Peggy Sue Got Married isn’t exactly a work of cinematic genius, but there’s a scene in that movie that always gets to me, no matter how many times I watch it. In the film, Peggy Sue (played by Kathleen Turner) is magically transported 25 years back in time to relive one pivotal week of her life in high school. When Turner first arrives in the past, she picks up the phone to find her grandmother on the line. “Grandma, is that you?” she says. In reality, her grandmother has been dead for many years. But thanks to movie magic, she gets to hear her grandmother’s voice again. She’s so overcome by emotion that she can’t even speak.
My own grandmother was someone I could call any time of day or night to share good news, tell a joke, or talk me through a crisis. I didn’t have to edit myself around her. She was always supportive and never judgmental. Grandma Margaret and I could talk politics and religion with the same ease that we discussed pie ingredients. We had a short-hand: “How much cinnamon?” I’d blurt. “Two tablespoons,” she’d say. “Let me know how it turns out.” Over the years, there were more urgent calls than I’d like to admit, often right before guests were about to walk through the door. Grandma’s calm reassurance averted countless culinary (and emotional) disasters.
The last time I saw Grandma was on her 90th birthday. We had signed her out of the nursing home and brought her to an Italian restaurant for veal scaloppini and a glass of scotch. “I can’t believe I’m 84 years old,” she kept saying. The first few times we corrected her. After that we just smiled. Then my mom, stepdad, cousin and I sang happy birthday and shared white cake that I had decorated with a crown of Hershey’s kisses, her favorite candy. It was an intimate gathering for such a big milestone but Grandma didn’t seem to care. Was she aware of the bigger party that we weren’t invited to? If so, she didn’t let on. This was Grandma’s special day, even if she was a little confused about how old she was turning.
After I said goodbye and took off for the long journey back to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy about the sweet old lady with gray hair and brightly colored clothes that I had left behind. Who was she, and was the Grandma Margaret that I knew so well inside there somewhere? What happened to the woman who kept her hair brown with weekly visits to the salon, who always dressed in understated, neutral tones, the one who ran her own successful market research firm and still found time to make dinner every night? As the oldest grandchild, born when she was just 46 years old, I had the privilege of knowing Mary Margaret Rose in her prime. I watched as she conducted surveys from her dining room table. I met the other women who worked for her, who relied on my grandmother for both a paycheck and a shoulder to lean on. I saw how she helped elderly relatives who were sick or alone, how she selflessly cared for others as a member of her church and by volunteering for numerous charities. Eventually my grandmother was named Woman of the Year for her extensive charity work, but to me, she was that woman every year.
Her three children – my mother, uncle, and aunt – were 24, 20, and 10 when I was born. At times I felt like the fourth kid I spent so much time with her. Indeed for eleven years, I was the only grandchild and I basked in the special attention showered on me. She was there for all of the high notes and the low notes, too. At age eight when I needed surgery to remove an abscess in my lymph node Grandma was the one who flew to Chicago and slept on a cot in my hospital room. She would have flown to Zimbabwe for me. Nothing was ever too much for the people she loved.
She loved Joe Rose, first and foremost. Her passion for the Italian Catholic boy transcended the disapproval of her Irish and German Protestant family. She had eloped with him in 1940 and the two stayed happily married for 67 years. Nothing – not his overbearing Italian aunts, a four-year separation during WWII, financial struggles or health crises – would rattle their devotion. “I’m crazy about him,” she would say. From that crazy love came three very different kids, spread out over 14 years. Grandma wasn’t the same mother at 35 than she had been at 21, but she always tried to be fair. She gave equally to each kid at Christmas and never forgot a birthday. Every year, without fail, I opened my mailbox to find a birthday card addressed to #1. I looked forward to the boxes wrapped in plain brown paper, knowing that holiday themed cookies were inside.
The boxes stopped coming some time after Pop Pop passed away. I understood. She was too heartbroken to be bothered with cookies or cards. My grandparents had been madly in love, the ultimate team. For her, the loneliness must have been crushing. When it became clear that she couldn’t live alone, my aunt and uncle moved her into a nursing home, first in a private room with her own furniture and eventually in a shared room, separated from her roommate by a thin curtain. It was ironic that Grandma ended up in a place like that. She hated the very idea of nursing homes, so much so that she cared for both of my great-grandparents in her own house until they died. For all of her volunteerism, she truly believed that charity begins at home. When I spoke to her on the phone she reassured me that “this is the best place for me,” although I was never convinced. Even with her memory lapses, caused by dementia or the many strokes that had deprived her brain of oxygen, I couldn’t help feeling that she deserved better.
When I showed up at her funeral in July, nearly two years had passed since the last time I saw my grandmother in person. Given the three time zones and five-hour flight between my home in L.A. and hers in Canton, Ohio that may not seem like a big deal. It was to me. Distance was not the thing that had kept me away. Well into my forties with two kids of my own, I made a point of visiting my grandparents at least twice each year. The two year hiatus, I’m ashamed to say, was about self-preservation. The pain of knowing that my grandmother was slowly slipping away was made unbearable by the fact that the other members of my family – aunts, uncles and cousins — were already gone. Armed with slights both real and imagined, my favorite aunt had spearheaded the movement to blacklist my mother from the family and, by association, me.
The general mood among the mourners was almost jovial as they dabbed their eyes and said things like, “Grandma’s up there (in Heaven) baking pies and taking surveys now.” I stood alone in my grief, crying buckets throughout the wake and funeral. I wished that I could buy the version of the story that every one else seemed to believe, that after four years in limbo, Grandma was finally at peace, reunited with the love of her life. But I couldn’t help but think, you’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t the way she would have wanted us to turn out — a broken family, who no longer speak to one another with the exception of a few disparaging remarks, who de-friend each other on Facebook and hold yearly reunions excluding the others.
Grandma’s inability to hold a grudge, her open heart, her generosity of spirit were sorely needed that day. She never had an unkind word to say about anyone. “You’re grandmother’s a saint,” Pop Pop would say. He was right. She always took the high road. I tried to do the same by saying a civil goodbye to the aunt who had rebuffed me, and had my heart broken once more. Sometimes people don’t meet you halfway. Sometimes, despite a lifetime of shared memories, letting go is the only option. It wasn’t exactly the ending that Grandma would have liked. But each person is on her own evolutionary path; the only one you can control is your own. And so I will begin this next step by saying thank you, Grandma Margaret, for the millions of gifts that you gave to me. I will honor you by trying to emulate a woman who loved her husband with abandon, who put family above all else, a beautiful soul who made everyone’s life better by being in it, especially mine.