I spend a lot of time with my grandmother. Although I don't live nearby, we make time to get together and have an adventure. In theory, our time together is me helping her -- at 92, she sometimes needs assistance. But the reality is much more complicated.
She worked full time for many years, but as a retiree she has never been busier. Just for starters, she sends a greeting card to every person she has ever met. She doesn't limit herself to birthdays, bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, or babies. She also routinely sends cards for a new car, a new home (apartment, college dorm), and any accomplishment ("CONGRATULATIONS!!!!"). She annotates the sappiest card to emphasize how it really applies to you, with her favorite comment, "SO TRUE!" usually underlined twice. If you have actually done something for her, a thank you card is forthcoming, with a lengthy description of how what you did was the most thoughtful, special, and meaningful contribution to her existence. ("Words cannot express how grateful I am for your taking the day to drive me around. I am so lucky!!!")
She laments when she falls behind on her cards, due to her travel schedule (she attends all family simchas). She recently had to go to Seattle twice in a month, for a grandson's wedding and a great granddaughter's graduation -- but had a great grandson's graduation in Las Vegas in between. "It's very important to go to the graduations," she responded, when I suggested she was running too hard. (Yes, I recall her at every one of my own graduations -- from elementary school, junior high, high school, college and law school -- each time cheering wildly as if I had won an Olympic medal instead of just matriculating.)
Despite her travels, she has not collected many trinkets. She truly doesn't want any material things. If you admire something in her home, she will infallibly respond, "Do you want it?" And there's no retracting the compliment, as she immediately puts the item in a bag near the door and forces it on you as you exit.
At her 90th birthday celebration, her grandchildren competed in the derby of trying to create a gift she would keep for herself. As one well-wisher walked in with a beautiful floral arrangement, Grandma leaned over to me and said, "Will you take that home?" before the giver had even made it across the room. The best entry was the license plate frame, "My Other Car is a Kaiser Waiting Room Chair." The only other gifts she kept were the gift certificates from the Hallmark Card store -- now that's something she can really use.
Grandma showed up with a man she proudly announced she had met "in the lip reading class."
As long as I can remember, Grandma expected the best of us grandchildren. As a teen, when I learned to swear, she would squeeze my hand and say, "Out of your mouth should only come pearls." Her grandchildren grew up knowing that we were each "super special." In fact, most conversations with Grandma begin with how proud she is of one of her grandchildren or great grandchildren -- Jennifer passed her driver's test the first time! Michael is representing his law school in moot court competition! -- and how we should call and weigh in on how terrific they are.
My grandma was married for 51 years, and since being widowed attracts an amazing string of men ages 75-95. She doesn't believe in physical intimacy outside of marriage, and feels that a single woman gives a man the pleasure of her company. Apparently there are still many takers. I invited her to a party at my home recently. She showed up with a man she proudly announced she had met "in the lip reading class." (She later explained, "There are a lot of nice men in the lip reading class. These are the men who want to hear what you're saying.") They both came wearing enormous hearing aids and had a great time.
I started to appreciate her as a scarce resource when she was around 85 years old. After years of being away at school, and then working hard as an associate in a large law firm, I thought I spent as much time with her as any normal professional woman would spend with her grandmother. She let me know that it wasn't enough. She left me phone messages: "I hope I'm not bothering you, I know you're very busy, but I miss you!" "I'm getting together with two cousins. Can you join us -- it's on a Sunday?"
When I lost another elderly relative close to me, I started taking grandma's pleas more seriously. Okay Grandma, I will take two days off work and go away with you and six other aunts, uncles and cousins. Okay Grandma, I will go with you to Billy's 70th birthday party, and Abe Greenwald's 90th, even though both are an hour away and each one is smack in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good weekend. Okay Grandma, I'll drive you to your deceased brother's grandson's wedding three hours away, and spend the weekend navigating the hotel complex for you.
And something amazing happened.
It started with the dancing. When my grandfather was still alive, Grandma and Grandpa dancing together could hush a room. In younger days, they had taught ballroom dancing, and in the twilight years of their marriage they were still very much in love with each other and it showed on the dance floor. My grandmother lights up when the music starts, and when I became her escort, I also became her dance partner. After years of teaching men to lead, she was able to quickly convert me to the job. And when the music starts, we are dancing the rumba and cha-cha.
In that gaze is every positive thing she has ever said: "I love you. You are beautiful, you are wonderful, you are brilliant."
Dancing with my grandmother is discovering that you are the most wonderful person in the entire world. She looks up at me with her 92-year-old eyes like a schoolgirl at her first dance. In that gaze is every positive thing she has ever said: "I love you. You are beautiful, you are wonderful, you are brilliant. I appreciate you, I admire you." No wonder my grandfather was always up for a dance.
The greatest gift of Grandma is who I've started to become. She's rubbing off. My grandmother's behaviors that I used to make fun of have seeped into my thinking. The acts of kindness of my friends are greatly appreciated. ("You are so thoughtful!") Every little action is a gift to me. Time spent with those I love is the greatest present I could imagine. I have a whole drawer set aside for stocking thank you cards. I even caught myself telling a neighbor's child, "You are super special." I haven't dragged any of my friends to ballroom dancing yet, but I'm working on my twinkling gaze!
Next week I'm taking Grandma to her great nephew's bowling party. I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world. It's another chance to be with my grandmother -- who is so super special.