This year, I lost both my grandmothers.
They were formidable women with vintage names and steadiness like currency. They couldn’t have been more different from each other. Lucienne was a lesbian from the Gaspé who spent the Fifties in Paris, the Sixties in Washington, DC, and the rest of her life in Southern Florida. Her hair was short. She dressed like a man and wore men’s cologne. She was tough. Her humor was twisted. She once convinced my little sister to stare up at the sky through a tube of rolled newspapers while she secretly put the garden hose down the other end. During college, I would visit Lucienne and we would visit the magazine shop and then have breakfast at the Floridian on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. On one visit, she snuck a porn magazine I had bought into her menu. When the waitress asked for her order, she opened her menu, pointed to one of the naked men, and in her heavy French accent exclaimed, “I’ll have that.” Her senility kept us apart the past few years. She lost her ability to speak English and when I called, she thought I was a long dead friend or someone pretending to be him. What I saw as her humor, others saw as dementia-fueled cruelty. She pushed people away and she died very alone.
Rosemary was as quiet as Lucienne was outrageous. The child of German farmers in Pennsylvania, she was spared the Depression by growing up on a farm, but the experience made her simple and frugal. She met my grandfather at a cigar store, married him, had a son. The three of them became an impenetrable trilogy that no one—not my mother, not my sisters, nor I—could get past, but Rosemary was always warm and kind and feeding us. I don’t have a memory of her eating. She was rail thin. Her hair was teased and combed into a helmet à la Vivian Vance in early episodes of I Love Lucy. The only time I spent with her alone was when my parents were homesteading in the Ozarks. My grandparents lived down the road from us and I was dropped off at their house for the day while my parents worked the farm. My grandfather kept bees and would take long walks out to his apiaries across the field. I would sit under the kitchen table while Rosemary cooked. I was four. She taught me counting by saying a number and asking me what came next, a sing-song call and response game that went on for hours. In a short time, I learned that numbers were just patterns. I would count into the thousands before my grandfather came back with a chunk of honeycomb. If it was annoying to be working away in a kitchen while a four-year-old counted to infinity, Rosemary never showed it. She never showed anything. I never saw her happy or sad. Horrible things would happen around her and she would sigh and go back to cooking. When I was younger, I saw this as denial and delusion. I came to understand it as the resilience of a woman locked in a trilogy with two very stubborn men. In the end, her bones became too fragile for her body. She fell too many times. Two decades ago, I started a poem, “I woke this morning …feeling like I know too much for my body to hold onto, for my body to understand.” I image her death was like that.
This year, I became someone without a grandmother and like most times when you lose something, the thing lost becomes the most important thing to you.
This essay is part of the project, Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono.