The Night Before My Gram Dies

By Libby Emmons | March 2, 2020
The Night Before My Gram Dies


November 26, 2015

It is the night before my Gram dies.

When I was little she showed me how to dance in the kitchen. One knee raised arms bent 90 degrees at the elbow, wrists hanging limp. She twisted at the waist, moving her arms from side to side, switching legs every few beats. Her look was bored, not bored with me, or bored with dancing but more... nonplussed, unimpressed, as if to say "I know I dance well, but let's not make a big thing about it."

In the mornings after I would stay over she would ask me what I wanted for breakfast and I would say french toast, farina, bacon, and her special buttered toast, cut in small squares, mixed with soft boiled eggs. She would look at me and say "are you gonna eat all that?" And I'd say "yup," and she'd make it. I would eat it all. "Tada!" I would say, and here eyes would pop with surprise. "Where do you put it?"

She watched me do endless magic shows in her living room. I had a magic box with hidden compartments and I would move an object mysteriously from one to to the other. She pulled out her tape recorder and we'd do radio shows where she interviewed Libby the Magician. I made up a character that always chewed ice, And one where I was a pillow lady, and wore a big floppy hat. I always dressed up before we went on the air.

Her car had velour seats, and the seat belts were always a little stretched out, and she secured hers with a  binder clip, rendering it useless in case of emergency. When I was little, the car smelled of Benson & Hedges, and Aquanet and wouldn't let me open the window because of her hair. In the evening she would pin her hair up.

In 1994 my mom rented a shore house for a big, extended family Thanksgiving. All her first cousins, and their kids, came down. An Italian American family whose roots in the old neighborhood were being pulled up one by one. Dave and I had been seeing each other for a little and he came down, too. He remarked on how much he liked my grandmother, but I hadn't seen them talking at all. Turns out they'd both been sneaking out to smoke, and had developed the smokers' rapport.

A few years ago we went apple picking, me and Gram and Dave and C. It was a beautiful fall day and we walked through the orchard. I chased C about because he was three and three year olds love to be chased. Then Dave chased C while I strolled slowly with Gram and we chose the apples we liked best. It was important to her that she pay for our bags of apples. Over that weekend with her I made a point to ask her about her life, her youth, growing up in Brooklyn.

I'm up late while my mom, brother, husband, and son are sleeping. It's the day after Thanksgiving, and we're all at my mom's shore house. I'm thinking of my Gram, who lay dying in Connecticut. She is sedated, and she's had her daughters with her. My mom is going up tomorrow. They wanted it that way, instead of all of us.

When she was in grade school, in Brooklyn, she was embarrassed of her Italian ethnicity. Her parents, Giovannina and Giacomo were from Naples, and ran a grocery store in south Brooklyn. She confessed her discomfort at her Italian heritage to a teacher, who told her to just go by Ann instead of Anne (pronounced Ana). Gram said it was like a revelation, and introduced herself as Ann from then on, although she kept the 'e.'

At Hunter College she made great friends, a group of women, that she kept throughout her life. They studied together, and one summer they took a house by a lake in New Jersey. She smiled when she told me how much fun that was. She said she was surprised to look in a mirror and see an old woman looking back at her, because she felt 18 inside. Same thing with the wrinkles on her hands. After college, all her friends were getting married. She became a teacher.

Gram taught elementary school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She told me she enjoyed it, and was one year away from receiving tenure, with a pay increase, when my grandfather proposed and they were married. She said they were the last two unmarried kids on their block, and they were older, in their mid-20's, when they married.

My grandfather told me that she was in love with someone else before they got married, and so was she. He said his mother didn't want him to marry anyone else but Anne. "It was Anne or no one," he'd said she said. He said my Gram was involved with an officer, a southern gentleman from New Orleans, who was stationed in New York until he wasn't, until he went home on leave. Grandpa said the man had said he'd send for Gram when the time was right, that he knew bringing home an Italian girl from Brooklyn would be a big ask for his family. Once gone he never wrote. Doesn't sound like much of a gentleman to me.

Grandpa said their engagement was all a discussion on the Staten Island Ferry after a coming out of a movie they both happened to go to, though they hadn't gone together. Gram never told me about that. But she and Grandpa both told me that she was embarrassed that she got pregnant during the first year of marriage, and she left teaching to raise my mother. She never earned her tenure.

There's a photo of her coming down a grand stair, looking away, smiling at someone off camera. She wears an elegant summer dress with dancing paper dolls on the skirt. She told me about the trip with the grand staircase. It was a trip to Jamaica where my grandfather was going on business, so she'd gone along too. She was in the hotel alone when her husband went out for the day, so she went down the bar and met some new people. They invited her for an airplane ride over the island, and she went. She recounted this to me as commonplace, but to me a airplane jaunt with complete strangers from the hotel bar is about as daring as it gets.

I don't know if my mom is sleeping, in her bedroom, while I sit up, compelled to write these things. To attend the deathbed of your mother, to go to sleep knowing that tomorrow will contain within it the last moments in which you will see your mother. I want to reach out. I am reaching out. I am wanting connection in the face of all this.

In 2002, I got a job in New York before Dave and I found an apartment. For a few weeks, after starting the job, while apartment hunting, I stayed with Gram in Greenvale, on the Oyster Bay Line of the LIRR. I commuted to work in Brooklyn from there, and it was nice to have Gram to myself, while also feeling odd that I was living with a family member though I was a married adult. I wish I'd been more gentle with her. I wish I'd valued more her touch and her attention when I had it.

I think we all do.

She would sleep with talk radio on, and I would wait until she was asleep, then tiptoe into her room and turn down the sound. She liked to watch the news, but when I'd suggest we watch a movie or a show, she would decline. It's like she didn't want to feel disconnected from what was happening, she didn't want to feel unreachable.

The apartment we found was in the Lower East Side, and to a woman who was born in the Little Italy before her family moved to Brooklyn, who moved herself to Michigan and finally to Long Island, this move of ours to the LES was bizarre. She gave me a confused look and said "but honey, we left." We would take the LIRR out to see her every month or two and spend the weekend.

In her little house in Greenvale, we slept on a pull out couch in her spare room that no matter how you arranged yourself upon it provided the worst sleep of all time. A metal bar cut across the mattress in every direction. The spare room had a window that looked out to the back yard, and also a few windows that were higher up, facing the house next door. They were good for ventilation, but high enough to provide privacy. There was one bathroom in her house, and the kitchen had this old, 1960's style range. At one point the oven stopped working so she used it to store cereals.

During one of these visits, I brought with me news that I'd won a large grant, and she asked me what for. I showed her the ten script pages I'd submitted."For this?" She said, holding the papers as if they were dirty paper towels, "you didn't give them anything more?" She was known in the family for having something of a negative perspective and a hyper critical eye. I wonder if she thought we knew she couldn't live up to her own expectations, that we understood implicitly that she thought so highly of all of us that she thought we could live up to those expectations. It was her believe in us that kept us on our toes.

We would make a little cook out in the backyard, on her charcoal grill. We would eat outside in her little yard. We made a party for Gram, and it was lovely. She would complain that we were making too much of a fuss, or spending too much money, but she was always glad when we brought cut flowers, and a steak, and some nice chocolate that she would say she shouldn't eat and then finish by morning. She would play opera, and when her Hunter friends couldn't use their tickets (they all had a subscription together) she brought me to hear the Metropolitan Opera.

When she was a school girl, in public school in Brooklyn, she learned opera. Somehow back then, in the 20's and 30's, there was time to teach opera, and languages. She studied Italian and French. She was a great reader throughout her life, and always read the new fascinating books before I did. She relished political debate and intellectual discourse, and frequently got into heated discussions with Dave about health care, unions, Obama. Her mind was always sharp.

It's only been at the end, the last few years, that this sharpness has dulled. Gram was aware of it, and she told me she could feel her mind contracting. Her thoughts would reach out the way they always had, to find that their farthest reach wasn't as far as it had been, that something had cut them off. She was aware of her own intellectual decline, caused entirely by age, a natural progression, and she hated it. To know precisely how you are losing your mind to mortality was very frustrating for her.

Eventually she employed a woman to come in once a week and to clean. Gram always cleaned top to bottom before the woman came.

We played scrabble and she always won. Until she started to not always win. She moved into a care home after that. There was no spare room for us to stay in once she moved there, and we saw her less.

I haven't seen her since mid July. I called about a week ago and my mom answered and said Gram would call me back, but she didn't, and that was that.

The word is that she won't live through the weekend. Her youngest brought in a priest to give the sacrament of last rights. My Gram always eschewed church, but my aunt says she smiled during the sacrament. Dave and I took her to church on a few occasions over the years. We're not highly religious people, but we feel strongly, much I suppose like Fox Mulder, that we want to believe. There is something beautiful about the completion of the sacraments.

My Gram wasn't always kind, or considerate, but what I remember most is her smile. And how her shoulders hunched forward when she laughed, like it embarrassed her. And how she could be incredulous.

How many memories are of things only we remember, that the people in those memories could not place? How many moments in time are in our minds alone? Glimpses of my Gram cut into fragments.

A classic Gram story that I've told for laughs:

This one time I went shopping with my Mom and Gram, right after Christmas sometime in my late 20's. We were exchanging gifts that hadn't quite fit the bill. I tried on a jacket, and she said "Honey, I don't know why you're always wearing those little jackets."

And I said "because I think it looks good Gram."

And she said "that's because you can't see yourself from the back."

"Gram," I chided, "you don't always have to be so critical."

She stamped her foot in frustration, I had misunderstood. "Honey," she said, "I'm not trying to be critical, I just want you to know that you don't look as good as you think you do."

She was helping. She was giving me a perspective into reality whereas I existed in a fantasy world. I never wanted that glimpse into reality. I am always more comfortable in a reality that I've constructed for myself rather than one in which there are objective facts about my appearance perhaps, or, another topic that arose now and then, my level of financial success.

Reality is just so bleak, and while I prefer the cold climes, reality is too harsh for this northerner to stand. The wind of critique and failure, the cold frost of a future rife with predicted disappointment, is more than I can stomach. For me it's enough to know that the end is always near without thinking too hard about what action to take between now and then.

I don't remember my Gram saying "I love you" until I said it to her first. I said it on the phone, at the end of a conversation, maybe 12 years ago years ago. She stumbled and then said "I love you too," and hung up rather quickly. I didn't know if I was imposing something on her. I didn't know if she didn't want to talk about it. But I didn't doubt that she loved me, I never once doubted that.

When my Dad's grandmother, who we called Bestamore, which is Norwegian for grandmother, died when I was 12, my father wept. I remember he looked like the world was crumbling around him. And for me, while I loved her, I knew she was an old person, I knew intellectually that she would die. Losing a beloved grandmother is not an intellectual exercise. And though my Gram has lived to be very old, life is always precious, and perhaps no more so than at the very end, when all options are gone, all doors are closed save for one.

In her old house in Greenvale, where I remember her best, she would shuffle around at the end of the night, closing things up, finishing one last thing, filling in a newly solved answer to a crossword puzzle. Gram always had one last thing to do. 

Libby Emmons is a writer and theater maker in New York.