Grandma Ellen thought Ed had “knocked” me up when he told her that we were getting married. I admit that part of it was my own fault. I had been somewhat destructive at our first meeting the Christmas just before. But it wasn’t just Grandma Ellen I insulted; I took out the whole Bushman clan, including Eddie with one sentence: “Are these earrings cubic zirconium?”
I still have the earrings, tucked neatly between folds of cotton, in a little white gift box. They were the first piece of jewelry Ed had given me. He’s added to my collection over the years so they’re rarely worn. (He got cleverer after that hiding larger diamond studs in a package with brightly toned definite fake ones.) But now, eighteen Christmas’s later, its Grandma Ellen and not those diamonds that I miss. I took them out the other day and remembered how this woman I easily labeled as a curmudgeon had wormed her way into my heart.
Grandma Ellen, Ed’s maternal grandmother, visited every year with her eldest daughter here in California. Her family teased her unmercifully that she only came out to California to avoid being found as a frozen “Popsicle” on her own kitchen’s linoleum floor. It was bitterly cold in Minnesota where she lived the rest of the year. And the winter’s there lasted a long time. She’d come out just around Thanksgiving and stay until March.
She supplanted everyone from the “davenport”. She had large mugs of tea, People magazines, video poker games, See’s candy and the remote control constantly within her reach. Dinner was served on her schedule. She even had the local senior center picking her up for bingo! She barked instructions to the family members cowering in the kitchen. She berated those of us that chose to attempt to “share” the living room with her. All in all she was a royal pain. I thanked my lucky stars I had just married into this family and refused to call her “Grandma” as she had repeatedly requested.
In the beginning of my relationship with Ed’s family Ellen was joined by her husband of over fifty years, the lovable Elmer. She, not unlike myself, did the all of the talking for him. He softened her around the edges and made our family time more bearable. Her family shocked her one year by giving Elmer the red sweater, cap and gloves he wanted. “He doesn’t wear red!” she grunted out. But the look on Elmer’s face rivaled all of the broadest smiles in the room: He loved red almost as much as he loved making her flip out.
Just a few short years after that Elmer passed away. Grandma’s notoriously negative personality was obviously thwarted by the incredible loss of her husband. We feared that she, not unlike other extremely lonely seniors, would soon follow his path. But that same strength of character that had originally made her such an annoyance had taken a new turn. Suddenly we were all very interesting to her. And nothing makes a person more lovable than one that suddenly shows an interest in you.
Grandma Ellen, the name I could now call her easily, became my confidant and, to some degree, a mentor. I surprised Ed by asking him if he would like to name Samantha, while she was still a fetus in my tummy of course, after Ellen. But by this time, Ed reported, there were other grandchildren of hers that had beat us to it. Grandma shared stories about Elmer and her life with me that I knew her family had heard several times before. But they were new to me, and being very interested in family history, I was held in rapt attention.
I was able to learn more about her days as a young school teacher, how shocked she felt nowadays when hearing of a child’s reported abuse, what kind of antics her own children and grandchildren pulled, Elmer’s feelings about World War ll, what books she found interesting and what she thought of OJ Simpson. She shared photo albums and letters from her long life. She helped Eddie contact relatives to take his family tree back a couple hundred years.
But most of all, she liked me. “She really liked me.” She shared her concerns about family member’s health. She worried about how here neighbors in Minnesota got through the winter without her food donations. She invited us to Las Vegas and Minnesota with her. I regret not taking her up on the latter. I would have liked to see where she, Elmer, their children and even Eddie grew up. It might be too late.
This was the first Christmas without her. Grandma Ellen, at a vigorously healthy 95+ had to move into a nursing home in Minnesota this past year. Her well-worn stories had been thwarted by a stroke. Now, not withstanding an act of God, if we visit her in Minnesota she’ll never know we were there. I satisfied my feeling to a degree with a Christmas note and photographs that I hope a nurse will show her from time to time, hopefully one time she’ll show a glimmer of memory.
At this point I’d take curmudgeon memory.
On a much lighter note, ED’S PARTY was a huge success. With him holding court over several firefighters for a single malt scotch lesson and tasting, Samantha giving “come on guys” tours and Santa, there wasn’t much for me to do. Right! I had to help eat the crab wontons, jambalaya and waldorf salad. I had to keep local residents Dr Yoy, (name changed to protect them) his vivacious Signal-reading wife and two super-intelligent mathematically-charged daughters entertained. It was a blast but thank God it’s over!