My grandma was the best grandma

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My extraordinary grandmother passed in 2017. This essay honors some of her journey in this world, and her impact on my life. 

I received a call from my sister early one Friday night.  It had been a long week full of deadlines at work, errands to run, the house to clean, and attempts to remain connected to loved ones.  It had been a long week filled with my life, in other words.  So I was not prepared for the life-altering news my sister called with that sunny April evening, when she told me that our grandmother had been diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer so advanced that the doctors were certain it must have already spread to her lymph nodes.

The news was both shocking and expected.  Grandma was 80, so we knew our time with her was drawing to a close.  But cancer suddenly being added to the mix (there was no history of the disease in our family) put a whole new spin on things.  It was like reading most of a long, suspenseful novel, then, right at the climax, jumping ahead to the last page.  I felt cheated, like I had been handed a Cliffs Notes conclusion to my grandmother’s life.

Being faced with the loss of my grandmother made me realize that I had spent my entire life worrying about losing her.  It was one of my earliest memories, which meant that I had been anticipating this moment for over three decades.  I wasn’t a child given to outbursts of emotion, but whenever we visited and it was time to say goodbye to her, I cried as if heartbroken.  She was the conduit to everything I loved best in life.

Grandma returned those feelings, loving us with a passion that was pure – intense and unreasoning – existing simply because we had been manifested into the physical world.  And now, realizing that I would soon be cut off from that torrent of affection, one that is unique to the grandparent-grandchild relationship, I felt like the world had tilted slightly, leaving everything confused and off-kilter.  That my loss would be at the hands of a vicious, hungry, self-perpetuating disease, which had taken up residence in my grandmother’s body and was gradually siphoning off all her vital energy and resources, enraged me.  However, I should have realized that even cancer couldn’t force a final decision upon the seismic event that was my grandmother.  She had her own idea of how things were going to happen, and the end of her life was going to unfold on her terms, not those of the cancer. 

The doctor gave her several options for treatment, all of which sounded worse than the cancer itself.  They ranged from surgery so invasive it would leave her bedridden for months, unable to use her right arm or even walk to the bathroom, to intensive chemotherapy. Grandma pondered this for several days and then chose an option he hadn’t offered:  Building an addition onto her house.  She needed more closet space, she explained to her surgeon, and once the addition was built, she was going to need both her arms to re-organize all her things.  God would take care of the rest, she added.

(She had been a devout Baptist for years and had a number of long-standing agreements with Jesus.)

Her doctors expressed shock over her decision and tried in vain to talk her out of it.  They weren’t successful, which surprised everyone except our immediate family.  We knew exactly what Grandma was doing.  Adding a new room onto her house, as a response to the diagnosis of a terminal disease, was completely in line with how she had lived the rest of her amazing, independent life.  She was 80, and that was a lot of years spent choosing her own destiny.

Grandma Cats was born in 1925, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, which was apropos, since she didn’t meander through life, she roared through it, leaving indelible impressions on everyone who crossed her path.   (‘Cats’ isn’t her real name, either, legally speaking. We weren’t sure what was since she had changed it several times over the years after run-ins with the law.  But she had always owned several cats, so Grandma Cats she became.)

Although she only possessed a twelfth-grade education, Grandma Cats had an innate sense of how to run a business and was a self-made millionaire by the time she was 30.  She built a nightclub on the plains of Montana during WWII, where gangsters on the lam could get a great steak and see a Broadway-style floor show.  Unfortunately, she lost everything when the local sheriff, who was smitten with her flash and charm, proposed marriage.  She declined, and he burnt her illegal nightclub to the ground in retaliation.  Undaunted, she then married the son of a local wheat baron – my Grandpa Pat.  My grandfather said the first time he saw my grandmother, she was walking down the street in a floor-length purple fur coat, looking just like Ava Gardner.  He had never seen anything comparable on the streets of Great Falls, Montana, and drove around the block twice in order to keep looking at her.

Grandma lived through virtually every significant social event of the 20th century, managing to raise two children along the way while providing a home for her mother, siblings, and their many offspring.  And when my parents married and had my sister and me, there was not a more devoted grandmother on the planet.  Or one who was more exciting.

A visit from Grandma Cats was an epic event.  It was as if the circus came to town and took me with it.  She would roar up to the front door of my grade school in her platinum-colored Lincoln Continental, pausing just long enough to buckle me into the front seat before pressing down the accelerator with her dainty, high-heeled foot and racing back onto the highway.  She was a mere five feet tall, enveloped in a mink stole, awash with diamonds, lustrous raven hair swept up under a rakish ladies fedora, with red lipstick and matching fingernail polish.  Looking over at her, I knew:  This was no ordinary grandmother.  I took a deep, joyful breath, inhaling the swirl of Chanel No. 5 that typically heralded her arrival moments before she came into sight.  It was the essence of Grandma Cats.  It was the scent of adventure.

Keeping one eye on the road, she leaned across the front seat and gave me a big kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a crimson, lip-shaped tattoo.  Looking back at the road and accelerating slightly, she quietly said, “Let’s get some breakfast.”  Within minutes we were seated in a café eating hot fudge brownie sundaes.  It was 8:30 in the morning and the adventure had begun.

When Grandma came to visit, she never stayed at our house.  Instead, she rented a motel room, where my sister and I got to stay with her, which, within minutes, she managed to completely reconfigure to suit her tastes, bringing suitcases filled with her own bedding, small area rugs, cosmetics, and coolers full of snacks. Thus, the motel was transformed into a ‘boudoir,’ where grandma held court and we were her devoted subjects, giving her our rapt attention as she danced, sang, and told stories.  It was heaven.  We stayed up all night, ate candy, watched whatever we wanted on TV, and luxuriated in the motel’s hot tub – us in our one-piece swimsuits, Grandma in her sleek black suit and ever-present diamonds. It was like vacationing with Elizabeth Taylor at the Motel 6.

In addition to her diamonds, Grandma was never without her fur coats or her sense of fun.  One time, when my sister Stephanie was four and I was seven, we were staying with Grandma at the Holiday Inn, which she had given a touch of Louis XIV by placing homemade quilts on the beds, along with oversized red satin pillows and a small Persian rug.  Fresh from the hot tub, Steph and I were wrapped in huge terrycloth robes (also provided by grandma), with our chlorine-drenched hair swathed in towels, looking like two independently wealthy retirees returning from the spa. 

Grandma innocently announced that she was going to take a bath and we should occupy ourselves by watching TV. She then disappeared into the bathroom.  A few moments later, we heard a low, growling sound.  It gradually grew louder, until Steph and I began to look at each other fearfully.  Just then, a figure came around the corner from the bathroom.  For a brief moment, we genuinely believed that a wild creature had somehow gotten into the room with us.  Then we realized it was Grandma Cats, crawling across the floor with one of her huge fur coats draped over her, growling like a bear.  Laughing and shrieking, we launched ourselves at her, and she proceeded to tickle us until we were fighting for breath.  This was a typical evening with Grandma Cats.

Re-constructing tedious reality into exciting new worlds was Grandma’s specialty, and she always invited us to join her.  Her universe was filled with characters, many of whom frequently called me on the phone and kept me occupied long enough for my mother to finish cleaning the house.  I often spent the afternoon engaged in conversation with celebrities like the Pink Panther (I might be the only person who ever heard him speak.) 

Of course, since we possessed similarly stubborn personalities, it was inevitable that my grandmother and I would occasionally butt heads.  Mostly, though, our conflicts were short-lived contests of will, which Grandma always won.  She was too wily and had more stamina. She was also a horrible tease, often threatening to break into song and dance while we were shopping in Woolworth’s Drug Store. I would beg her not to, but that, unfortunately, fueled her enthusiasm. She would follow through on her threat, singing show tunes at the top of her lungs while dancing a little jig and clapping her hands. I was mortified, but the staff of Woolworth’s were nonplussed, having seen my grandmother’s performances on numerous occasions.

My exotic grandmother was a creative genius – a self-taught painter, sculptor, and biblical scholar. Her creative abilities did not extend to culinary skills, however.  Bottom line, Grandma hated to cook.  But she had a family to feed, so to make things more interesting for herself, she applied the principles of other creative arts to cooking.  For example, she prepared entrees according to color rather than ingredient.  Thus, at Thanksgiving, we were treated to Waldorf Salad made with mayonnaise, rather than whipped cream (“they’re both white”).

One summer, my sister and I stayed with our grandparents for seven weeks.  That meant two months of having to provide multiple meals each day for two growing granddaughters.  Grandma did the math, then put a plan together to feed us expediently, inexpensively, and with a minimum of preparation required on her part.  It went thus:

Breakfast:  N/A because we quickly adapted to her clock, which meant that we stayed up each night until at least 1 am watching re-runs of The Gong Show (her favorite).  So we did not get up in the morning until at least 10:30 a.m.  Grandma’s bath and make-up application time typically ran at least an hour, which brought us to lunchtime.  (While she was busy in her dressing room, we often snacked on Brach’s chocolates to tide ourselves over until lunch.)

Lunch:  That summer, the 7-11 down the block had a special – three hot dogs for one dollar.  Around 1 pm, Grandma (freshly made up and looking like Zsa Zsa Gabor in her usual fur coat and high heels) would pile us into the car (the platinum Special Edition Lincoln Continental) with a grocery sack.  We’d drive to the 7-11 and purchase a dozen hot dogs, load them up with condiments, then drive to the nearest park and eat.  It never occurred to us what an odd sight it must have been – two little girls seated at a picnic table with an elderly woman in a black mink coat, eating hot dog after hot dog from a brown bag (a mint-condition gold sports coupe parked nearby).

During the hours between lunch and dinner, we would be joined by our grandfather, and the four of us would alternately peruse pawnshops and attempt to convert strangers to Christianity.  On a good day, Grandpa would secure a deal on pawned jewelry while Grandma talked the proprietor into praying with her right there in the store.  My sister and I would stand awkwardly nearby, bowing our heads in acknowledgment of the prayer being orated next to the dusty cash register, while covertly glancing around the shop.  Its rows of televisions, kitchen appliances, and leather saddles (appropriated from down-on-their-luck cowboys) beckoned us, and we couldn’t wait for the prayer to end, freeing us to roam the shop and study the memorabilia from the lives of the pawn shop’s disparate clientele.

After visiting several pawnshops, handing out religious literature to prostitutes, and cruising Main Street, it was time for dinner.  Prior to our arrival, Grandma had purchased a case of mushroom soup from a discount warehouse (“what child doesn’t like mushroom soup?”).  We didn’t.  Thus, our usual evening meal consisted of breakfast sausages slathered in apple sauce (cooked by 8-year old me).

My mother said when we first returned home at the end of that summer, Steph and I resembled breakfast sausages ourselves, so bloated and swollen were we from our summer of Jimmy Dean products.  We also talked like a couple of faith healers (“can I get an amen?”), complained about being made to arise before 11 am, and greeted any new household purchase with the claim that it could have been obtained much less expensively through proper negotiations with a pawnbroker.

My grandmother’s ability to amaze me didn’t end with my childhood.  Several years ago, at the age of 33, I visited her and my grandfather.  Knowing that their health was declining and their energy was low, I wanted to do whatever it took to make them happy.  This led to an agreement to attend Sunday church services with them.  While driving there on that sleepy Sunday morning in August, my grandmother off-handedly remarked that they had recently begun attending a new church.  The fact that it was located downtown in a corner room of the old Woolworth’s building should have caught my attention.  But it was 8 am on Sunday morning and I wasn’t fully awake.

That changed, however, when we pulled into the parking lot of Woolworth’s and parked next to a row of 30 Harley Davidson motorcycles. We were greeted by the sight of uber-sized men in full biker regalia – leather chaps and vests, fringe, boots, chains, tattoos everywhere, standing near the line of beautiful, high-end Harley’s. There was a sign next to the motorcycles that announced:  “Set Free Ministries Loading and Unloading Zone.  JESUS ROCKS!” 

We got out of the car and Grandma Cats calmly walked toward the doorway of the ‘church’ and was greeted warmly by the bikers.  Several of them wore black leather vests with white lettering on the back that said:  “Servant of Jesus.”

The building itself was filled with cracked walls and dirt-caked floors.  Upon entering the doorway, we were immediately faced with a huge free-hand mural, which appeared to be Jesus Christ. Oddly, Jesus bore a strong similarity to magician Doug Henning and had a slightly medicated expression on his face (including a mouth eerily reminiscent of Aerosmith’s Stephen Tyler).  Below Jesus, the words “WARNING!  YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A ZONE THAT WILL CHALLENGE YOUR TRADITIONS” were painted on the wall.       

We walked up the four flights of stairs leading to the room where services were held. When we reached the top, we were greeted by a mountain of a man dressed from head to toe in leather (he was about 6/5” tall, probably weighing over 400 pounds), and a headband that announced “JESUS IS THE MAN!” Grandma introduced him as ‘Scooter,’ the assistant to Pastor J.T.   (Grandma later described Scooter as a “teddy bear.”  I told her that I agreed. He was a big, cuddly teddy bear with a spiked dog collar around his neck and a tattoo of a coffin on his bicep.)

Scooter, in turn, introduced me to Pastor J.T., also a biker, with a shaved head and thick, black handlebar mustache. He could easily pass for Jesse Ventura’s brother. Ready for Sunday service, Pastor J.T. wore a black t-shirt, jeans with silver studs, and a huge Harley Davidson belt buckle attached to a Navajo multi-colored belt.   An R&B band played in the front of the room, led by a woman in a leather vest with spiked brown hair.  The songs were Christian-themed, with a twist of rock ‘n’ roll, and the lyrics were projected onto a screen at the front of the room from a sound table in the back.

I stood next to a window and watched as Grandma Cats circulated through the room.  It was obvious that everyone knew her, and she disappeared from sight as the crowd around her grew and she was enveloped by people wanting a hug, to shake her hand, or just talk about the struggles they had endured since last Sunday’s church service.  She gave each person her full attention, offering encouragement and sympathy.  Although they addressed her as “Mrs. Rice,” it was obvious that everyone at the Set Free Ministries thought of her as “Grandma Cats.”

After several minutes of socializing and listening to the funky hymns, Pastor J.T. began the service by explaining that he had just gotten back from a week at Sturgis, where he and a group of bikers from the church had gone to ‘minister’ to the Sturgis attendees.  His whole family had accompanied him, including his wife and daughters. (Scooter had apparently fun afoul of the law while there, but had been bailed out in time to return to Great Falls for church.)

Wide-eyed, I continued to glance around the room at the ‘congregation,’ which was a heartbreaking mixture of people who were obviously used to living ‘off the grid’ of society. Noticing my shock, my grandmother quietly explained that a number of them were part of an early-release program from prison. She felt called to offer her assistance, she said, since they were among the neediest in Great Falls.  Listening to her, I absentmindedly smiled at a man who had been looking my way ever since we entered the church.  Noticing my glance, Grandma nonchalantly whispered, “Don’t go anywhere with him.  He’s a registered sex offender.”  My enthusiasm for her altruistic project waned slightly (even though I hadn’t actually been formulating plans to interact with the gentleman apparently facing prison time for sexual misconduct).

The Set Free service ended much too quickly, and we returned to my grandparent’s house. Bought just after WWII, it is a traditional-looking, three-story homestead designed to accommodate several generations under one roof. It’s also another expression of my grandmother’s creativity.  When she bought the property, it was a dry, barren lot.  In the forty years that she has lived there, she has transformed the yard into an oasis of pine trees, ferns, and roses. And although the house is flanked by an alley, a halfway house, and the headquarters of a local meth dealer (Grandma is on first-name terms with all of these people, despite our pleas that she refrain from chatting with them while outside watering the lawn), once you step through the gate into the back yard, all of that ceases to exist.  The lush foliage deflects all sound from the neighborhood, and there is a peaceful, muted feeling.  During the summer, at sunset, Grandma waters all the plants, including the branches of the tall pine trees, making everything glisten in the setting sun and filling the yard with the rich, vibrant scent of a forest.  (Then she returns to the kitchen, where my grandfather has installed a police scanner and monitors the activity around Great Falls.  She’s not worried; she just likes to know what the neighbors are up to.)

The interior of the house has the same otherworldly aura as the backyard.  Over the years, my grandparents have accumulated a vast collection of antiques, ranging from ornate cherrywood coffee tables with marble tops, to oil paintings, crystal chandeliers, and Persian rugs.  Every corner of every room is filled with this collection, and consequently, the main floor of the house has the distinct feel of a period piece. To preserve the antiques, heavy velvet drapes cover every window (I don’t recall them ever being opened and the sunlight being allowed in during my lifetime), and wrought iron bars have been installed in the main floor windows (in response to the growing methamphetamine presence in the neighborhood). 

The sealed windows and thick, velvet drapes seem to absorb all sound, and the house feels hushed and timeless.  In recent years, however, an additional sound has begun to pervade the quiet.  I was first awakened by it one night at 2:30 a.m. while visiting my grandparents.  I was jolted to consciousness by a disembodied, mechanized voice that seemed to emanate from the heat vent in the floor.  My heart pounding, I struggled to become fully awake.  As I lay in bed, curled up under the covers and peering fearfully through the darkness, I heard it again, a small, insistent voice crying “DOMINOS!!”   This exciting proclamation was immediately followed by the sound of bells and whistles (what had awakened me in the first place), giving my darkened bedroom the ambiance of a Las Vegas casino. 

The source of the sound was my Uncle Merl (Grandma Cats’ son), who had recently returned to Great Falls after years of meandering across the United States.  The world hadn’t been kind to him, and at 50 years of age, he had migrated back to my grandparent’s basement. With the addition of internet access in his quarters downstairs (including online gaming like “DOMINOS!”), he was living a peaceful, cocooned existence.  Despite the extra work that a middle-aged dependent (who wore only bib overalls and sported a waist-length, gray beard) created for her, Grandma was relieved to have him back home.  It was less stressful than worrying that he’d meet his demise while hitchhiking in Memphis or playing pool in Reno. 

That was two years ago.  When I talk to her on the phone now, while she sits in her ‘office bed,’ I’m overwhelmed by her bravery.  (She has two beds.  One is a king-sized bed covered with books, folders, notepads, and multiple Bibles.  This bed – her office bed – is used for research and other projects during her waking hours.  Her ‘sleeping bed’ is a small, single bedstead in her dressing room. It is surrounded by boxes of clothes and knickknacks – so many that Grandma doesn’t even know exactly what’s in them – a stockpiling habit left over from the Great Depression.) The ever-present lump in her breast is a constant reminder that she will never be physically whole again, and she resents it.

Her energy is low – for the first time in her life, she tells me with quiet frustration.  But even though her body is weak, her mind still functions with the same quick intensity it always has. The clarity of her thoughts is both a blessing and a curse.  Since she has lived most of her life by her wits (they were her most valuable commodity), one of Grandma’s biggest fears has been that she would become mentally incapacitated and therefore unable to care for herself and her family.  Fortunately, that never happened.  She thinks with the same alacrity as always.  The downside is that since her body can no longer keep up with her mind, she lies in bed resting, while her mind spins with thoughts, concocting worries and fears.

To deal with her anxiety, earlier this year she took up needlepoint.  And Waylon Jennings. She sits in bed, sewing purple satin pillows, covering them with colorful embroidery patterns while listening to Waylon’s music.  He’s a recent discovery – Waylon – and Grandpa searched local pawnshops until he found a boxed set offering his complete body of work.  Considering that Grandma gave up listening to contemporary music thirty years ago, on the grounds that it was the soundtrack of a sinful life, we all find her sudden devotion to Waylon a bid odd, but charming.  There is something in his music, possibly the tales of loss and redemption, that appeals to her.

There she lounges, in her monstrous office bed that sits four feet off the floor (which she ascends with the help of a footstool as if she’s climbing into the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet), sewing purple satin pillows and listening to “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”  She has requested that we refer to this as “Grandma’s Waylon Jennings Period,” after she passes.

She talks of passing more frequently now, with a tone of brave resignation. (She has also started referring to her breasts as “paps,” explaining that that’s what they’re called in the Bible, then giggling.)  The addition is almost finished, completing her ‘suite’ of rooms, and she has requested that my mother, sister, and I each visit her in turns and stay with her in the suite.  She wants one-on-one time with us, she explains, because she needs help organizing all her things (the seemingly endless supply of boxes that surround her sleeping bed and contain items like canvas tennis shoes and colored bandanas that she wears wrapped around her head, causing her to look like a tiny, wrinkled gangsta rap artist).  But we all know it’s really because she wants to say goodbye to each of us alone.

Her characteristic quirky spirit hasn’t departed, though.  Last week I received a money order in the mail for $250.00.  It was from Grandma and arrived with the dictate that the money be used to purchase a juicer. I called my mother and sister, and they had each received similar money orders and the instruction that they were to begin “juicing everything.”  Turns out that Grandma, in an effort to deal with her cancer holistically, had discovered some sort of macrobiotic diet and had decided that the entire family should follow it.  “Juice all your food from now on,” she told me, in a tone that left no room for an argument.  “Everything?” I asked doubtfully.  “Everything,” she declared firmly.  “I juiced a beet this morning.  It was great.”

Interesting advice from someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of processed sugar and fundamentalism for the last 40 years, I thought, but I began shopping for a juicer.  I also booked my plane ticket for what may be my last visit to Big Sky Country. I am anxious for the time with my Grandmother, in the special womb-like space she has created for us. I anticipate a week spent in her dressing room –  organizing hundreds of identical K-Mart t-shirts, numerous pairs of black Wrangler jeans, and turquoise jewelry heavy enough to require the neck muscles of a Clydesdale to wear it without injury.  It will be an odd but, I hope, comforting way of saying goodbye – for now – to the person who delayed her departure for several decades so that we could be certain of her feelings for us.

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