My mom’s cousin Geri wears funny shoes. Before the Sketchers Shape Ups were invented, she wore (and to this day, still wears) black tennis shoes with springs for soles. She wore these shoes to my grandmother’s memorial service.
Cousin Geri lives in Arizona, so I’ve only really met her twice. We’re still family, though, which gives her the right to be nosy and obnoxious.
“It’s OK not to cry right now,” she told me at the wake as I took a gulp from my beer and stared at an imaginary point of interest just behind her head. “But it’s unhealthy to bottle up your emotions. Go ahead. Let them out.” I nodded and walked away, shaking my head.
My grandmother died on a Saturday night in August 2010 having margaritas on the beach. She was 91 years old. As deaths go, it’s a pretty enviable one. I was living in Washington DC for the summer. My boyfriend Hector and I were trying to find a restaurant in Foggy Bottom and had just realized we were walking the wrong direction when my mom called to tell me.
“Honey, I have some bad news,” she said. I knew to take her seriously, because my family only uses pet names to soften the impact of things like dead cats and college rejection letters.
“Grandma can’t be dead,” I explained. “I just saw her on Wednesday.” A woman passing on the street shot us a sideways glance: me crying and yelling into the phone, Hector looking bewildered and patting me on the shoulder. She sped up.
When I was done on the phone, I realized we were still standing in the middle of the sidewalk where I had first gotten the call.
“Do you want to go home?” asked Hector.
“I want ice cream,” I said.
So we got ice cream at Cone E Island, an establishment whose name seemed inappropriately cheeky for the situation at hand. We ate and walked until we hit Chinatown, which was equally jarring with its neon lights and throngs of people. After stopping at a restaurant for lo mein because we had totally forgotten about dinner, we headed back to my summer sublet in Van Ness. Once there, Hector and I laid down on my makeshift bed – an Ikea futon pad on the floor in the corner of my room – and went to sleep.
“We’re going to have cookies and coffee at the memorial service? The memorial service, the one on September 11, is going to have cookies?”
Yes, my mother said.
“So really we’re throwing a party. For Grandma. On September 11.”
She turned down the volume on the TV and slowly turned her head to look at me.
“If it’s a party, why don’t we just bake her a cake? You know, just write ‘Welcome to Heaven’ on it?”
When I thought that one over in my head, I had anticipated at least a snort or a groan. She just kept staring at me – not with anger or sadness, but with genuine concern.
“Fine. Grandma would’ve liked my joke.”
Her expression softened and she smiled. It was small, but it was something.
The day after my grandma died, Hector and I decided to go to the National Zoo. We ambled slowly behind tourists with strollers and fanny packs and upside-down Metro maps. I laughed at the flamingoes, who were sleeping standing up. I made faces at babies.
My mother flew in from Ohio early that morning to help her siblings make arrangements. She called me while Hector and I were at the Museum of Natural History. I was standing under a giant whale.
“Amy, great news!” she said. “Nobody else wants grandma’s car so it’s yours!”
“Isn’t that great? We’ve been talking about getting you a used car!”
“What do you mean, ‘great news’? Grandma’s STILL DEAD.” Hector rubbed my shoulder, and I noticed a tourist family in matching khaki shorts, pastel polo shirts and visors looking at me funny. The parents herded the children away from us. I hung up the phone.
I had finally gotten comfortable in my aisle seat and flipped to the crossword puzzle in the Southwest Airlines magazine when a voice from the seat next to me intruded.
“Are you going to Washington for business or pleasure?” asked a voice from the seat next to me. I turned to face the man: mid-40s, balding, business suit, wedding band, creepy wink.
“My grandmother died,” I said. “I’m going to her memorial service.” I maintained eye contact as his laughter turned into nervous titters, and then subsided completely as he realized I wasn’t kidding. I went back to my puzzle. The man started to gather his belongings and stand up as a voice came over the loudspeaker.
“This is your captain speaking,” it said. “Please be advised that this flight is full. I repeat: there are no empty seats on this flight.” The people still roaming the center aisle scrambled for seats as the man next to me sighed and put his bag back under the seat in front of him. I laughed quietly to myself.
My family had thrown a party for Grandma’s 90th birthday. She insisted on having it in the party room on the second floor of her building instead of the fancy banquet halls that had been suggested. We didn’t understand until we saw her friends from the building.
Grandma’s senior friends showed up to the party with oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and walkers. I couldn’t understand how they made it down the hall to the elevator. And these people were the same age as my grandmother, who drove herself places and took aqua aerobics. Grandma was obviously going to outlive everyone in the room, including me.
My uncles had managed to fit 90 birthday candles on her cake, which illuminated her smiling face as we sang “Happy Birthday.” Then she and my cousin Danny blew out all the candles.
After the memorial service, the family gathered back at my grandma’s condo in Bethesda to eat, drink and go through her stuff. I changed out of my dress shirt, pencil skirt and high heels into jeans and a t-shirt. I took my beer and plate of hors d’oeuvres into the bedroom that used to be grandma’s and started to go through old pictures of my family.
“You know, your grandmother was very proud of you,” my aunt Nancy said as she snuck into the room, ruining the comfortable silence two of my cousins and I had been basking in. “She bragged about you all the time.”
“Oh my god, look at this picture of you,” I said to my cousin, now an adult with facial hair, as I held up a picture of him as a naked baby. He didn’t look. I looked at the photo again and started to laugh. His eyes welled up with tears and he ran to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
Aunt Nancy, who had yet to be acknowledged, followed close behind and attempted to coax my cousin out of the bathroom. Another cousin, sprawled across the foot of the bed, turned up the music on her iPod and sighed.
The last time I saw my grandmother was at the Friendship Heights Metro station in her beat-up purple Oldsmobile Alero. At her age she shouldn’t have been driving, and her car had the battle scars to prove it. She would hit other cars while parallel parking, the pillars in her parking garage, and one time a guy on a bicycle (she swore it was his fault). My cousin Aaron drove into a fire hydrant in her car a few years earlier when he had his learner’s permit, and the license plate had hung crooked ever since.
Grandma had picked me up at my apartment and we had gone out for dinner. Although we only lived about three miles apart, I decided to play it safe and take the Metro back into DC. As I climbed out of her car and inhaled the steaming hot air, still 90 degrees at 7 p.m., she kissed me on the cheek and told me she would see me next week. I shut the car door and watched her drive away.
I cut my internship a week short so I could drive the Alero back to Ohio with my mom. As we passed through West Virginia, we stopped at Coopers Rock State Forest. The park has a stone overlook. From the top, you can see for miles. I got out of the car and hiked to the overlook. I passed a family reunion in one of the picnic shelters, complete with coolers of beer and a radio playing The Rolling Stones.
The sun was hot that day. When I got to the overlook, I was alone. I walked slowly to the edge and gazed out. The river below looked so far away, as if it were only a line painted on a map.
My mom was waiting for me when I got back to the car. I climbed in the passenger seat and we got back on the highway. Westbound, toward home.