Well, after a long decline and a stint in the nursing home, my grandmother passed away this weekend. It was, to employ a cliche, not at all a surprise, and a bit of a relief, as a few strokes and Parkinson’s had exacted their toll, not to mention her heroic battle with the marauding timberwolves.
As you might expect, she got a bit wacky towards the end, but she was a tough old broad. The last time I saw her, she had her moments of being with it, such as when Mom served her a thin, awful-looking cup of coffee, and she insisted on it “Hot and strong. Like my men.” A naughty gleam in her eyes. Meanwhile at night she would get a little wonky and complain about odd events involving “tiny men.” She claimed they were sneaking in and stealing her clothes. We would ask her who they were. “Mexicans. Tiny Mexicans. They wear stripes.” It is this attention to sartorial detail that set her delusions apart from boring, mundane hallucinations. Fuck you, Woodstock Nation! My grandma sees striped Mexican midgets bent on fashion larceny!
She certainly made life interesting as a child. I would spend my summers in LA with her and my grandfather, both of them Estonian immigrants who fled Europe when the USSR annexed the Baltics. Unsurprisingly, they utterly loathed all Russians, and filled my young skull with long, lurid denunciations of the hated oppressors. Also being from the Old World, she had a compendium of folk superstitions that she good-heartedly terrified and warped me with. Here’s a few of the howlers that she told me as a kid. There’s no way I’m going to tell you how long I held some of these nuggets as gospel.
- Whistling inside the house is evil and invites bad luck. Ooookay.
- If you sleep with your underwear on, you will cut off your blood supply to your legs (and, it did not need hinting at, other things). For a long time I slept naked, rubbing my ostensibly oxygen-starved legs before I dozed off to improve circulation.
- If you do the (admittedly disgusting) trick of snorting the snot back up your nose and then swallowing it, it will just sit in your stomach, forever. This one was a real peach, as I was haunted by the image of an ageless, indestructible wad of goo forever sloshing around poisonously in my gut.
And on and on. But like many immigrants, certain aspects of American life she took to with an erratic, half-assed glee. One year, when she was about sixty, I guess, she announced she wanted a new car, and bang, out the door she went. Everyone waited for her to return with the Oldsmobile, the Caddy, you know. You can see where this is going. She rolled up in a cherry-red Camaro muscle car, with her tiny homonculus fists clutching the steering wheel and her gleaming eyes staring squarely at the dashboard. She was a fucking terror in that thing, too, because she couldn’t drive at all. She had a carefree, sphincter-loosening way of conversing with you as she drove down the freeway, nearly facing you full on, leaving in her wake blood-curdling oaths, vows of vengeance, and smoking, twisted piles of metal and blackening human flesh. I was in the car with her once in a parking lot and she drove over one of those little concrete abutments for your tires; we were doing about thirty. After I climbed out of the glove box, I noticed that she hadn’t stopped, and was looking at me with high humor. “This car,” she said in her great accent, “has very good suspension.”
And one final memory–or story, rather–that I take with me and put into that place reserved for things that you’re never, ever allowed to forget. Near the end, Emmy (that’s what I called her, and lay off)–who was multilingual–started babbling everything in Estonian, which meant that only her husband and my dad could understand her. My mom spent days and days pleading with her to please, please don’t speak Estonian, she can’t understand! Nuts to that. The Estonian kept coming. Finally, after a solid week, Emmy caved.
And started speaking German. So now nobody could understand a fucking word she said. Hearing that just made me laugh and laugh. She always traveled her own road, and it was a long road, and, I think, a good one. It leads to the same damn place that all the roads end up at, but not everyone gets there in a fine red sports car, a fast, crazy car that could go anywhere she wanted to until, alas, the suspension finally gave out.