My grandmother lived long enough (I was in my forties when she died) for me to know her well, and for my son to meet her several times. Not long before she passed away, he and I drove to New York to visit her. This previously published memory is from that trip.
We drove east on the Southern State Parkway on a clip out to eastern Long Island to visit my ninety-one-year old grandmother. Traffic backed up by Kennedy Airport an hour earlier, but that all thinned out until finally, after a quick stop at Stanley’s bakery in East Islip, we slipped out along Montauk highway, the October morning sun still in our eyes, and we swept past villages where islanders hosed down sidewalks and set up sale tables all along the main streets of every town from Oakdale to Montauk. In West Sayville my son said he was hungry again, so we ducked into some coffee shop for buttered rolls, crumb buns and juice. Some newbie teen wearing an “I’m hot on the Island” t-shirt gave away free bakery cookies, and Michael waited for those while I bought breakfast. We just wandered east and west until we headed to the hamlet of Oakdale.
At my grandmother’s, I knocked for five minutes, could hear the television streaming out from her second-story window. She didn’t answer so I called her on my cell from the sidewalk.
“Oh, you’re downstairs. You know, I thought I heard someone knocking so I looked out, and I thought it looked like you, but I wasn’t sure, so I watched TV for a while longer.”
“You knew I was coming at this time, right Grandma?”
“Is that Michael next to you? He’s so tall, how old is he now?” We talked from sidewalk to window, looking at each other.
“Grandma, can you buzz us in?”
She buzzed us in. We talked a while and I stared at the same furniture, same knick-knacks, same pictures she had around her since I was a child. She got rid of the plastic that covered the furniture when she lived in Queens, but I sat on the same like-new chair, her and Michael sat on the same sofa she had since the Kennedy Administration.
“How old are you now, Michael?” she asked.
She raised her eyebrows. She’d not seen him since he was three. “Is he your only one?” she called to me three feet away.
“Yes. He’s it.”
“Oh, Michael, that’s wonderful. Thank God you’re the only one—you’ll get everything. How old are you now?”
“He’s eleven. Oh my, I haven’t seen him since he was, what? Five?”
“Oh! Imagine. Is he the only one at home?”
“Yes, he’s it.”
“That’s something, Michael. Thank God you’re the only one at home. You have the house to yourself. How old are you now?”
“Eleven,” he answered, as if for the first time. He has more patience than I do.
“Eleven! Imagine. Is he the only one at home?”
“Yes, Grandma, I killed all the others.”
“Oh, Thank God you’re the only one at home—you’ll get everything!” she said, again. Twenty minutes of this. We talked. We remembered. I told her about the time she watched my siblings and me when our parents were away, and how I loved to call her weekly when I was in college. I’m sure she didn’t remember, but she always acted as if she did. She motioned toward the flowers on the coffee table and we said how pretty they were, and a few times I noticed her enjoy the breeze through her window. I looked at pictures on the walls and she told me who everyone was and when the picture had been taken, and I was happy to know at ninety-one-years old she still remembered.
“You’ve got a great memory, Grandma,” I said. “Better than mine!” She laughed and waved her hand.
“Oh there are many things I’ve forgotten,” she said, laughing quietly. Even now I can see her shoulders fold briefly in humility as she laughed.
We ate ham sandwiches on white bread and drank tea. We talked more about my mom, and she asked a lot about how my siblings were doing. She mentioned some cousins, and we talked about Michael and how she remembered being with him at his grandparents’ home in Virginia Beach. It was a pleasant morning and afternoon, and it made me wish I had spent more time with her when I was younger. We do that though, we appreciate people only after the time to spend with them runs thin.
Eventually, we left. Before we did, though, my grandmother asked Michael if he wanted anything.
“Take whatever you want. Anything, just take it.”
“Oh, no thank you though,” Michael answered politely, scanning the room.
“Oh, come on, take something. Take something from that shelf there—there’s some good stuff there,” she called out, sweeping her hand toward the dining room. I gave Michael a nod, let him know taking something in this situation might be a compliment, a way to let Grandma know we appreciate her. He picked up a bowling trophy my mother had won years earlier. Perfect. Later, in the car, he told me he chose that because he wanted to give it back to his own grandmother who had won it.
A few days later my grandmother called my mom and wanted to know who took the Goddamn trophy.