Tuesday, October 27, 2009

rest in peace, rita b

On Saturday morning, my mother called from New Hampshire with the news that my grandmother, whom I have always called Rita B, was dying. It was not unexpected; every time I've said goodbye since she was in her late 80's I've wondered if it would be the last time, and now she was finally at her end. It was peaceful, my mother said, and she was sleeping, but she would not live out the weekend.

Sunday afternoon I got the call. 94 years and one month precisely after her birth, Rita Brouse passed from this world, and the world is a lesser place for it. She's suffered from Alzheimer's for the past decade or so, and it has been awful to watch such a vibrant woman reduced to something so dependent, so broken, so much a shell of her former self. But for all of that, and even though I have long known it was coming, her death caught me off guard. I suppose death always does. Finality has a way of declaring itself that can never truly be appreciated until it is upon you.

I'm a lucky person. I am 52 years old and this is only the second time I have lost a close relative. The first was my uncle. His loss hurt, but he was only a man I loved and admired. Rita B, on the other hand, was one of the most important people in my world. And death took its time with her, and in the end a lot more than a life was lost.

There wasn’t much left of her familiar home when my grandmother lay dying. She had lived in it almost as long as anyone could remember, certainly far longer than she had been able to remember for a very long time, but it had ceased to be hers, had ceased to be at all recognizable as the home she knew, when my uncle had moved in to care for her.

The walls, where once ornate mirrors and art work hung, where tall bookcases stood filled with hard cover volumes of books she had read, taking meticulous care not to break their bindings so that for all purposes they appeared brand new, are nearly bare now, years of cracked and faded paint showing and nail holes remaining unfilled. One wall is haphazardly covered with his photography, but little adorns the others except a few random notes pinned here or there.

The furnishings, once richly textured couches and chairs, elaborate coffee tables, matching glass-fronted bookcases, and lovely ornate lamps, have given way to a giant wall unit, far too big for the space, folding chairs, and a small Office Max desk paired with an industrial-type six-foot table in one corner on which is stacked my uncle's computer equipment. Near the front doorway, a single low-lying bookcase from the old days remains, a relic, a fossil of another period. Those books still on its shelves are covered by a fine layer of dust, its glass panels having long since disappeared. A garage-sale coffee table holds a television and dvd player, and stereo equipment fills one corner of the small living room which, for all the sparseness of its contents, seems oddly cluttered.

In the room in which my grandmother lay at the end, there are even fewer remnants of the life she had lived. Gone are the great mahogany bedroom pieces, the doilies and the collection of tiny perfume bottles and dainty brushes. Long past is the time when the bed was covered in layers of quilts and coverlets, decorative pillows stacked for artistic effect at its head. It had always been dark, this room, for the ornamented draperies kept out the sun’s harshest light, but now the blank, empty window frames allow the earliest rays into her chamber and block nothing at all until the night’s dimness reclaims things. We grandchildren would have loved to have this light with which to explore the treasures of this room, back when it held any treasures. But in those days the room belonged only to her, and the grandchildren knew without being told that they should not be in her private space.

Those were the days of giant family gatherings and vacations to the ocean, where my family and my grandmother would linger by the seaside for a week at a time in one of the rental homes along New Hampshire’s coast. It didn’t much matter whether it was a nice place or a dive—and we had our share of both—because the sea and the family were all that were important. If Rita B had wanted comfort, she’d have stayed home. What she wanted, what she always wanted, was to sit and relax with friends or with family, to sip what she lovingly called "a baby one," which was a gin and tonic made by allowing the gin to wave at the tonic from the glass, and enjoy what life had given her. The "baby one" was always accompanied by an elaborate spread of whatever Rita could find in her refrigerator or cupboards—pat├ęs, crackers, cold pizza, sandwich meats, leftover pasta, pies, fruit, dolmades (those delicious Greek grapevine leaves), and just about anything else she could find—so that almost any time anyone visited, even if you just dropped by to return a book, her kitchen table suddenly became a buffet and the visit turned into a party. And my grandmother understood how to throw a party.

But Rita's life was not a party. There was too much of it that was too far beyond her control. One night, many decades earlier, a much, much younger version of my grandmother waited for her first husband, my mother's biological father, to leave for work, gathered her three small daughters and whatever she could take, and fled the house. It was an action unheard of in that time and place, a bold and powerful reaction to a situation she had no way to speak of to anyone, not in those years. But she feared for herself, and she feared for her girls, so she took action. She moved them into a tenement apartment, took the first of her many waitressing positions, and fed her daughters New England boiled dinners until the very phrase "boiled dinner" caused bile to rise in their throats. If her husband sought her out, he did not look very hard.

She called on the strength of that night many times in her life. The strength of a woman in her fifties whose youngest daughter, a schizophrenic, commits suicide and leaves a note blaming her, but who goes on. The strength of a woman whose youngest son, so beautiful, so gifted, whose only record received accolades from several major reviewers before alcohol reclaimed him and he could not manage a followup, died of alcohol-related liver failure at age fifty. The strength of a woman who long ago buried the husband who gave her a new name and a stable home after her tumultuous first marriage had blown up. The strength of a woman whose friends had almost all died before her, who was almost the very last of them, the last of a generation that had defined a town, that had defined a country.

It was the strength that allowed her to take in a young grandson, abandoned by his mother, my youngest aunt, who later became the suicide, in the midst of an ill-fated move to the west coast that would also see the death of Rita's fourteen year old granddaughter. The strength that kept her working in a stressful, physical job well into her eighties, well beyond the time when most people in far less demanding professions would have called it a life. The strength to fight through the ever-expanding haze of Alzheimer’s for those increasingly rare lucid moments during which she could look at the world and see its beauty.

I sat pondering her life and her death, and I must have dozed for a moment or two, for I had this vision or dream about her. Rita lay curled up on a bed that she would never recognize as her own, dressed in a yellow-stained nightgown and a diaper, dreaming. In her dream she was a young girl, and her frock was green, and each time the swing came forward she knew that it was blowing up and exposing her pretty white tights, but she didn’t care. She wanted to go higher. She arched her back and pushed with all of her might, reaching forward with her legs, stretching them until they almost touched the sky before she began falling backwards again each time to earth. It frustrated her. No matter how high she made herself go, she would always fall back.

Someone called her name and she saw her sister on the grass looking at her with that expression that meant that Ma was mad again.

"We gotta get home," her sister called. "Now!"

And she thought, "I’ve gotta get home." And she allowed herself one final backswing before pressing forward with all of her might and, letting go of the ropes, flying feet first into whatever lay ahead.

I had tickets to a concert last night, two of my favorite singer-songwriters in the world, Antje Duvekot and Lucy Kaplansky. Each has a song that she wrote in tribute to her own dying grandmother. I asked them to play these songs, and they did. I sipped a gin and tonic, even though I don't particularly like gin and tonics, and raised a glass to Rita B.

I'm going to miss you, Grandma. I love you.

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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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