On October 30th, 2014, my grandmother Margie died.
It wasn’t a surprise. If anything, it was somewhat of a relief for those of us who’d been watching her deteriorate over the past two or so years, from a vibrant, active woman to a shaky, blind, deaf, confused, withering soul with no escape from the confusion in her head, no outlet except to sit and gaze at the ocean. I didn’t spend much time with my grandmother that last year, because what remained of her wasn’t the woman I knew. And the woman I did know would hate for people to see her in that state: mentally unsound, confused, her eternally kept up black hair a snowy, untended white, her clothing covered with stains from food that went uncleaned. My grandmother was always a meticulously neat and stylish woman. She went to the hairdresser once a week to have her hair dyed what she referred to as brown, which the rest of the world regarded as black. Her mornings began with the ritual of ‘putting on her face’: a lengthy makeup process involving fake eyelashes, drawn-on eyebrows, lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, until she emerged completely transformed, so completely that it was jarring to me when as a teenage girl traveling with my newly widowed grandmother and sharing a hotel room, I discovered that beneath the heavy makeup, she had a totally different face. This isn’t intended to sound negative: my grandmother was a whiz at maximizing her features, a makeup magician drawing on what wasn’t there naturally. As someone who’s never worn more than lipstick, it was impressive.
So I kept my distance, preferring to remember my grandmother for who she always was to me rather than that scared, frail, failing woman. Maybe that sounds terrible and selfish to some people, but in order to debate that, we’d have to break down into a discussion about opinions on death, which is messy, long, and completely unresolvable.
I could ramble on about my memories of my grandmother, as I have spent months struggling to come to terms with how I feel. She had a rich, long, incredible life. She outlived my grandfather by almost two decades, something I think she never fully accepted. They had a fantastic, loving, happy marriage. She traveled around the world. At 32, I am extremely fortunate and grateful that I had my grandmother around as long as I did. So I accept her death as timely and inevitable.
I have taken on the task of cleaning out my grandmother’s belongings from her condo and storage. It’s here that I’m discovering the complexities of my grandmother, secrets and sides of her that a grandchild would never know, and the purpose of this blog is to pay some kind of tribute to who she was, a human being whose physical legacy is at times moving, funny, tragic, and dark.
My grandmother collected handkerchiefs and scarfs, to an extent that I could never imagine. Her dresser was crammed full of them, many monogrammed. And then I found this one. My grandmother was always, as mentioned, a snappy dresser with a unique sense of style. Many of her belongings look like they belong on some hipster Etsy and not on a 94-year-old woman. She had a collection of rompers that rival my own.
She was always plagued by dental problems–something my mother and I didn’t inherit–but for some reason I was unaware that she wore false fronts. We found two sets of these in the house.
She was a secret sugar fiend with a sweet tooth that she passionately denied. She loved M&Ms, apparently so much that she kept this secret stash of them in her bedroom.
She was a card-carrying Jew. Literally.
While cleaning out her things, we found literally hundreds of pieces of paper with addresses and phone numbers written on them. Although she had dozens of address books, this seems to be her chaotic system of preference, because we found tons of similar papers in storage, too.
Another thing Grandma collected to the point of hoarding: business cards. There were hundreds, if not thousands of business cards, often for the same shop that she frequented weekly.
An anniversary card from my mother, handmade, 1967. All of my mom’s cards to her parents were carefully designed artistic endeavors.
As I mentioned, my grandmother was spotlessly clean her entire life, but she did have some odd habits, likely developed as a result of the Depression and growing up quite poor with a large family (five brothers). This envelope was, for reasons unknown, completely filled with used tissues.
Pretty much my grandmother’s ideal itinerary, as penned by a caregiver for her to reference. My grandmother was an atheist, pretty hardcore about it, but as she got older, there was something she found very calming and beautiful about specifically the Wayfarer’s Chapel. She accumulated an impressive amount of information on the place, although her interest was largely in the architecture and landscaping.
As she got older, she struggled with incontinence and IBS. You can tell we’re related because neither of us can spell the word diarrhea without spellcheck.
My mother says this cigarette holder was part of a Halloween costume.
A list of all the immediate family birthdays, in extra large font. She suffered from Macular Degeneration and by the time she passed, was pretty much entirely blind. At the point where she was almost completely blind, she began seeing detailed hallucinations or projections of things, largely oddly medieval. It turns out this is a relatively rare condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
She was shockingly sturdy and healthy most of her life, so when she began falling, she actually pulled through injuries that most elderly people would have been killed by.
One frustrating thing I’ve discovered is that almost none of my grandmother’s old pictures are labeled, leaving me with piles of photographs dating back to the Victorian era with no clue who anyone is in context to me. For example, I have no idea who the woman to the left of my grandmother is in this picture. I would guess this is from the 1940s and she is in her early twenties here.
My grandmother was a volunteer at UCLA Medical Center for many years, where she provided tours for young doctors. She loved being there, but after she lost her license, it was impractical and so she stepped down from her post. I’m not sure why she wrote this information on this particular note, or why it was on her mind at that moment,but I do think retiring from her volunteer work was probably one of the hardest things she ever did. No idea what the whooping cough is a reference to.
As mentioned previously, my grandparents were very happily married for over half a century before my grandfather died from lung cancer. This particular greeting card must date back to the first few years of their marriage, and it’s actually a little booklet filled with illustrations and reasons why he loves her.
More greeting cards. They had very traditional roles: she was a homemaker and he went to The Office.
Like I said, she had a strong, unique sense of taste. Why she had a neon pink ’80s jacket featuring slam dancers and the words Hardcore ’88 on it, I do not know.
Not sure what the current market is for 60-something year old baby teeth.
I have no idea what this is from but perhaps she worked on a lot at some point.
In her later years, my Grandmother LOVED Hallmark cards. At least once a week, she would wobble down to the shop where everyone knew her name and carefully pick through all the cards until she found ‘the perfect one’. As a result, she accumulated hundreds of greeting cards for all occasions–birthdays, baby births, weddings, bereavement, graduation–which will never be sent to anyone.
I know very little about my great-grandfather. He died when my grandmother was still a teenager, and from what I gather, he used his heart issues to validate not working, so my great grandmother toiled as a seamstress to provide for the large family. After he died, my grandmother dropped out of junior college to help take care of her family. She never spoke very much about her father except anecdotally, likely because behind the stories of him swatting an owl out of the attic and whatnot, he was not a very admirable man, a man whose only act of affection she could remember was to pet her head and cry when she was very sick as a child. Still, a diary she kept that has very few entries noted the day he passed and that ‘he fought like a champ’, and she saved all of the Western Union correspondences she received from around the country expressing sympathy.
My grandmother was a huge traveler. My grandfather…not so much. Still, he loved her enough to take her away as often as possible to as many exotic locations as possible. Here are two not so exotic ones with the original Greyhound flyers from the forties.
My great-grandmother Bella was born in Kiev to what we presume was a relatively well-to-do Jewish family, based on the few heirlooms we have of hers–a fur wrap, some pearl opera glasses. Little is known about her emigration to America, other than the fact that she came through Ellis Island. It was always explained to me as ‘like An American Tale’, in case I wondered. She was, from all accounts, a vibrant, eternally cheerful woman no matter what the circumstances, who danced with my mom to the Beatles and wrote weekly letters to Eleanor Roosevelt. When she passed away, my family had several trees planted in Israel to honor her memory.
Photobooth picture of my grandmother when she was likely in her late teens or early twenties.
FYI SHE BELIEVED IN IMMUNIZATIONS.
Toe tag from my mother the day she was born.
TB x-ray card
My great-grandmother’s will, written considerably before she died. Fun side note, she was also quite tall.
My grandmother loved taking pictures with shitty disposable cameras. Until stumbling across these, it never occurred to me that I never saw most of them. And so I found a large treasure trove of pictures from my childhood I’d never seen before. Above are pictures of my with my brother and my two cousins.
My grandma saved locks of my mom’s hair. Fun fact: she was blonde at some point.
Speaking of my mom, here’s a picture of her and my uncle in their groovy band, “Home Brew”. Things to note: the one guy who was like ‘fuck no, white flares’. and the guy to the far left who seems to have at least a semi going on. To the right is a picture of my mom being incredibly awkward in middle school that makes me feel a lot better about how goddamn disgusting looking I was at that age.
I thought this was kind of a neat thing. It appears to be a photo taken at some ‘Hollywood nightspot’ in the thirties or forties of my grandmother’s brother and his ‘gal’. This was the outside envelope. A nice little piece of nostalgia for the days of classic Hollywood.
Additionally, here’s an autographed photo from some starlet who my great-grandmother did seamstress work for.
I’m optimistic that the other half of this picture will show up, although I won’t be any closer to knowing who anyone is. They’re all family from Russia, likely Bella’s brothers and sisters, and they’re all having a fucking great time.
In a box I affectionately dubbed “The Box of Broken Dreams”, I discovered a ton of photographs of all the family exes, including this family portrait with my father. My brother is dressed up like a taxi cab.
I lived a couple of blocks from her my entire life, so every year, her house was my last stop on my trick or treating route. She hated Halloween, hated the kids, hated the entitlement that accompanies expecting free candy, but every year she would grudgingly dish out candy to children through gritted teeth, making unnecessary old lady comments to the older looking ones about being ‘too old for this’ and chastising chubby kids for being greedy while questioning their need for candy. Needless to say, she was a target for heavy egging and toilet papering, which went well with my step-dad’s agenda since HIS favorite thing in the world was to hide in the bushes and hose off any potential teenage assholes. He would literally hide there, giggling in anticipation, for hours.
Speaking of my step-dad Kevin, who I was also very close to and who passed away in 2003, this picture I recovered last week from my grandmother’s is the only picture I’ve seen that I’m in with him. This is because as a punk rock weirdo in high school, I was extremely uncooperative and camera shy. As a result, there are very few pictures of me from that period of my life.
Except for the tons and tons of them I discovered that my grandmother had taken, because I can’t say no to my grandma.
I’ll publish this “as is” for now but I will have more to add once I’ve unearthed my grandparents’ wedding portrait from the tons of boxes in my garage.
it’s a funny thing. People have often critiqued my habit of saving old notes, greeting cards, and other seemingly worthless, sentimental ephemera. They argue that I’ll have no use for it, that it’s unlikely I’ll ever look at them again. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw a heated discussion on Facebook that concluded with the general consensus that keeping a diary is a narcissistic hobby. Funny thing is, I’m willing to believe most of those people maintain blogs, which are just the ultimate narcissistic diary, right? A public accounting, such as this one, which is why I’ve had little interest in blogging. Something where you get instant gratification and approval for sharing intimate details of your own life and your opinions. People confuse that with a diary, which is generally used by people who feel the need to explode emotionally on paper in order to pluck the words in their heads out and put them somewhere safe and quiet. They are tomes that are never meant to be read by anyone until after they’re dead. They’re the ultimate privacy, a place to store your brain, often kept locked up and hidden.
And long after your blog has disappeared, those diaries will remain. They are solid evidence of existing, of the tiny moments in life that make up a whole person. The internet is a tricky, faulty thing that with one minor mistake or misstep, can erase entire memories, decades of a person’s life and efforts. So I keep my notes and my greeting cards, not for me but because maybe some day my granddaughter will be going through my things after I’m dead, and she will find some kind of insight into her own identity. Or at least get to know that she inherited her shitty PE grades from me via my old report cards.
C? I’m on to you, Mom.