My grandmother would have been 104 today if she was still living. She was a lively, feisty lady. This is one of my last (and favorite) memories of her.
Gram was sitting up in the hospital bed, her left foot slightly elevated. She had broken her ankle after a fall from her motorized scooter. She’d never quite figured out the difference between forward and reverse. The doctor said she had two options: surgery or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “Cut me open, doc,” my 93-year-old grandmother told him. “I’m not spending the rest of my life in a chair.”
It was late on Sunday afternoon, the day after Christmas. Her side of the shared room was undecorated, except for the gingerbread house we’d brought up a few days earlier. She had shown it off to everyone who passed by, right up until the roof caved in. She held a gold tin of cookies in her lap, a prized gift, sent yearly from my cousins in California. Every few minutes she lifted the lid up to peek inside. Her mouth moved as she counted them.
We had brought a few gifts for her. A couple of books, some puzzle magazines and an penguin wearing an elf hat. Gram pressed the penguin’s wing and danced in her bed as it sang “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree”. My mother handed Gram an envelope. Her hands shook a little as she tore it open and pulled out a handmade certificate. She put her artificial larynx to her neck and her robotic voice read aloud: This certificate good for two hands per day of the card game of your choice. No expiration. My grandmother looked at my mom and raised an eyebrow. As long as I could remember, card games had been a battleground. My grandmother loved them, my mother did not. “Two hands. That’s it.” my mother told her. “If you push for more, I’ll take it back.”
From behind the curtain that separated us from the other inhabitant of 203, voices began to sing. My grandmother rolled her eyes. “They come every week and they sing hymns for an hour or two,” my mom explained. The voices grew louder as they started the second verse of “Joy to the World”.
My grandmother reached for a book on her night table and held it up. The cover featured a scantily dressed woman looking desperately into the face of a very muscled man. She raised her artificial larynx, buzzed it a couple of times, and turned up the volume as high as it could go. “I don’t like this book,” she said. At that moment, the voices behind the curtain fell silent. My grandmother’s eyes brightened and the edge of her mouth twitched up in a smirk. “I don’t like this book,” she said again. “There’s too much f-.” She got the entire word out as my mom dove for the larynx. Gram was too quick for her, and she switched hands, tossing two more f-bombs before my mom wrestled it away from her.
I only saw my grandmother a few more times after that day, but I always remember her the way she looked as my mortified mother dragged me out of the room before the hymn-singers could see us: shoulders hunched, mouth covered, wheezing with laughter as tears ran down her face. And still holding her cookies.