I got up early Sunday morning to spend the day with my grandmother who is in a nursing home. It was her 95th birthday and I’ve always thought it wonderful that she celebrates growing another year older on the first day of spring. When I was a little girl, Grandmother was never the huggy, snuggly cookie baking kind of grandma that you see on the Hallmark Channel. In a time period where most grandmothers had spent their life taking care of only a family and home, my grandmother had been a shrewd businesswoman. In addition to owning a slew of rental properties on the beach in Florida, she and my grandfather owned a bustling motel in a busy tourist town. Back then the housekeeping staff was given Sunday as their day off and my mom, dad, and baby brother would help my grandparents clean the rooms as the guests checked out. Although I was only five when I first began helping, I was allowed to help dry the tubs and sinks, after my mom or dad scrubbed them. I was also given the honor of placing a miniature bar of Ivory Soap in the soap dish on the sink and in the bathtub. At five, nothing seemed more perfect to me than those tiny, deliciously clean smelling soap bars. I would put my whole face in the cardboard box that held them and breathe in their sanitary goodness. Each week I would beg Grandmother to let me take one home to put in my bathroom. My mother would always intervene and tell me no. I thought I must have been the only kid in the world who broke out in a rash when they washed with Ivory Soap. My reward for helping would usually be a glass bottle of orange soda from the motel’s Coke machine. My granddad would let me put the fifteen cents in. I would open the frosty glass door and grip the cold neck of the bottle, anxious for the metal clasps to release it. Then I popped it open using the bottle opener on the side of the machine. My mother didn’t really like me drinking soda. I was one of those unfortunates raised on a very strict diet. Luckily, mom bent her rule once a week as long as I promised to sit down while drinking it. According to her, walking around with a glass soda bottle was dangerous. If I fell with a pop bottle in my mouth it could knock my teeth out, cut my lips beyond recognition, and possibly render me blind from the shards of glass that were sure to bounce from the pavement into my eyes. I was a rule follower, so I sat on the wooden bench on the sidewalk outside of the lobby swinging my short legs and drinking every drop of my payment while I imagined how hard my life would be if I suffered a soda bottle injury.
After the cleaning was finished we would stay for Sunday evening dinner. Grandmother was an amazing cook, and she would always have the main dish simmering as we cleaned rooms so it would be easy to get dinner finished up when we were done. I loved her roast beef the best. She would cook it onions, celery and peppers, slowly on the stove top until it was so tender you could cut it with a fork. She’d serve it with creamy mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, creamed corn, and coleslaw. It was a meal so delectable that I could have eaten it every day. During dinner the adults would talk while my brother and I listened and politely ate our food. This was a Sunday ritual that lasted throughout my childhood until my grandfather passed away and Grandmother sold the motel and moved into a little yellow house a few miles away. Once this happened we spent Sunday afternoons helping to weed my grandmother’s garden, or doing other chores around her house while she made dinner.
As I grew up, Grandmother and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. She didn’t approve of the music I listened to, nor did she like the fact that I decided to stop piano lessons to be in plays. I was also pretty certain that she liked my brother far better than me just because he was a boy and because he stuck with his piano lessons. I once asked my very affectionate mom why Grandmother didn’t seem to like me. She assured me that Grandmother loved me very much, but that she just wasn’t very good about expressing emotions. There were times, though that we got along just fine. She painstakingly taught me how to cook; a skill that I took to like a fish to water. My remaining family swears that my mashed potatoes taste exactly like hers. When my mother, her daughter, became terminally ill and I wanted to quit college to stay home and care for her, she dropped everything and moved into our home to serve as a round-the-clock nurse. “A woman can’t be without a college education,” she insisted. Two years later, as staunchly religious as she was, she didn’t judge me when I confessed to being pregnant a few months before I married my first husband. She simply helped me plan my wedding in her calm steady way.
Now that she’s 95, she doesn’t remember who I am, and when she does have a small glimpse of memory she’ll ask how my long-dead mother is doing. I always swallow hard to suppress the ache and, say, “fine.” I’m afraid telling her that she’s gone could be like hearing it for the first time. Now, my grandmother is far more affectionate when I visit her. She hugs me hard and holds my hand. The lines on her face that were once pinched with all of the worries that running several businesses can cause, have softened. She is childlike and happy. In her own world, she laughs and sings to herself When we showed her the brightly frosted birthday cake made just for her, she reached out and took a piece with her hands, gleefully devouring each bite with gusto and licking the frosting from her fingers. It was a pure moment, without rules, just the way life should sometimes be.