Today I’m wrestling with one of those pesky blogger dilemmas: I want to tell a story. But it’s not my story to tell.
I don’t even know all the details. I wasn’t there from the beginning. I can’t even say how it ends. Not really. But no one else is going to tell it. And it deserves to be told.
It’s a love story. A first love story, as in, the first embodiment of love I was ever privy to, the prototype, as it were, for love in my family. It’s the love between my grandmother and grandfather.
Here’s what I know:
They met right before the war. Or maybe it was right after, when he’d returned from the Merchant Marines. (See? I’m going to get things wrong.) They were both attending Occidental in Southern California, and revolved within the same circle of friends. He received a box of See’s Candies from his parents on a June afternoon. He offered her one. She accepted. She inquired as to the occasion, and he told her it was his birthday. What she didn’t tell him (not until later): it was her birthday, as well. That same day. Of the same year.
They’d spend the next 60 and change celebrating it together.
They were poor, but only at first. And only in a ‘have to prove yourself’ kind of way. (His parents were well off, hers did alright.) They had a little house in Pasadena, one car, and one job (his) working his way up the corporate ladder at a Los Angeles insurance firm. They had three babies in six years. She had coiffed hair and manicured nails and a beautiful figure (and was always on a fad diet). She was a homemaker and a member of the ‘mending club’ and never failed to have two cocktails at the ready at 6 pm, dinner served at 7. (She used to tell my mother and her brothers to ride their tricycles through the family room before he came home from work; the carpet ruts from the metal wheels made it look as though she’d recently vacuumed.)
She was immensely proud of him. He was immensely proud of her. I could see this clearly, even from my childhood vantage point, decades later.
They threw dinner parties. They shared a deep love of world travel. He took her on business trips to London and Paris and New York. (The first time my grandmother flew on an airplane was with him.) He was a devoted family man, if in the old-fashioned sense of the term. She ran the baths, checked the homework, dried the tears. He wrote the checks, attended the graduations, gave the toasts at the weddings. They survived unstable economies, family turmoil, and the ’60s together. He reached the top of that corporate ladder. They bought a bigger house, then a home on the beach. She went back to college for a teaching degree and taught the children of migrant workers in impoverished schools. (She still had cocktails on the table by 7 pm.)
They played a mean game of tennis (always pairs) and a meaner game of bridge, the ice in their cocktail glasses tinkling like chimes when they set them on their coasters to play a hand.
They weren’t perfect, although they seemed nearly so to me. They both smoked like chimneys. (Until they didn’t. He quit cold turkey, so she did, too.) They had grandchildren. I was one of them, of course. My grandfather was still enjoying the view from the top corporate rung, so every morning, she’d get up when he did (4:30 am) to make him coffee and fresh-squeezed juice and eggs over-easy on toast before his commute. When I was there, I’d wait for him in the breakfast nook so I could hand him the L.A. Times, still rubber-banded and folded crisp. He’d shake it out and give me the funnies (then ask for them back once he’d read the finance page).
He read novels to us kids: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, David Copperfield, Great Expectations. He was the man among men type: smarter than us, wittier than us, better-read than us, first to state the answer to Double Jeopardy. She was the one we could cozy up to and spill our secrets. She was the one who spoiled us.
They were products of their time, certainly, and also products of each other: growing up, I watched frame after frame of the two of them in Kodak slides of every international trip they took, arms locked around one another, back to some landmark, faces tipped to the camera. (He was tall, she is short.)
And here’s how I know this love was the real thing (and this is the part of the story I don’t want to tell):
When he died, I think she expected to as well. In fact, I think she’s continually surprised to find she hasn’t. Three years ago, when I entered the hospital room that became his deathbed, the first thing I saw was him, no longer larger than life. And the second thing I saw was her, also altered so drastically she mirrored his wasted state: shoulders hunched, sitting in the corner where his head rested on a pillow, a look in her eyes that didn’t reflect, only absorbed. When I greeted her, she blinked once, like a question.
She was, in a word (and such a cliched word), lost.
Today, she’s 86. We love her. We know she loves us. But she’s only half here. The other half is spent in bed, covers over her head, refusing to stir. Where she is in her mind, I don’t know. I think nowhere. I think she’s trying to be no one.
We rouse her. We remind her to eat. We remind her to dress. We tell her about our day, about our kids, about our friends and their friends and whatever interesting anecdotes we can provide. We talk books and movies and culture. She reads our recommendations. She watches and listens.
But not really.
And there’s nothing we can do. Because we’re not who she wants. And the passage of time does not make things easier. It does not soften the blow. It does not blur the edges. (I thought this was Time’s main guarantee?) And so we’re forced to watch her manage a pain every day that we cannot touch. That we cannot bear in her place. It’s really very awful. Instead, we’re left to manage her pills and her blood pressure and her sodium intake.
We love her, and she loves us. She does. She does. She loves my mother and her brothers and all the grandkids and great-grandkids and if she really tries, if she exerts all her 86-year-old strength, she can find a pocket of joy here and there. In the instant our wine glasses clink together at a restaurant. When a baby with a gummy smile sits on her lap. While a little boy tries to beat in her chess. When her daughter gives her a hug.
But then that person has gone home or run outside to play or turned to answer the phone or stir the sauce on the stove and her grip on happiness slips and and she falls (back into bed, back under the covers). And she’s marking time again, because it’s not enough. We’re not enough. She’s been severed, and it would seem she cannot be made whole.
And I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about this part because who am I to tell it like it is? I don’t know how it is. I wasn’t there…not for the past 60 years, and certainly not from the perspective that deserves telling. I’ve been married for 14 years, not over half a century. 14 years…it’s a blip. A mere speck on the time line of her life. What do I know, really, of love? True love? First and foremost love?
Enough to venture the guess that not many of us experience it in this lifetime. Not like she did. Not like I suspect she still does.
(I don’t know whether she’d say she’s lucky.)