Day 22: The Perfection of the Dead

June 10th, 2015

Me and my Gramma roundabout 1972

Me and my Gramma roundabout 1972, when she was about 42 — younger, by the way, than I was when I had kids!

I’m taking part in a 30-day writing experiment. See Kale & Cigarettes for details and the Facebook Group to read stories by other 500-words-ers. 

My grandfather died when he was 51 and I was 8. A sudden aneurism felled him. A headache in the morning, a coma by afternoon. It was not a tricky decision to pull the plug, since the lack of blood to his brain meant that there was nothing left to him.

We were at my grandparent’s house within hours. But my brother and I were summarily shipped off to be with friends, since we were considered too young to be around the mourning. The adults were busy consoling each other and my brother, only four, was happy to play with trains. So I sat alone in a rocking chair in the corner and listened to records. I chose songs with appropriate ’70s gravitas — Joni Mitchell and James Taylor— determined to mourn in my own way even if the adults didn’t think I was old enough. These sad folk ballads I still associate with childhood desolation. Of the time when my grandfather died and I waited for someone to talk to me, to tell me what the hell was going on. How could my grandfather be dead when I was only eight?

By my grandmother’s account, Grampa was a perfect, exemplary husband and a man unrivaled in his ethics and scruples. He was an award-winning food scientist who worked for the government’s prestigious Natick labs, developing the first astronaut food in the early ’60s. He was a health-conscious teetotaler who had never been drunk. He was the moral compass by which our entire family found their way. He was cleanly composed, soft spoken, the consummate family man, a compliant churchgoer.

My grandfather was adored by everyone who knew him. He was respected professionally and loved unconditionally by his children and his wife. But as a child, when my grandparents would come to visit us at our house in the country, my memories of him are of an aloof man with a sad comb-over. It was my grandmother who I trusted. My grandmother whose cushioned lap I wanted to be in. My grandmother who I called for when I was sick.

Joan and Donald Westcott

Joan and Donald Westcott

As I got older, I learned some confusing things about my grandfather. My mother admitted that as a child she would occasionally find cigarette packs in his jacket pocket — the jacket that he wore every evening on his constitutional walk around the neighborhood. He always took these walks alone, “to clear my head.”

As for my grandmother’s lifelong insistence that her marriage had been a pristine affair without a rift, my mother later admitted that she had seen her parents fight on more than one occasion, and that her mother’s tactic for dealing with discord was generally to turn a blind eye and pretend things weren’t happening.

My grandfather’s mother Mabel had been a devout follower of Adelle Davis, a radical nutritionist who believed that food alone could cure disease. Long before her time, she preached a diet low in processed foods and devoid of saturated fats. Unfortunately, hand in hand with her good advice came a dark fear of modern medicine, and so when my grandfather was seven years old,  during a run-of-the-mill bout with strep throat, he was deprived of antibiotics, and it eventually turned into Rheumatic Fever. This left him with a lifetime of bad kidneys. When he died so young, the autopsy showed that his one remaining kidney was riddled with a cancer he would soon have found out about, much too late to treat.

As the years passed after my grandfather’s sudden and early death, his mythic perfection grew bigger. At the slightest mention of his name, his inhuman goodness would flood our minds and we’d bow our heads slightly in reverence.

In contrast, my still-alive grandmother was a little too human for our liking. Over the years we all ganged up to complain about her many flaws: her irreversible weight gain after her husband’s death, her creepy attachment to her therapist, her loathsome asthma-induced habit of coughing at the dinner table until she gagged. She lived for twenty-five years a widow, finally succumbing to ill health at the still relatively young age of 76. When my Gramma passed—found in her bedroom of her small condo by my uncle—it was with little fanfare.

Decades of her life were sorted through in a matter of weeks. Like strangers at an estate sale we scavenged through her possessions and divvied up the spoils with little commotion. Her condo was sold and her car donated to the most recent grandchild to come of driving age. Her cherished Persian cat was shipped off to live with her youngest daughter, who later reported that Jasmin’s cantankerous personality transformed miraculously once out of my grandmother’s smothering grip.

Unlike when her husband had suddenly died twenty-five years earlier, my grandmother’s passing did not come as a shock. And, while we missed her—I missed her—deeply, it was often the memories of her younger self that we missed, not the sad old woman who often served to remind us of our own failings as her offspring.

My grandfather, on the other hand, we continued to miss pristinely, and with reverence. We missed him for dying young, and for leaving a lifetime gap for our imagination to fill. We missed him for being tragic. We made him perfect in our missing of him.

But back in 1980, at my grandparents’ house after the funeral I wasn’t allowed to attend, I hovered nervously near my grieving grandmother. The echoes of those sad songs looped in my head and the syrupy-sweet smell of her dress-up perfume, Taboo, lingered everywhere as she made the rounds for consolation. When she finally sat down, I jumped in her arms. “Gramma,” I said, in a dramatically soothing child’s voice, “It’s going to be okay.”

She laughed through her sadness, and everyone else laughed too. They thought it was cute, this child so innocent and unaware what the consequences of my grandfather’s death would be. Yet even then, I knew that my grandmother would never be the same. And neither would I. It was my first death, but it was her worst.



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