I have one photo of my maternal grandmother, Pat, dating from her retirement celebration 25 years ago today. Like many, she retired the day she turned 65, but she wasn’t worried about seeing the world or doing all of the things she wanted to do when she was younger. Instead, the first thing she did after she retired was ask me to call her, which I think was surprising for the both of us. For me, it was a surprise, because she regularly joked about how she assumed that I’d rejoin the human race once I turned 21, and there she was, right on the dot, holding open the door. I think I surprised her by returning the call.
When I refer to my grandmother as a major inspiration, a lot of this was because she was a force of nature with no fear of man, beast, or god. Much was made of how I had a grandmother who needed a hip replacement after breaking her natural one falling off a barstool, but the family stories didn’t continue and relate that she broke it beating the hell out of a biker who tried to steal her cigarettes. The guy had maybe 150 pounds and forty fewer years on her, and apparently he was crying and begging for someone to save him when four people peeled her off him. It wasn’t that she was deliberately picking bar fights or anything: she was just a very private and very focused individual who didn’t tolerate fools or knaves. Out of all of her descendants, I think she called me up back then because I had the most in common with her, and I returned the respect by being my own person as much as I could.
At times, I wonder what sort of person my grandmother would have been if she hadn’t been born where and when she was. Out of all of my friends, she reminds me the most of one friend who is very happy hanging out with friends for conversations, but who also needs and desperately craves time by herself. Back in the 1940s, that Just Wasn’t Done, and while she loved her family, I think she also wondered what could have been if she’d been able to throw propriety in the lake. To this day, I could see her becoming a noted explorer or historian, if she’d just been given the opportunity, and those sorts of opportunities simply weren’t available to her at that time.
As it was, while she couldn’t do it herself at that point, she was intensely curious as to what I was doing. When I dabbled in theatrical makeup and went full George Romero for Halloween 1987, she asked for photos and also asked how I pulled off the “peeling face” effect. (She was surprised to discover that it was nothing but toilet paper, liquid latex, and a bit of stage blood.) I changed hair color, and she asked for details. She told me that she was going to get her nose pierced after I got mine done in 1991, just to see what it was like, but I never knew for sure if she did it. After a while, it became a regular gag as to how she was more of a hellion than I was: for one birthday, I sent a card that featured a little old lady on the left and a gaggle of fully Mohawked punks on the right, and the caption “My friend and your friends finally meet.” Oh, and she completely lost it with laughter when I introduced her to Monty Python’s “Hell’s Grannies” skit:
At the time, the only issue she had with anything I did involved my fascination with reptiles. After purchasing my first savannah monitor, I made several attempts to come up to visit, with plans falling apart at the last minute, and she made only one demand. “If you come up, you’d better not bring that DAMN REPTILE with you.” For Christmas in 1989, I purchased a dinosaur hatchling sculpture from John Fischner, the noted dinosaur sculptor, and asked her what she thought when she received it. “You know, when I opened it, I just saw an eye, and I thought ‘If he mailed me that DAMN REPTILE, I’m going to kill him.'” She had no problem with dinosaurs, though, and was so charmed by Fischner’s babies that they became regular presents over the years.
She was also very interested in my writing career back then, such as it was, and insisted that I send her copies of everything I wrote. A lot of it just led her to smile and nod, but she loved my articles on natural history, and I made a point of dedicating one article on the animals of the Burgess Shale to her. Even as her health failed in the late Nineties, she kept asking for new pieces, and as I moved more and more often to online-only venues, I’d print them out just so she could have a hard copy. When I was quoted in an article at the beginning of 2000, she went well out of her way to hunt down a copy of the New York Times for that article, just to say that she had a grandson who could get his name in the Times without it being prefaced with “convicted axe murderer and cannibal” and followed by “before being taken out in a hail of police gunfire.”
Today would have been her ninetieth birthday, and a combination of emphysema and strokes caused her to miss her eightieth. Every time I go into the greenhouse, there’s not a time where I don’t regret that I can’t send her more photos of the latest pitcher plant. Requiescat in pace.