Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Gramma Phenomenon

There are grandmothers (grandmas), and there are grammas.  I had two grandmothers that I remember, but never a gramma.  I mention, “two,” because of the fact that I was adopted and actually had four grandmothers; the natural grandmas I never got the chance to meet. 

The difference between a grandmother, and a gramma, in my opinion, has not only to do with the grandparent’s temperament and kindness, but also with the accessibility and how the larger familial unit is either clustered, or spread out in my case.

Both of my grandmothers lived in New York.  As I can best recall, they both loved me, gave me a hugs and gifts when I saw them, and I believe, genuinely enjoyed spending time with me.  But the reunions were often half a year, to sometime years apart.  My parents and I lived in California, so with the exception of a few times when my maternal grandmother came out to visit, these reunions generally required a visit out to the east coast, and most often during Holiday seasons. 

My maternal grandma, Sonia, was a very small-boned, thin and somewhat rigid woman who looked older than her years.  She grew up in Poland and became one of the first female doctors in that country to practice medicine while my grandfather came to the United States to find work.  He succeeded in making money, eventually went back for grandma Sonia, and in doing so, also paid for all but one of his seven brothers to come to the U.S., thereby saving them from being killed in the Holocaust.  The one brother who elected to stay behind died at the hands of the Nazis. With all of the struggle and chaos, I think that grandma Sonia experienced a lot of life in a short amount of time, and it showed on her. 

Grandma Sonia lived in a high-rise apartment on Manhattan’s west side.  It was a busy area with a plethora of food and shopping, and sirens that never ceased.  That’s the one thing about New York that I always forget about until I’m there; the constant sounds of taxi-honking and emergency vehicles ricocheting off of the walls of buildings that are tall enough to make one dizzy to look down from.  When gramma Sonia did occasionally visit us at our Hollywood hills home, she complained that she was kept up all night by the lack of the city sounds that she was so used to.  “How can you live like this?” she would ask my mother in her thick Russian accent.  “It’s so quiet up here, you go crazy in the head!”  My mother would let her know that we got along just fine with the panoramic sights of the twinkling city lights from our crest view home.  Eventually, about half way through my young childhood, grandma Sonia decided she would simply stay at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for each of her visit from then on. 

My paternal grandmother was a thin, white-haired woman who had a sweet smile named, Florie.  She also lived in high-rise in Manhattan, though I have no recollection where anymore.  I saw grandma Florie less frequently than grandma Sonia.  My memories of her were of a very sweet, gentle woman, and I recall always seeing a tickled look on my dad’s face when he’d see me and grandma Florie spending time together.  I wish I could have spent more with both of my grandmas, each of whom died when I was about twelve years old or so.

Growing up a big city, I had never even once experienced a “gramma” before.  And what is a gramma?  Well, truthfully, I still don’t fully know, but I’ve been observing for quite a few years now.  The first girlfriend I lived with, Kristin, came from West Bend, Wisconsin.  Their family was a pretty tight knit group who all lived within a few miles of each other.  Kris talked about her gramma incessantly.  Cooking, clothes, holiday activities.  Everything seemed to somehow involve and center around her gramma.  Kristin and I must have lived together for a good year before I ever met her family.  I think they wanted to see if our relationship might ‘stick’ before laying out the carpet.  It was during one of the Holidays when Kristin and I flew out to Wisconsin and I met her father, stepmother, brother, uncles, her grampa, and finally...her gramma. 

As we walked into their house, there was her gramma, Florence, ready to give us both a hug.  I remember entering into the living room which was dark and not very updated inside.  I seem to recall dark orange or green carpet and furnishings that were from the 1970’s.  I wasn’t sure if I felt at home at first.  But quickly I could see that there was a meaningful connection between Kristin and her gramma, as if Kristin really belonged to her Florence and not her parents in some ways. 

What I began to understand after some time was that I was witnessing a relationship that I had never experienced myself.  Having a gramma that lived close by to where one lived, and whom one could go to as almost an escape from home life.  The conversation that arose between Kristin and her gramma seemed picked up as if from the day before.  There was closeness and an endearment that was very special to both of them. Her grandparents were funny too.  They were folksy and made jokes and poked fun at themselves; really authentic people.  Her gramma had a kind of irreverence at times.  She decided what mattered and what didn’t matter in her life without much need for introspection.  Quite a difference from the household I grew up in where issues tended to be analyzed until nothing was left of them but a fine powder.

I remember during one of the trips out there, we drove up to a little cabin on a lake that her grampa and gramma owned.  It was beautiful.  It had a little dock that stretched out a ways onto the water, and a rowboat for floating around the Lilly pads.  Our first visit, Kris and I arrived there before her grampa was supposed to meet us.  We waited on the porch for maybe twenty minutes when he came zipping up in this little convertible MG.  Ralph, her grampa, was probably in his mid-seventies, and I just thought it was something to behold.  And slightly plump old man racing around in a hot red sports car.

Since Kristin didn't have a vehicle in California, her uncle John decided to fix up an old burgundy 1979'ish Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme for her.  John was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, and yet, he loved working on cars.  He had a whole system of getting himself on onto one of those shallow dollies to work underneath the chassis.

When John finished work on the Oldsmobile, the drive to California would be too far for him to deliver the car, so grampa and gramma decided to take it out themselves and make a road trip of it.  By virtue of one of those strange bits of information that stick in your head forever, I still remember precisely Kristin’s family address, so I can note very confidently here in this writing that her seventy-something year old grandparents drove that Olds Cutlass 2,099 miles from West Bend, Wisconsin to our canal loft in Venice, California. 

And so her grampa and gramma arrived a bit fatigued as if it had been a little trip they had taken from across the city.  They sat on our couch and rested while Kristin beamed at their presence.  She loved them so.  And never an important occasion or memory went by that Kris didn’t refer to her gramma in some way.  Some funny story, something that her gramma would have said in that given situation, or some oblong shaped object she’d wanted to send to her gramma from one of the Venice Boardwalk stores we lived near.  It was an eternal connection, and it was really something else to witness.

My sweetheart now is Brenda.  And Brenda has a gramma.  Her name is Eva.  It’s when I got to know Eva that I realized that this was a real, honest to God, thing.  A gramma.  I suppose that previously, I may have thought that it was of some fluke that Kristin and Florence were so special to each other, such as some family dynamic that had forced a needed closeness.  This was very much a skeptical error on my part not having grown up with a family all in one place.  Brenda’s gramma, Eva is such a sincerely nice woman, and a woman of the land so to speak.  And this you gotta hear…

Eve’s life follows, or I should more correctly say, maps out ahead of time, the story of “Grapes of Wrath” exactly, as if John Steinbeck had written the novel directly from her life story.  Eva was born in 1925, the youngest of eight children of parents who were hired farmhands in Perry, Oklahoma.  At the age of five, the Dustbowl event happened in the Mid-Western United States, and her family fled across to the west in an old gilapi, sputtering and bumping all the way to the California’s Central Valley where her father could find work in one of the labor farm camps. 

During the trip, one of her older brothers slept on the floor of the old car since there wasn’t any room anywhere else, and during a rest stop in a small town, they couldn’t wake him up.  They pulled him out of the car and realized that the floorboard of the car’s interior had filled up with exhaust fumes.  The family got him to the town doctor who was able to revive him and told the family that if he had been exposed to the fumes for fifteen more minutes, he would have died. 

The family first entered California via Los Angeles and then went north.  She always says, "We went by Los Angeles, then up through the Grapevine back when it was a two-lane road; one in either direction, and then came down into the San Joaquin Valley with it was nothin' but old ranches and farmland."  Eva’s parents worked in the labor camps through the depression and then eventually settled in and around Bakersfield, California where even today, most of their family lives within a few miles of each other.

As I got to know Brenda, I could see almost immediately how special her gramma was and still is to her.  Their lives are intertwined with the simplest of things.  “Gramma needed some pop (soda pop).”  “I’ll grab some stamps from gramma.”  “Oh, she’s got a few old clothes she wants ma to have, so I’m gonna run over and get 'em real quick.”  “I took gramma and ma down to the second-hand (discount clothing store).”  Whenever Brenda goes back to help her mother with a few things, there’s always plenty of gramma in there.  Eva, now pushing 87 years, has a mind that’s clear as a bell.  It makes me wonder of life outside of the stressful cities wears less on the mind.  You can’t keep Brenda’s gramma Eva from getting out every day and doing some gardening, chasing her dog around, or calling a family member to take her for Mexican food.

It’s quite a phenomenon, this gramma thing.  And I now understand much better how Kristin’s gramma, Florence, was so key in her life.  There’s just something about having a gramma Florence or a gramma Eva around the corner who is always there, who doesn’t really have the parental responsibilities to you, but can be there to listen, make things with you, spoil you with Christmas cookies, or hand you a plastic grocery bag with a few cans of pop in it for the road.  A gramma sounds like a really nice thing to have had, and I’ve found myself living life vicariously with a borrowed gramma or two along the way.