Red Eyes on the Red Eye
By Steve Hofstetter
Iâ€™ve used my humor column for many things. Itâ€™s most often a way to save money on therapy, occasionally a way to rally people for (or against) a political cause, and every so often a way to meet women. I just never thought I would use it to eulogize someone. But I never had someone I could eulogize.
Not Ray Charles, and not Ronald Reagan â€“ I never really connected with either of them (though I felt much closer to a blind black musician than I ever did to Ronald Reagan). Iâ€™m currently on a plane on my way back to New York tonight to pay my respects to my grandmother, who passed away early this morning.
Iâ€™ve always been told that itâ€™s better to celebrate someoneâ€™s life than mourn their death, and that is certainly true. When faced with an impossible situation, my grandmother would rhetorically say, â€œEh, what can you do?â€ and aside from get on a plane and come home, I can write a column about how great she was.
My first memories of my grandmother, as is true for many people about their own, involve food. They also involve stomach pain, as she would feed me until I bordered on explosion. Deep down, she was probably disappointed that I didnâ€™t grew up to be a grotesquely obese man addicted to veal cutlets and chicken soup. My grandmother could cook. It was stopping cooking she had problems with.
I can not remember my grandmotherâ€™s house â€“ when I was very young, she moved to an apartment in a complex for senior citizens. The complex, across the street and down the block from similar senior buildings, was on Elder Avenue, the irony of which I was not yet old enough to appreciate.
I spent a lot of time in that apartment. Though she loved to have me and my siblings visit her, the apartment was not outfitted for kids. But when youâ€™re a seven-year-old boy staying with your grandmother two afternoons a week while your sister has ballet lessons, you get creative in your interpretation of the word â€œtoy.â€
The only things close actual toys were a pair of stuffed monkeys (the larger with its arms around the smaller) and an old game of Rummy Cube. The hugging monkeys got boring quickly, and I was lost when my oldest siblings tried to explain the rules of Rummy Cube. So after her ballet, my sister and I began building things with my grandmotherâ€™s books and her handkerchiefs and the rubber band balls made by my grandfather before his stroke.
Eventually, we discovered her penny jar. My grandmother had a gigantic jar of infinite pennies, and it was our job to count them and put them into rolls. We were good at it â€“ we rolled pennies quickly and competently while the hugging monkeys sat in our book house and watched behind their handkerchief drapes. My grandmother probably unrolled the pennies to give us something to do instead of bringing them to the bank, because the jar never stayed empty for more than a few days.
My grandmother let us watch cartoons in her living room while she followed her â€œstoriesâ€ on her ten-inch black and white in the bedroom. Perhaps things would have been easier if she had a VCR. But it still meant a lot to an eight-year-old that she was willing to watch much shorter characters argue about whose baby was whose while we watched bugs bunny in full, 19-inch color.
My grandfather passed away when I was nine. My fatherâ€™s father had died when I was five, and his mother passed before I was born. Iâ€™ve buried cousins and aunts and a step-father just last year. But this is the first time Iâ€™ve lost someone this engrained in my childhood.
It was hard to see my grandmother live out her last few years in a nursing home, as she was fiercely independent. She, like I would do decades later, defied the conventions of my New York family and moved to California. After returning to New York to raise her family, she tried a year in Israel â€“ at seventy years old. Even at the end, her independence brought her to argue with everyone constantly. Ironically, about not wanting to eat the food she needed to keep her healthy. Thankfully, my mother smuggled her some veal cutlets and chicken soup.
The thing I remember most about my grandmother is how proud she was of me. At my stepfatherâ€™s funeral, she brought my book to show everyone. I never said she had tact â€“ just that she was proud.
Last week, I finally got the break Iâ€™ve been working towards for the last few years. And I hated that my grandmother wasnâ€™t able to understand what it meant for me to have a radio show. Sheâ€™d already slipped into a coma.
When I lose someone, I have always kept something small of theirs close to me. After my grandfather died, my grandmother gave me his wallet, and I used it until about two years ago, before deciding that I needed a wallet designed for a young professional. I switched back yesterday. I wasnâ€™t consciously thinking about my grandmotherâ€™s mortality â€“ the only thought I remember having is that I was happy with my life and it was time I got back to being me. Preferring my grandfather to a leather-bound concept of success was part of that. My grandmother passed away less than 24 hours later.
They say that deaths come in threes. I spent the majority of my flight trying to figure out what Ray Charles and Ronald Reagan have to do with my grandmother. Ray Charles and Ronald Reagan overcame great odds to become tremendous successes in their fields. And thatâ€™s all my grandmother ever wanted for me.
She encouraged my creativity as much as the growth in my waistline. And though I know I didnâ€™t meet the waistline expectations, I hope I can achieve half the creative greatness she always told her friends I already had.
Grandma, if thereâ€™s a way for you to read this (assuming you have already watched your stories), I know I have already made you proud â€“ you told me that every day. I just hope you knew that you did the same for me.