I remember when I was about 8 and Aubrey was about 7 and we were driving with you in your baby blue Corolla, randomly-assigned license plate: SAL and some insignificant numbers. It smelled like all Toyotas did back then to me. Like the sun had baked that EKG-looking interior all its life and what was emitted was like fabric in a frying pan plus a little bit of sweet plus a little bit of crayon. Your cars were always spotless, which was hard for Aubrey and I to understand. A windshield shade, perfectly folded, on the floor of the back seat. Maybe a box of tissues if it was the season. And then you, your purse, and us. This day we were driving down a narrow street in your neighborhood. Someone was driving toward us and there were parked cars on both sides. You hit the gas and yelled “CHICKEEEEEEENNNNNN!” You had won. As you sped past the other car who waited for its turn, Aubrey and I giggled with joy. Then, we asked what yelling “CHICKEN” meant. You explained, surprised we didn’t know. We kept giggling.
Last month you had a “mini-stroke” which paralyzed the left side of your body. The wrist you broke the night of my dad’s play (about the Israeli-Palestine conflict) is no longer painful, because you cannot feel it. The knee they replaced and maybe the hip–I can’t keep track–won’t creak or stiffen anymore. Those toes that were stepped on in dance class and broken or mangled or just kind of sad looking, they don’t have to take any more pressure. The plastic things on the inside of your glasses don’t have to redden your nose if you don’t want them to.
I know you already know all of this because you are still yourself. You’re witty, sweet, adorable, kind, and a little spicy. Last night you repeated after me “How ’bout dem O’s?” I looked away as I laughed because I was also starting to cry. That’s kind of how it is when I’m with you now. I laugh because I am with you and Mikie doesn’t call me Bubbly for nothin’. But I cry because I want to get you out of that bed and into the chair in your sunroom and have your TV volume on a million, because you put it there. I want you to root for Manny and squee with me about how cute he is with those ears.
You are so beautiful and perfect to me always but it’s just not fair that you’ve been chained to this body. This body that sent you through 15 years of cancers. 15 years of chemos. 15 years of “How are you feeling?” and “Is this really happening again?” I tell you this often and you probably think I am hyperbolizing (you know I do that a lot) but you are the strongest person I know. The thing is, your daughter is a close runner up so I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get those genes too.
I loved when we read what you wrote in the booklet for your 50 year high school reunion. You got married in 1952 and “escaped” 30 years later. Grandpop–god rest his soul. You said you had bought your own house a couple years after moving out. I loved that you wrote that. I could feel your pride bouncing off that page. Go awf babysis. (I explained that term to you a few weeks ago so I feel confident you still remember.)
You let me write this in a personal essay for graduate school a few years ago. I wrote about Memorial Stadium and yours and Grandpop’s story snuggled right in there. I loved living it with you, even if it isn’t how your story with Grandpop ended.
“In a different time, it didn’t dip below 60 degrees in Baltimore on Saturday, September 29, 1945 when 14-year-old Mary Lou Luczkowski and some of her friends attended a local high school football game at what was then called Municipal Stadium. She was a beauty—her curled brown hair bounced on her shoulders, her bright Polish eyes smiled when her mouth did. She was petite, good-humored, and smart, having skipped a grade in elementary school. It was during that Poly-Patterson High game right there on 33rd Street that she met 17-year-old Vince Papa, thin-faced and Sicilian and from a different part of town. To hear her tell it, his charisma and politeness won her over that day in the massive oval structure on 33rd Street.
Just a year earlier, the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team, moved their home to Municipal when their own Oriole Park and its wooden stands went up in flames overnight on July 3rd into the 4th, 1944. Municipal, built in 1922, was the choice venue for local and collegiate sports at the time. The game where my grandparents Mary Lou and Vince met was just another sporting event in a blue-collar town that hadn’t yet earned professional teams of its own.
The city gradually built its reputation as the home of sports enthusiasts and the Baltimore Colts football team stomped into 33rd Street in 1947. Seven years later in 1954 Grandpop had finished up his military service. He had already won over and married Grammom and they were talking about children when the Baltimore Orioles came flying back to town, this time as a pro team. Vince, Mary Lou, and Baltimore finally had their team.”
When your friend Mercedes came to see you, before she walked out, you asked me to get her to come back. You wanted to give her a kiss. I grabbed her, watched that moment, and then turned away because oh. my. gawd. You have been friends for over 80 years. She told us that you had a lot of boyfriends. I asked whether that was your doing and she said no, the boys pursued you. Duh. Why did I even ask? You with that wit and kindness and having skipped a grade because you are so smart. You with that big brunette curls on one side. Your doe eyes, strong nose, translucent skin. Of course they pursued you.
Last night I asked you what your high school mascot was, “The teddy bears,” you said within two seconds. The things people had written in your yearbook about you helped me know what I already knew. That you’ve been you, all your life. You’ve been someone people flock to. Someone people admire and love and marvel at and sign “Stay the way you are.” In the big picture of your class at prom, we love that you are right up front, standing with a tall drink of water with blonde hair. I think they must’ve put you up front on purpose. We keep learning things about your childhood and I know we’re all soaking them in, continually amazed by your recall even if it’s coming from a slight voice, just a fraction of what it was a few weeks ago.
A few weeks ago I went to your house to hang out. We caught up and then you started doing a crossword. I worked on some of my Omwork for yoga but fell asleep on your floor. I woke up maybe 45 minutes later, looked at you with the creases of pages on my cheek, and told you I had fallen asleep. “I know,” you said with the wisdom of a thousand years. You’ve always exuded peace for me.
In college when I was dating that guy who was on drugs and it was not okay and he was not okay and I was not okay, I told you everything. I sprawled out on your sunroom floor, probably, and I told you what was wrong. I cried and you said ohhh in your way that you do when you empathize with us, which is all the time, and your eyebrows spread and went down toward your cheeks. I don’t know how many teenagers tell their septuagenarian grandmothers their dramatic love stories with drug addicts but I knew I could. You justified my feelings. You told me it was going to be okay. You empowered me.
Remember that time we had girls’ weekend at the beach? On the ride down I wanted to play car games and you were totally down. Of course you’d be great at them. Mom and Aubs were probably in and out of naps, and maybe you were too, but I remember you talking with me the whole time. Then I watched you on the OC Rocket with wind in your face and the thrill of something you recalled but hadn’t experienced in a long, long time. We rode on one of those stupid bikes that looks like a surrey with the fringe on top and for that hour it was anything but stupid. We rode past the weirdos and the shops where they buy their awful tee shirts. We rode along the sand and the ocean and we laughed like we were all the same age. Just a gaggle of preteens on our own for the first time. You didn’t judge or squeal or even seem surprised when Aunt Carol taught us how to wax our armpits. It was like, yep, this is what girlfriends do.
The last bicker-session I remember between you and Mikie was about sour cream and onion chips you’d gotten at the dollar store. It was amazing. I recorded some of it and sent it to the cousins group text. Evan said, “She’s still got a lot of fight left in her. Especially about chips.” Oh yes you do. I’ve listened to the recording several times because while I always try to quell those bicker sessions, this one is hilarious to me. The clip I have has you yelling, “The bag was full when I left and when I came back the bag was empty!” So logical. Mikie responds that you’re not going to change your mind. Then almost in perfect unison, you say “Okay,” and he says “Anyhow.” For the record, Gram, that’s how chip-eating goes. First it’s full, then you eat the sour cream and onion chips, then the bag becomes empty.
I could type our memories for hours. But what I want you to know most is that we love you. We are all in awe of you. Someone said you were storming heaven with praying that rosary all hours of the day but I don’t even think you need to lift a bead to get there. You have more faith in your pink fingernail than I know of in another person. And when a whole group of us are in your room at Stella and I look around, I’m stunned by all that comes from you. The personalities. The doe eyes in Ryan and Aubrey. The tenacity in my mom. The style and soup-making in Aunt Carol. Evan’s intelligence. The humor in Uncle Michael. The sweetness in Ben and Zack. And me, I just want to be everything you are.
And you played “CHICKEN” with cancer for 15 years. And you won.
I wrote this trying to replicate the style of Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. It’s one of those books that although I’m reading it now, I already want to re-read it. Coates writes to his son and talks a lot about his body, granted for a very different reason than I am talking about my Gram’s body but that topic made me see a way of writing this similarly. If you haven’t read it, do.