7 pm on a Thursday evening. We’re in the little fishing village of Steveston, on Lulu Island in the mouth of the Fraser River, spitting distance from the city lights of Vancouver. It’s pouring rain and windy outside as it is most nights on the South West coast of Canada. On the TV, Pat Sajak’s eyes follow the spin of a giant, glittery wheel. It stops at $500.
“She better pick N. Pick N! Don’t be stupid!” My Grandma takes a sip of her half beer. She’ll only have half a beer. She is a lady, after all.
“J!” The short, round woman who had introduced herself as a baker shouts the letter J from the TV.
“Stupid lady! I guess they don’t teach them how to spell at cookie school.” Grandma stares at the TV, with the very same disapproving look she would give me as a child when I did something wrong, and I almost believed the baker on the screen could feel it.
This was our Thursday night ritual. Dinner, Wheel of Fortune, and half a beer with Grandma T. In the beginning, we would watch the news during dinner, but the string of expletives that came from Grandma’s mouth every time she saw George W. Bush on the screen made us reconsider. Now, it was just Pat Sajak and the uneducated cookie maker.
“Try having 5 kids in 4 years!”
It was always her opening line. It didn’t matter if you were a stranger, an old friend, a family member. She knew she was a tough woman and she had no qualms telling you. She had my aunt, the twins, my mom and my Uncle all in 4 years. Somehow, she managed to do the books for my Grandfather’s business during all of this.
When her kids grew and got married and had their own kids, my Grandma was the anchor that kept us all together. My cousins and I were each other’s best friends growing up and family get-togethers were the highlight of any holiday, birthday or just a random weekend. We traveled together, camped together, took lessons together and when my aunts would cook a feast on a Saturday night, we’d play outside until after sundown while the adults danced in the moonlight of the window. You could bet, every time, that the dancing had been started by Grandmother’s signature shuffle, probably to the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace or Ol’ Blue Eyes himself with I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
In 1986, I moved to Australia with my Mom, Dad and brother. My Grandma packed her and my Grandfather up and flew nearly a day to see us. Her hysterical giggles as my Grandfather held a koala and struggled to get him to stay still on his shoulder, still echo in the back of my mind.
She nursed my Grandfather through lung and liver cancer, in her own home, in her own bedroom. When he passed, a cross of light began to appear on her fence outside, and she was sure it was him watching over her. We all knew it was just a reflection from the angled windows of her breakfast nook, but we didn’t tell her that. It seemed to have helped her cope because within a few years she was traveling again. In 1989, she made the journey to the Berlin Wall and brought each of her 9 grandkids home a little cement piece of history.
Soon, as though her life was still just getting started, she’d found an old boyfriend she dated before my Grandfather, who was now a millionaire. She began to wander around the globe with him again. At age 80, as a widow, she’d found a new millionaire boyfriend.
Every summer in Vancouver, the Symphony of Fire comes around – a competition of pro fireworks teams from different countries set off an illuminated routine to symphony music. The lights can be seen from miles away, but we always had the best seat in Vancouver. My Grandma’s new beau had a backyard at his home in the British Properties, West Vancouver, that overlooked all of Vancouver Harbour. We’d tune in to the radio to the station playing the accompanying music and watch the sky light up as my Grandma danced with her first kiss.
She nursed him through an illness, too. She buried him, too.
Instead of buckling under the heaviness of life and of loss, she motored on. She drove her old Cadillac for a few more years. She could still land a decent smack when someone picked at the food that wasn’t ready. She still got up and danced at the family get-togethers that happened less and less often. She got to hold her first great-grandchild, my son, and meet half a dozen more as they came into this world.
When asked how she lived to such a ripe old age, she would always, always say, “Love, laughter and lemons!”
When she moved into the nursing home, she was disappointed. Her independence meant everything to her. Her mind began to leave her, but she could still crack a joke that would take an entire room down. When we visited, she’d pick play fights with her daughters, poking them and pinching them and giggling like she was 17 again. Even just last year, under the power of extreme dementia and absolute zero comprehension of where she was or who anyone around her was, she could still light up a room as she marched into it belting out an old song at the top of her lungs.
She’s still here with us as I type this, but not for long. She had two strokes in the last week. They took her off her blood pressure meds and stopped giving her oxygen.
She had 5 kids in 4 years and this past Tuesday, those kids, now in their 60s, all gathered around her and played Clair de Lune on the piano like she always had for us. They cried. They held their Mom. They said goodbye.
Goodbye Grandma T. I love you.