By Lynn Snowden Picket
My paternal grandmother was Keith Richards, if you take away the looks, the talent, and the British accent. Like Keith, my grama was unkillable. Until she finally died at the age of 95, I was wondering, with a growing sense of horror, whether she would ever die. I was starting to contemplate whether I could, without attracting undue attention, walk through the corridors of her nursing home with a wooden stake and a mallet. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My grandmother married my grandfather when she was sixteen, and had my father when she was nearly seventeen. Oh, how nice, you might be thinking, but you would be wrong. All children are guilt-tripped into visiting more often, but when my grama badgered my dad into promising to see her once a week, it meant a seventy-eight-year-old man was obliged to be on the road for three hours each way, crossing over the Pocono mountains in the dead of winter, to dutifully visit his ninety-four-year-old mother, who would only berate him for not visiting more often. But I’m still getting ahead of myself.
Here’s what you really need to know about my grama: Despite the continuing, and long-suffering presence of my grandfather, my father, the elder of two sons, was the love of her life.
My parents stayed happily married for decade after decade, and my grama never stopped hoping they’d break up. Outliving my mother became her only hope, and her driving ambition. It kept her strong through two bouts of cancer and several other illnesses that would kill ordinary mortals, and sustained her despite a diet consisting chiefly of ice cream, crackers, and a witch-like aversion to water that delivered her to the emergency room more times than we could count. For my part, I told mom not to worry: If she died, I would, in the middle of the church, shove grama away from my dad’s arm with all the authority of a bouncer at a topless car wash.
Some years later, when I was dating the man who would become my husband, we were both lying in bed early one morning when my phone rang. I let the machine pick up, and we heard my mother’s voice report slowly, carefully, that my grama was now on her deathbed. As I dropped my head back into the pillow in what my future husband thought was despair and grief, and my eyes closed in what he took for prayer, he prepared to comfort me. Then he saw my hands rise skyward, my index and second fingers tightly crossed in the universal symbol of hope. My husband calls this moment “The most macabre thing I’ve ever seen,” and it might be reasonable to assume I wanted her dead so I could inherit some family fortune, but that would be wrong: Grama was broke. I just wanted my parents to have one good year. One year, when she wasn’t trying to break them up, to guilt them into visiting, to upset them by dismissing or ignoring the many accomplishments of their children.
When grama finally did leave this realm, kicking and screaming//I told my mother, //Grama, like Keith Richards, isn’t dead, despite all evidence to the contrary. She’s out there, wreaking havoc, avoiding mirrors and water, much as she did in life, now a member of the undead, which means //It’s a good thing I didn’t visit the nursing home with that wooden stake and mallet, after all.