Over the weekend, my family flew into Florida from Illinois, Wisconsin, New York and California to celebrate the birth of my grandmother who turns 86 today.
Born into an Irish-American family in the nether regions of Minnesota, she has by all accounts lived a full life. She and my grandfather married upon his return from the Merchant Marines in World War II, and, like many newlyweds, contributed three bundles of joy to the Baby Boom generation. He worked construction; she served as an administrative assistant to the CEO of one of America’s major cereal companies until her early retirement in the 1980s. They were a joyful couple, hosting holiday parties as if it were the end of the world — food, music (her favorite, Johnny Mathis), booze, and presents. Always presents. She kept a file folder with holiday and seasonal cards, sending them out to her six grandchildren whenever the occasion rose. And, more often than not, when there was no reason except to say “I love you.”
She and my grandfather had just retired to Wisconsin and built a house on the La Crosse River — where my grandfather intended to hunt and fish well into his 80s — when my grandfather became ill. After weeks of tests, the diagnosis fell upon us as if the end of the world had actually arrived: lung cancer. It seemed those three packs a day, coupled with the toxic fumes from laying asphalt, had destroyed the two organs he needed to survive. Within a year, their life collapsed around them. The house was sold to pay for new medical treatments, none of which could save my grandfather from the disease eating him inside out. He died in Palm Springs, leaving my grandmother a widow in her late fifties.
Time passed, and slowly, she regained the Celtic strength flowing through her veins. She began dating and eventually married a man she had known since high school. They’ve been together for over twenty years, traveling the globe, golfing, collecting seashells, and frequenting the local Moose lodge for Friday night bingo and fish fries.
At 86, my grandmother is much quieter. Indeed, a far cry from her younger self. Perhaps she is remembering days of yesteryear as she watches her children tease each other like adolescents. Or perhaps she is trying to understand as her granddaughters use words like “Facebook” and “Twitter.” Yet even in this “newly subdued” self, her spirit is still there. And, on occasion, tiny jewels of wisdom flow like emeralds from her mouth. Those are the moments we await with eagerness.
Saturday we dined on the tranquil shores of Ft. Myers Beach. A few rounds had been served — we’re Irish, after all — and in-between sips of her vodka and tonic she lamented that she had been accepted to university but had had no funds to enroll. “Instead,” she said, with a proud yet sad glint in her eye, “I have spent my life encouraging my grandchildren to attend college. And I am proud of every one of you who has.”
If only, I thought, she could be proud of her granddaughters for quitting smoking.
As the sun began to set, and many drinks had been consumed, I nodded to my cousin — that nod only a smoker can recognize — and excused myself to the restroom. My cousin trailed after me, noting how she could have “gone to the bathroom” hours ago. We sat on the bench outside the restaurant, inhaling our American Spirits as if they were our lifeline.
We were like teenagers, sneaking a smoke in-between study hall and phys ed. And then she appeared. Shuffling a bit, my husband and hers on either side, my grandmother looked at us — not with disdain, but with the look of someone who knows addiction.
“You were smoking, I see.”
My cousin tossed her cigarette into the ashtray — mine long ago smoked — and we stood for family photos, a time-honored, and, admittedly, grueling ordeal. Four cameras at different angles, sun shining in our eyes… as if struggling to find the right eye at the right moment before a silent click snaps us into eternity.
As I climbed into the car, I vowed that next year this time, I would be smoke-free. If anything, to show her that I come from the same Celtic blood as she. For my grandmother, smoking had no longer been an option. She had seen, firsthand, what the addiction could do to a person. Shortly after my grandfather died, she became one of the first adopters of the nicotine patch, then only administered by a medical professional, and quit for good. Now, well into her eighth decade, her lungs are clear, even when her memory sometimes isn’t.
I can only hope to have her strength and be smoke-free, alas, with no patch on my ass to celebrate her 87th. If I have the tenacity she has, I’ll surely succeed, for she is one of the toughest Irish-American woman I know living today.
Happy Birthday Gram! You are my inspiration!
© 2013 Lisa Rainwater