Dead Grandmother(s)

One of my grandmothers is dead and gone. That I can be sure about, at least as sure as a person can be without reaching for a shovel. She left this world 11 years ago, give or take. I’m sure she is sorely missed by people other than me.

I got the news from my then wife Laura one night when we were at our local bar. I had met her there after work, which was pretty standard practice. Our marriage was about to end and we were really only nominally a couple. We were pleasant enough to each other, but had ceased communicating on any meaningful level.

After we had been drinking with friends for about an hour, she said, “By the way, your grandmother is dead.”

This was my mother’s mother she was talking about. Laura worked a lot from home and Mom had called earlier that day with the news.

“Oh wow,” I said when I found out, or maybe I just shrugged. We both went to our drinks and conversations with other people.

When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother would come visit and clear her throat in the bathroom. Every morning at six without fail, the sound of her hocking up a consumptive lung nugget would reverberate throughout the house. The rest of the day she put on airs of being a proper southern lady. She even threw in an “I do declare” from time to time. But we had heard her in the bathroom. She wasn’t fooling us one bit.

Apparently dissatisfied with her baseline level of annoying, she kicked it up a notch when she came out for my brother Gordon’s high school graduation in 1978. While Gordon in his cap and gown was shaking hands with the principal and being handed his diploma, she took that moment to have an asthma attack.

This is not to say she was faking. The terror in her watery-blue old lady eyes certainly looked legit, as did the globule of phlegm she had neglected to hock up that morning but had fetched loose later with a mighty wheeze.

Mom left me to look after my grandmother while she went off to call the paramedics. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that I was supposed to do. Mouth-to-mouth damn sure wasn’t going to happen. I ended up fanning her with the commencement program. It was a pointless and absurd gesture, which is somehow fitting when you decide to put a 15-year old in charge of a life-and-death situation. The deepening fear in my grandmother’s face showed that she would have agreed with that assessment at least on some level.

An ambulance arrived, Mom arrived with a couple of paramedics, and I was relieved of duty. I made my way to the other side of the stadium where my father and stepmother were sitting. I waved and smiled. Dad peered over my head toward the ambulance and commotion in the distance.

“That’s your grandmother, isn’t it? She just couldn’t pass up the chance to be a pain in the ass for everybody.”

It’s safe to say that Dad didn’t like my maternal grandmother much. Then again, he didn’t much care for any of my mother’s relatives. Before the divorce, he would say, “I refuse to visit your family because they are stupid, boring, and grotesque,” whenever the matter came up.

He liked his own relatives more, if only somewhat. He had sporadic contact with them except for his mother, whom he talked to more regularly. My paternal grandmother was known as “Goose” after a cousin of mine mistook her for the Granny Goose on the potato-chips bag (not all my relatives are terribly bright).

I liked Goose, and not just because she seldom visited after my parents got divorced. When she did come stay, she was decidedly non-irritating. There were no crack-of-dawn phlegm launches, which is surprising considering that she didn’t quit smoking until she was 75.  And there were no Scarlett O’Hara pretensions either. Goose was no southern belle, pretend or otherwise. She had lived most of her life in the almost uninhabitable Imperial Valley of California. The few creatures that actually thrive in that desert heat are the rattlesnake, the scorpion, and Cornelia “Goose” Jennings.

So there was no “I do declare” or anything like it coming out of her mouth. Mostly she’d just sit in the living room with her eyes darting back and forth, a lipless half smile spread across her face, and an assenting “Mm hmm, mm hmm” at whoever was doing the talking. She was usually amenable to a board game or playing catch out in the yard, so Gordon and I thought she was great.

That was the side of Goose that we saw. Dad filled us in on some of the other details when we got a little older. For one thing, Goose held grudges that predated the Roosevelt administration. Goose became a Protestant while her sister Hazel remained a Catholic. The resulting sectarian feud outdistanced the Troubles in Northern Ireland for duration if not body count.

Though to be fair, this sort of thing is hardly unusual for my dad’s side of the family. My twin uncles got into a fistfight at the dinner table decades ago and haven’t spoken to each other since.

Sad to say, Goose was no stranger to violence herself.  My father never really enjoyed Christmas. This was because when he was a kid, she used to beat him with a broom handle for reasons she never saw fit to share with her grandchildren. Maybe it was living in poverty that was too much for her, or maybe she was just batshit crazy. I’m leaning toward the latter explanation because she did get hauled off to the funny farm for a spell in 1946 when my dad was 15. One thing I do know is that my father made it a point to never raise a hand against my brother or me. Though if he was angry enough, he had no problem telling us how much he wanted to.

The last time I saw Goose in person was at her 90th birthday celebration in late 1997. She had eventually moved away from the Imperial Valley to the comparatively civilized town of Indio, which can be accurately described as Palm Springs without money. I met a cousin or two for the first time and I saw how little I had in common with my extended family. I did try to keep my snobbery to myself since I didn’t want to spoil my grandmother’s big day. That, and the husband of one cousin seemed less tolerant of anyone’s bullshit with every whiskey sour.

I spoke to Goose on the phone one more time after that. It was November 11, 2000 and my father had been dead for about three hours. There were five of us sitting around a table working on a jigsaw puzzle. I had been off bawling in the guest bedroom and my brother invited me to “have a seat and join the denial party.”

Few words were spoken as we worked on the puzzle. Finally, Dad’s partner Karen said, “What about Goose?” That was a call none of us wanted to make, but I volunteered. I figured that if I manned up this time, I’d never have to do it again. The intervening years seem to have proven me right.

I got Goose’s number from Karen and called her.

“Mm hmm, mm hmm,” Goose said as I told her that her oldest son had died.

I assumed Goose died at some point later on, but didn’t think about it much until a few years later when a girlfriend seemed shocked that I had no idea whether my grandmother was alive or dead. After that, my opinion went from “maybe dead” to “probably dead” to “she has to be dead by now” as time went on. During one Christmas I spent at my brother’s, I asked him if he knew whether she had died.

“Good question,” he said.

After that, the matter was largely forgotten. Until yesterday. It was late afternoon and I had done all the work I was going to get done that day. I decided to settle the question of Goose’s demise once and for all. Googling “Cornelia Jennings obituary,” the closest I got was a link to Dad’s obit in Car & Driver (where had had once been editor). Next I tried her name with “Indio,” thinking there might be some news of her death without the word “obituary” in it. What I got was a White Pages listing with her name, address, and phone number, as well as her age, 105.

Of course this doesn’t mean anything. Just because no one has cleaned up the record showing you as alive doesn’t mean you’re not dead. I have an ex-girlfriend who committed suicide in 2008 and her page is still up on Facebook. As for Goose, all I had was a phone number and a question mark.

So what did I ultimately do? Nothing.  There is that sliver of a chance that she might still be alive. That is true. What is also true is that once I got on the phone, I would have absolutely nothing to say.

Addendum 5/2/2013: A friend with a backtraq account looked up Cornelia Jennings. Goose died on May 30, 2009 at the age of 101.