I had a haunting dream about my grandmother several nights ago. I'd forgotten about it till just now when I found written on the pad by my bed, "grandma dream letter. I am dying, I am dead, etc." There's not much more that I remember of the dream, just the strange, slightly terrifying but exciting feeling of reading a letter that I knew was from my grandmother somewhere on her way out of earthly consciousness.
My grandmother was 97 when she died a few years ago. She and I had been close when I was young. At the time, she lived in Waukegan, Illinois, the town where my mother and father met and married and where I was born. Actually, my mother lived on a farm in Gurnee, and I think they got married in a church in Lake Forest or one of the other little farm towns around there, before that whole area turned from small farms to suburban sprawl. But my father lived in Waukegan with his mother.
Waukegan was, maybe still is, a slightly seedy town on Lake Michigan. There's a Navy training base there. Grandma lived alone in an apartment downtown. (She and my grandfather had divorced and then he died in the early 60s and she didn't remarry.) The block always seemed to be lit up bright even at night, and bustling with sailors and other people in fancy clothes. There was a candy store on the first floor where we bought caramel corn sometimes. You had to push a button downstairs and wait for her to buzz you in, which I thought was very glamorous. I'm sure those visits, my grandmother's apartment with the pegboard wall covered top to bottom with her oil paintings, like a studio in Paris -- she painted, some original but mostly copies of Impressionist landscapes and such, which she sold -- car horns, bits of overheard conversation on the street below, I'm sure that's when I fell in love with city life. She used to say to me, conspiratorially, "You and I are city folks, aren't we?" A couple of times, I was allowed to visit her for a few days by myself, and we'd go out for Chinese or, if we had dinner at home, she'd make sandwiches with tinned sardines, or we'd eat crackers with processed cheese that came in a jelly jar. I was in heaven.
A few years after my parents married and my brother and I were both born within a couple years, my father got a job in Indiana and we moved. It was only a few hours drive, but back then moving 4 hours away was like moving to China, so we went from seeing Grandma frequently to seeing her once or twice a year. When she would visit my family, first in Indianapolis and then in the little college town where we moved when I was 12, she would get us kids all dressed and take us out "bumming." We'd window shop all afternoon and then have a "hamburg" at the Woolworth's counter. She wouldn't go out of the house without putting on a dress and dark red lipstick.
Soon after I left for college and then New York, she moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. She had other family in that area and I think it was where she grew up, though my knowledge of her biography, or my father's for that matter, is pretty vague, but it meant that we saw very little of her. For years, she took the Greyhound down to Indiana every Christmas, but as she got older she did that less and less. She wouldn't fly. I got busy with my life. We wrote letters, she sent packages of weird stuff, used Christmas decorations, odd expired snacks, knick-knacks.
Four or five years before she died, when I hadn't seen her in several years, J and I planned a leg of our tour in southern Minnesota so we could visit her -- by this time she had moved from her high-rise apartment to an assisted living facility. J and I had been playing shows in retirement homes, so she booked us a gig at her place. I don't know why this was the only time we did that; seems like it would have been the natural thing to do since we were traveling all over the Midwest anyway, to book shows in that area more regularly so I could see her during those last years of her life, but that was the only time we did it. (As I look at that last sentence, I have to laugh, because so much in those years of Y'all, in retrospect, looks like needless chaos, and it seems as though a few small changes in our organization would have made things much more sensible and functional, but we were flying by the seat of our pants and always, always our life consisted of about 20% more than we could manage.)
Anyway, we did a show for Grandma and all her little old lady friends at the retirement home. She wore her Y'all t-shirt all day and beamed through the whole show. She and J hit it off instantly. J has a thing for little old ladies, and Grandma has a thing for tall, handsome men. (I'm not sure what she made of him in his green lace dress on stage, but to be honest, I'm not sure what any of the old folks we performed for made of that. They enjoyed the show, and that's what's important.) I'm not exaggerating when I say that watching her and J laugh together -- I have pictures to remind me -- is one of my sweetest memories, one of the high points of my whole life. We spent two days there, and it was the last time I saw her.
My parents visited her more regularly those last years. She became more and more frail, though I don't think there was any particular health problem besides the fact that she was very, very old. Eventually she moved to the nursing wing of the home, and she began to withdraw. My parents were with her shortly before she died. My mother described her to me later as just sort of curled up at the foot of her bed, and I don't remember if these were the words my mother used, but the image I took is of her almost turning inside out, trying to disappear. It's an image that haunts me.
There's so much more I could write about Grandma, and I imagine I will -- I feel her living spirit in me every day -- but that's enough for now.