Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

In Memoriam

with 3 comments

Total Black: $3,160.16
Total Red: $269,991.43

This time last year I was five days away from the Pennsylvania bar examination when my grandmother passed away.  She had lived a long, happy life, having traveled all over Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean.  When I was twelve years old, she took my sister and me on a cruise to Mexico.  She was the matriarch of our family and showed by example how one family cares for each other.  I am who I am in part because of who she was. 

My grandmother never went past the sixth grade.  Not many children in those days did.  She was the daughter of immigrants who left the former Kingdom of Hungaria, later Czechoslovakia, now the Slovak Republic, to find a better life in the United States.  Like many in the 1920s she married young.  And to an immigrant as well, making her daughter, my mother, a first-and-a half generation American.  I suppose.  No labels yet for that scenario that I’m aware of.  She spent decades of her life, working in a factory; the same where my mother spent those same decades of her life.  Both retired from that factory.

My paternal grandmother had passed when I was very young, about six years old.  The memories I have of her are vague: vanilla wafers and Diet Rite cola.  Other memories are really photographs I’ve seen too many times, how we eventually recall them as actual memories.  So my maternal grandmother is really the only one I knew.

In her lifetime, my grandmother buried two husbands: the first the father of her children.  He worked in a casket factory until an on-the-job injury got the acid sealant into his system where it settled in his limbs and slowly corroded them.  After successive amputations, that acid eventually caused his death.  My grandmother became a single mom with a teenage child.  Twelve years separated my mother from her sister.  After a number of years on her own, she remarried to my step-grandfather, the only grandfather I knew as both my maternal and paternal grandfathers had passed before I came along.  About twenty years later she took care of that husband too until his death from lung cancer.

I grew up in the same home my mother was raised in.  Once my mother’s father had had his legs amputated, a two-story home was inconvenient to say the least.  So my mother’s parents divided their plot of land, and build a one-story home on the backside.  My parents bought the two-story home.  So I grew up with my grandmother and step-grandfather in my backyard.

As a child I don’t recall her being very generous or engaging really.  Somehow I learned early on that we weren’t supposed to ask her for anything.  I’d have died of thirst before I asked for a drink, for example.  And I would never have gone into her refrigerator on my own.  Not sure if that was a family quirk or Old World rules, but it was a no-no.  But after my grandfather passed, my grandmother seemed to warm a bit.  Not sure why.

It wasn’t until I got older that I got closer to my grandmother.  In high school I moved in with her when things with my parents got unbearable: one part teenage angst / overreaction, one part parents not coping well with a recently outed gay son.  My grandmother favored me a bit over her other grandchildren.  She often called me for simple requests, like to change a lightbulb or reset her microwave clock after a power outage.  She had a funny way of “paying” me for those tasks.  She didn’t like what she called “old” money—heavily used and wrinkled dollar bills; she preferred the crisp, clean, new bills.  So she gave the “old” ones to me.  That arrangement stayed in place until life moved me out of my parents home and her out of her own.

My grandmother’s later years were difficult.  We didn’t know that she was slowly slipping into dementia.  By then I was into that aloof young adulthood only post-adolescent “kids” can pull-off.  I wasn’t around much, at least not emotionally.  Those simple tasks my grandmother asked of me were now Herculean labors.  Often she called my mother with her complaints and requests.  Seems my mother, in a menopausal mood, reacted similarly to my post-adolescent annoyance.  My grandmother’s complaints about the sound of the refrigerator constantly running irritated my mother, especially when the source later turned out to be the blood pumping in her ears because of blocked arteries.  My mother would get frustrated with misplaced money found in odd places.  She slowly started taking over all of my grandmother’s major functions: like pill dosages, especially when she realized my grandmother was over-dosing unintentionally, having forgotten that she already took that dosage.  But my mother wasn’t happy with this new burden.  She often chided my grandmother for not remembering it was Thursday and not Sunday and not time to go to mass.  Or when she’d come over to our house an hour before they were supposed to go to the mall to go shopping.  My grandmother had actually been dressed all day.  I suspect she had fallen into a deep depression that worsened over time.  It’s hard to have a reason to get out of bed each morning when you don’t really have anything to do upon waking, especially when cooking, cleaning, and any other basic household tasks have all been taken away.  For your own safety, of course.

But that all changed when my father came down with cancer.  And then my grandmother had a stroke and had to go into a nursing home.  If the 1990s were her bleakest years, then at least the 2000s were more . . . upbeat.  She adjusted well to the nursing home and came to enjoy it actually.  Until her dementia worsened.

It’s funny thing, death.  It evokes the worst and the best in all of us.  And sometimes both in each of us.  My mother’s sister had unresolved issues with her mother, probably related to my grandmother’s remarriage.  My aunt grew more and more distant as her mother did as well.  Almost in proportion to each other.  But my aunt inadvertently sacrificed an opportunity—pardon the pun—of a lifetime.  In watching my mother care for my grandmother, I learned what it really meant to be a family.  I mentioned back in The Parent Trap that my mother visited my grandmother nightly at the nursing home, helping get her ready for bed, laying out her clothes for the next morning.  As funding was cut even more, it became more important that she continued.  My aunt lived two hours away.  But she didn’t call to ask about her.  The stroke my grandmother suffered affected her short-term memory.  She’d often ask the same question multiple times.  At Christmas, we all got a devilish thrill out of keeping her busy reopening her gifts.  I mean, she had forgotten that she had just opened them.  No harm, right?  But that’s a different sort of “trick.”  One that leaves you feeling happy.  My aunt and her family took another approach: why bother visiting when my grandmother would just forget in five minutes that you were just there.  Maybe that was factually accurate, but it overlooks the emotional factor.  The feeling my grandmother would be left with.  Perhaps she wouldn’t recall why she was happy, but she’d still be happy.  And it overlooks the lesson I and my sister learned watching my mother care for hers.  A lesson my cousins didn’t get.

Perhaps my mother felt obligated to give back to her mother for all that my grandmother did over the years to help my mother.  My grandmother helped my parents out financially.  Many times, I suspect.  She helped my aunt out as well but my uncle was better off, had a better paying job.  My aunt, for example, didn’t have to work for much of my cousins’ childhood, unlike my mother who worked as much overtime as possible and my father who worked two, sometimes three, jobs.  Or maybe my mother felt guilty for the way she had treated my grandmother those few years before her illness was discovered.  I’m not sure but the lessons I learned about the meaning of family—from my mother and from my grandmother—are really unpriceable.  Not priceless, i.e., less a price.  They are un-price-able.

Had my grandmother been less generous with her financial resources, that lesson may have trickled down to my mother, and I’m unsure where I’d be right now.  Probably working a full-time job at the mall in Scranton.  Thanks, Gram, for everything you did for us all.  We miss you.

Written by Laid-off Lawyer

July 24, 2010 at 23:09

3 Responses

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  1. I’m sure she’s somewhere watching you, and as proud of you as ever.


    July 26, 2010 at 11:52

  2. Thanks. I sure hope so.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 27, 2010 at 12:24

  3. Speaking as a Mom and a Grandmom, she knows and she is proud. We have instincts that I’m convinced survive after we die.


    July 28, 2010 at 18:37

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