Super Bowl Sunday marked three weeks since a conversation with my mother revealed that my grandma was in very delicate condition. Mom's choice of words, like “do not resuscitate” and “living will” caught my attention. Grandma had been hospitalized for pneumonia again—the second time in two months. The previous hospitalization had involved congestive heart failure as well, and the sum of these elements set off maximum alarms in my head. I didn't need a doctor to tell me what I already knew: grandma's ninety-two-year-old body was finally exceeding the manufacturer's warranty on her parts.
Although I'm not at liberty to discuss my actual age, I can tell you that I'm damn lucky to have had grandma in my life for as long as I have. From sci-fi bookworm to brainy skate punk to atypical FiDi professional to merciless cultural outlaw and beyond, my various incarnations never phased her one bit. Through them all, she saw and heard me for what I have always been: her grandson. As she got older and I got more experienced, I frequently had to break down complex situations to their root elements so that she could absorb and process them. Her thoughts and words carried more weight with me than anyone or anything else. She'd watched the world for decades, and was never short for an opinion. A grounded, working-class opinion that had endured wars, fake presidencies, collapsed economies, nuclear terrors, domestic tranquility, medical incompetence, and personal indifference. One that had outlived her husband, her brothers and sister, her friends, and her nursing home companions. She is truly the Omega.
My first memory is of looking out the window behind the kitchen sink of her old house. She was giving me a bath in that sink, quietly whistling some song under her breath while she made sure I was as clean and pure as she could make me. The world beyond that window was often grimy and foul. Two blocks away, a railroad box car factory churned out product around-the-clock. Smoke and soot and sweat and blood powered the American Dream for its workers and owners. In there, boys became men on the trick of a shift. Before child labor laws took effect, it wasn't uncommon to find children under the age of ten working lethal machinery amid even more lethal environs.
Grandma hailed from a hellhole of coal mining poverty in West Virginia, where Black Lung littered graveyards with old men who weren't yet thirty-five. Child brides were wedded off at fourteen and fifteen to become seasoned mothers by eighteen. Her escape from there was the Chickasaw Shipyards, in Mobile, Alabama. World War II required submarines. Submarine construction required tough, fearless welders who could fit into the cramped framing and hull confines while wearing oxygen rigs and slinging fire on steel. The window to her freedom was dirty with soot and toxic metal shavings. But it was freedom, nonetheless. She wanted a better kind of freedom for me.
Despite this noblesse oblige, she did buy me my first toy pistol. Mom and dad had a strict NO GUNS philosophy that flatly prohibited any kiddie arsenal whatsoever. Grandma didn't agree with them, knowing full well that their best efforts would result in a less well-rounded man. The blue plastic .45 replica she bought me fired yellow Zebra pellets and came with three cardboard targets that stood in plastic bases. Less than ten minutes after we got home with it, I marched into the kitchen and said to her, “Grandma, I need a new gun.” She asked me why, inquiring if the gun had broken. “No,” I answered, “It doesn't shoot far enough.” True. At its maximum range, I was hitting the three targets way too easily.
Grandma understood completely. In Hell Holler, WVA, she and her three brothers hunted game to put food on the family table. On one such hunt, she hit a wild turkey through the neck, while it was on the fly, from over 50 feet away. Her weapon? A Stevens-Savage double-barrel 20 ga. For my 5th birthday, we went to a Western Auto and she bought me a cork-firing replica of her .30-.30 repeating rifle. Thereafter, range was never a problem. Nor was my wicked accuracy.
Grandma married three times. Her first husband was seldom, if ever discussed. He was from Hell Holler, too. Didn't last long. Contestant No. Two was a fine enough fella, except that he was also a solider who spent his time on the front lines of the Allied campaign in Europe. In 1943, on a break from the shipyard, grandma visited her sister in Pennsylvania. And got fixed up on a date with another fella. He was well-regarded and hardworking, if somewhat tragic. His wife, and mother of his two sons, had died of cancer at 26, leaving him devastated and alone. Not for long.
I've seen photos of grandma from that time period. She was absolutely stunning. A femme fatale before they knew their own power. I'd bet 7-2 that more than one bar fight started over exactly who was going to dance with her. Grandpa was no slouch, either. Dark, handsome, and toned from years on a production line, his manners and refinements gave him an air all his own. Grandma was immediately smitten. He was, too. Johnny Cash would later call this a Ring of Fire.
Grandma and grandpa kept up what we now call a “long distance relationship.” His responsibilities as a foreman at a wartime industrial production plant prohibited him from extended breaks or getaways. She visited as often as she could, taking buses and trains between the Gulf of Mexico and the Shenango River. On one of those visits, he proposed. She accepted, but there was a complication: Contestant No. 2. In those days, divorces couldn't be done through the mail. So, she waited until he got back from the war, in 1946, and had him sign the papers the day he returned. Tom, I'm sorry that my grandma broke your heart. Truly, I am. If it's any consolation, she gave my grandpa back his for the rest of his life.
The Chickasaw Shipyard bid its Rosies adieu when the boys came back home. Grandma transitioned from welding warships to handling explosives. At a TNT factory near my hometown. TNT had to be shipped here and there for various purposes, and grandma made sure that the packaging was secure on each order. Otherwise, those deliveries might have gone KABOOM at improper, inconvenient times. On an average day, enough high explosives passed through her hands that she and the other folks in her department were required to shower before leaving the factory. Skip that shower and your hands or clothes might detonate from a loose cigarette ash or jostle on the road. KABOOM!
One of the many things that the first three waves of Feminism totally fucked up was the Spectrum of Women. Our simplistic needs of bipolar This OR That American life require that our freedom of choice be broken down in a few rather pathetic options. The self-degrading dogma of late-20th Century Feminism had reduced women to either corporate conquerors or submissive housewives. Two sub-classes briefly emerged: the Riot Grrrl and the Working Mother. Riot Grrls were expected to grow up and either assume the position of corporate cannibals or calm the hell down and squeeze out a few soccer puppies. Working Mothers were the bisexuals of the Feminist movement, attempting to have a foot in both worlds without fully committing to either. Lost in the cacophony of the above discord was the Broad.
Broads were never gonna' go to college. They were bored in (junior) high school and didn't want anything more to do with education than they absolutely had to. Big tits and a bawdy, bossy attitude were their hallmark. They smoked, they drank, they hung out with Bad Boys. When the war opened doors to economic equality and independence via industrial production and other related jobs previously held only by men, Broads suddenly didn't have to resort to unsavory lines of income or surrender to ogres who would breed them, beat them, and ignore them, in order to stay “alive.” But, even sweet, underachieving girls with bra sizes lower than 34DD could become Broads by contact. All they had to do was work in factories.
Grandpa didn't want to be married to a Broad. Grandma's experience in the shipyards and in the explosives plant inured her to the feeling of her own money in her pocket and control of her life in her own hands. What she was eager to do next was work as a welder's trainer in the same plant as my grandpa. He was always a soft touch with her, and went the distance to ensure her happiness in any situation. Not this time. Grandpa wanted a full-time mother for his boys, and more of a lady for himself. Grandma didn't see this as oppressive or degrading in any way, and the decision involved a lot less sturm und drang than couples these days perpetually whine about facing. It's easy to say, “Times were different then.” Truth is that they let love make the call. Grandpa got the wife he wanted, the boys got the mother they needed, and grandma got into the business of family. A few years later, my mother entered that family.
The cavalcade of happiness that my grandparents brought to my young life should never be underestimated. Summertime weekends meant trips to campgrounds with the Winnebago camper club to which my grandparents belonged. Or Conneaut Lake. Or flea markets where grandma and her sister dealt a wide assortment of antiques. Grandma and grandpa's Christmas tree produced gems like my first 200+ piece Lego set, a BlasTech E-11, and model kits of the starship Enterprise and the F-104 Starfighter. I woke on Sunday mornings to the smell of grandma's impossible-to-duplicate pancakes frying up in a cast-iron skillet and her patented, reanimate-a-week-old-corpse coffee percolating in a coffee pot on the stove. When I think back on those years, wave after wave of love rolls off them like a perfect surfing afternoon on glassy waters.
That afternoon was rudely interrupted just before my ninth birthday. Dad had seen the writing on the industrial wall: our area was dying, and soon to be dead. He landed a job as a newspaper editor at a well-respected outlet in a southern state. We'd be moving nearly a thousand miles away from grandma and grandpa. Too young to appreciate dad's foresight and dedication at the time, all I felt was the impending anguish of being cut off from my grandparents. The last stop before mom, my aunt, and I hit the highway out of town was grandma's house. As we pulled away from it, she and grandpa stood outside and waved us goodbye. I looked out the hatchback window and kept eye contact with her as long as I could. Our faces were both a free-flow of tears. Mine didn't stop until well after Pittsburgh.
The physical distance between me and grandma grew as the world opened itself to me. College was my escape from the abrasive, socially-suicidal enclave of lingering Revolutionary War romance and bilateral racism in Virginia's southeastern corner. To the abrasive, socially-suicidal enclave of lingering Southern Gothic romance and trilateral racism that was Florida's southeastern corner. To this latte island San Fiasco. Telephone calls were poor substitutes for live contact, and even those could be few and far between on my end. I'd become what she bemoaned to me in my early years: so far away and busy that I never came to see her.
I can actually count the number of times I went back to Pennsylvania after college. They almost fit on one hand. Each time, the injustice of age had robbed grandma of something else. Macular degeneration stole her sight. Boredom and fear stole her energy. We're not yet sure which thief made off with her hearing, or how much if it will return. Despite those deficits, grandma's mind has remained sharp and engaging. To me, that's what truly mattered. And so, I flew out last weekend to see her.
My cousin, who visits with grandma several times per week, felt that surprise was the best medicine of the moment. I knelt beside her recliner, thumbed the volume control on the device connected to her earpiece headphone, took her hand, and told her it was me. A jolt of recognition swept through her, lighting up elements I hadn't seen in way too long, before resonating back through me. Connection made, time irrelevant. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the right touch at the right time must be worth several million, at least.
Five days, five visits. Each one no longer than a couple hours. On the fourth encounter, I broached the subject no one ever wants to approach: mortality. Her life was hers to live for as long as she decided to live it, I said. She understood perfectly. Lingering between this world and the next, in her condition, is tantamount to a purgatorial curse. Grandma had never done anything to deserve that. My entire purpose for making this trip was to deliver the peace she'll need to embrace the end of her life when it comes. The payback for the love she funneled into me throughout my life. That love has always kept me free, and let the strength of peace run through my hands. The hands that held hers and caressed her cheeks during these last visits. Delivery made, time irrelevant. Another love supreme, cleared for flight.