Friday, December 3, 2010

She Loved Me, Fat Ass and All

Three years ago today, my great-grandma Stella died at the age of 97, just one month shy of her 98th birthday. I say "died" because that's what we say in my family. We don't say "passed away" or "passed on." We say "died," because that's exactly what she did. She would have appreciated this directness.

For a variety of reasons, I didn't go home for the funeral. First of all, she didn't want a funeral. She stated this explicitly several times. What she wanted was for us to take the money that the family would have spent on a funeral and have a party instead, but the Jewish cemetery she was being buried in required a service officiated by a rabbi. She would have called this "a waste of money," along with the fancy coffin she was buried in. At any rate, I didn't feel particularly inclined to attend a funeral she didn't even want.

Second, I don't do funerals. I have been to exactly one in my life and I did not enjoy it. I did not care to repeat the experience.

The third reason, and perhaps the biggest, was that I anticipated a major blow-out with my sister if I did go home. The way I chose to comfort myself about my grandma's death was to remind myself that her death was not a tragedy. She was not struck down in her prime, she was not a mother to seven young children all depending on her for survival, and she was not someone who had not experienced life. Instead, she had raised children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had traveled all over the world and run a successful small business. She smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and loved her dogs and loved her family more (we think - we're not entirely sure about this last one). So while her death was certainly sad for all of us, it wasn't a tragedy in the usual sense of the word.  When I shared this sentiment with my mom, she sensed that my sister might not agree. I worried that with emotions running strong my sister and I would get into a fight of some sort, and that, combined with my aversion to funerals and especially to a funeral my grandma didn't want, was enough for me to stay home.

I didn't let her death pass unmarked. My grandma lived in a condo that looked out over the water, an estuary that fed into the San Francisco Bay. When we visited her as kids, she always had a loaf of day-old bread on hand for us to take down to the dock to feed to the ducks. It's something she always made sure to have ready for us, and it was one of the many rituals of our visits. And so on the day of her funeral I went down to Town Lake, the body of water that slices through the city and separates north from south (and yuppies from hipsters - she would have hated hipsters), and fed the ducks a loaf of bread while remembering all the wonderful family gatherings we had in her home. I actually had to kind of chase the ducks because they wouldn't come to me, and goddammit I was going to have my moment, but still - I did something that reminded me of my visits with my grandma and said goodbye in a way that I could feel good about. And to the best of my knowledge, no one in my family objected.


My Grandma Stella was hard to describe. She was direct and assertive and told it exactly like she thought it was. She was fiercely dedicated to her family, but sometimes that dedication took the form of blunt criticism. These are some of my favorite stories about her.


I don't know how old I was or what led to it, but my grandma was the one who christened me with one of my earliest nicknames, "schtick pisk." My understanding is that it's a Yiddish term, and means something along the lines of "big mouth." Not "big mouth" as in "blabbermouth;" more like "sassy and talks back to elders." Which sums me up pretty well. 


"Get your hair out of your face" was a common refrain of my grandma's, almost always directed at me. I didn't have bangs, and she didn't seem to understand that the "style" I was going for was for my hair to hang in my face and partially obscure my vision. Her admonitions often resulted in exasperated sighs and lots of eye-rolling from me. After repeating this exchange dozens of times over several years, my mom finally explained the trick to avoiding conflict with my grandma: "Just say, 'Yes, Grandma,' to whatever she says." And so I did. To everything.

"Erin, get your hair out of your hair out of your face."

"Yes, Grandma."

"Erin, quit biting your nails."

"Yes, Grandma."

"Erin, quit stuffing your face."

"Yes, Grandma."

Now, I am not usually anywhere near this acquiescent as an adult, let alone as a teenager. In fact, this was nearly a 180-degree turn from my normal responses, and my grandma, not being a stupid woman, knew exactly what I was doing. She responded in the only way she could. She gave me a look, then smiled and laughed to herself.


In addition to explicitly requesting that she not have a funeral, my grandma had one other request for after her death. She wanted to be buried in her favorite bathrobe (which was covered in burn marks from dropped cigarette ashes), with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in her pocket. She got her wish.


During one of my visits to California during my mid-twenties, I was seated on the couch directly across from my grandma, who was sitting in her recliner. I was snacking on stale M&Ms from the candy dish - her candy was always stale - when she shouted across the room at me, one finger raised.

"Erin! Stop!"


"How do you expect to get a husband with that fat ass?"

I paused for a moment. "... My winning personality?" I asked.

It was her turn to pause. "Pshhhh!!!" she said with a wave of her hand and a slight smile - the best I could hope to get from her. "Get outta here!"


When I was in seventh grade, my dad was laid off for the first time. It was scary for us, as kids, because my dad had always worked at the same job with the same company for our entire lives. As a kid who craved stability and predictability, it was especially alarming for me. My mom must have informed my grandma at some point, because the next time we visited her she pulled me aside as we were leaving. "If you ever need anything - clothes, books, food - and you don't have money for it, you call me," she said.


I'm not sure I ever heard my grandma tell me she loved me. I clearly remember saying goodbye to her at the end of one visit and telling her, "I love you." Her response was a smile and "Okay." But I never doubted that she loved me in her own, perhaps slightly dysfunctional way. Her concerns about my husband-repelling fat ass were as much a show of her love as her making sure our family had everything we needed to get by.

And so today, in honor of my Grandma Stella, I will keep my hair brushed out of my face and wear something that camouflages (or at least doesn't accentuate) my fat ass.

I love you and miss you, Grandma, and I know you loved me too.


lahn said...

This is a beautiful post Erin. Thanks for sharing these stories. ~ lisa

Streetlights94 said...

I love how you remember your grandma. This is exactly how I would want to be remembered at some point. Just as a series of little vignettes rather than an inflated speech that no one will really remember anyway. Just perfect.

Katherine C. James said...

Lovely, Lovely. Lovely. I love Grandma Stella. When my dad died—the 10-year anniversary of his death is on 6 December—I missed him terribly, but I was so grateful to have had so much time with him when he was already old when I was born. I understand what you are saying here. I love funerals actually, because I love ritual and and celebration and memorializing. But your way of honoring Grandma Stella sounds perfect.

Tina Toler said...

THANK YOU! My grandmother is doing very poorly and is suffering dementia so she doesn't remember me any more. We were always so close so it's hard. I have decided when she dies (and I say die too) I am not going home to the funeral for many of the same reasons you listed. It makes me feel better knowing this does not make me a terrible person like my family will try to convince me I am. I am just not up for the fighting and the backstabbing that is already started taking place. Very good article!

Erin said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments. In case you couldn't tell (ha!), I loved my great-grandma a lot, and I'm so glad I got to have her in my life for the first 27 years of it. She wasn't perfect - none of us are - but we all loved each other anyway.

@Tina - When my mom told my great-uncle how I was spending the day of the funeral, he said, "That sounds perfect." I was so lucky that my family let me grieve in my own way. I hope your family is able to give you the same space to do what's best for you. What's most important is that you work through all the emotions that come with her death in the way that works best for you (whether that means doing your own thing, or biting your tongue and enduring the funeral with family - it's what ultimately works for you). I hope no one convinces you otherwise.

fortunecookiejunkie said...

Stella!! (couldn't resist)

Great post. Love the stories. I've been to way too many funerals, yet I don't really have a "feeling" about them. Maybe I'm indifferent. I don't hate them, but I don't love them, either. They've been a part of my life since I was a young child. They just sort of...are. Some are formal, some aren't. Some are religious, some aren't. Reflecting on the concept of funerals and your private tribute to your grandmother makes me think more people should follow their instincts when planning memorials for their loved ones, as I often hear storied tinged with regret following formal ceremonies.

Streetlights94 said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about this post and I needed to come back to it. For what it is worth, I think it is extraordinarily brave to talk about your own unique grieving process that might be different from people in your own process. Everyone will internalize their grief separately and differently -- and to say that one way is better than an another is wrong, bitter and spiteful. It would be like saying, "My way of crying and mourning is better than your way, and you should do it my way. It honors the dead better to do it my way." That's bull shit. It's selfish. To say so is, in fact, really saying, "I like my way better because it shows everyone that I can do it better than you." Honoring the dead is between each person and the person who died. It's between each heartbeat and the one that has stopped.

Good for you for having the courage.

Erin said...

@Cristina: Thank you (again). I think your last sentence sums it all up so well: how we grieve and how we remember our loved ones is "between each heartbeat and the one that has stopped." Brilliant.

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