tell Grandma a story. It was hard for her to read, her eyes were bothering her, so I did an audio recording on my phone.  Annie said "yes" right away and proceeded to give a 5-minute long monologue, a story for Grandma.  She'd never done anything like it before, made up a real story out of the blue, going on and on. I felt so thrilled that Grandma would hear this, and texted it to my Poppa immediately. But it was just after 11 pm in New York and I just knew she'd gone to bed.  I said, "Oh well, I'm glad it'll be there in the morning for her" and lay there joyfully as Annie fell asleep on me.

But not forgotten
Dorothy Parker
I think, no matter where you stray,
That I shall go with you a way.
Though you may wander sweeter lands,
You will not soon forget my hands,
Nor yet the way I held my head,
Nor all the tremulous things I said.
You still will see me, small and white
And smiling, in the secret night,
And feel my arms about you when
The day comes fluttering back again.
I think, no matter where you be,
You'll hold me in your memory
And keep my image, there without me,
By telling later loves about me.