I had always happily envisioned myself in 50 years or so becoming a delightfully crabby old lady, hitting people with my cane and making inappropriate and salty comments at whomever I pleased, much to the horror of my children and the awe of my grandchildren. I wanted to be known as a “tough old bird.” I wanted people to mutter “old bat” as I passed. I wanted Old Lady Notoriety. Honestly, I was looking forward to it.
However, after a couple recent events, to my mild discomfort and disappointment, I’m rethinking this plan. The second time was today at the grocery store where I was waiting patiently to get in line and some lady growled at me, “You gotta choose ONE!” in that crotchety, yet smug voice that knows that you can’t say anything about her being rude because it would be rude (Old Lady Logic).
But what kicked it off was this. Last night I was at a nearly empty restaurant with some friends and somehow the conversation drifted to death. I don’t even know how we got there, but it doesn’t matter. We pretty much spent the remainder of the meal swapping funny and disconcerting death stories. As I was rounding the bend on a particularly farcical tale, an elderly woman (with a cane, I might add) hobbled past us and interrupted me to say, “It’s funny how you find humor in death.”
Not understanding her meaning (and, with hubris, thinking she was somehow complimenting us), I responded with a disarming smile, “You have to.”
And she replied with the heaviness of age and disapproval, “Not that way.” A phrase that she repeated a few more times as she made her way out of the restaurant.
When my face stopped burning, I muttered under my breath, “Must have hit too close to home,” which, upon reflection, was an uncharitable thing to say, but, hey, she really ruined my flow.
So this got me thinking — were we being disrespectful? Or, more to the point, were we being too LOUDLY disrespectful? And how long was she listening? Because we covered a lot of ground in an hour. My funeral stories all stem from the only funeral that I have ever experienced, that of my grandmother Hilda Mae. Although I didn’t know my grandmother very well as an adult, she bore nine children, so I’d like to think that she had some sense of humor. And I wasn’t making fun of HER. . . just a few incidents surrounding her death and funeral.
Aw hell, I’ll just tell you.
My grandmother didn’t want to die. I mean, really, not into it. She wanted to live, she wanted to breathe every breath of air that she could, read every book, play every game of Scrabble. She wanted to live. Unfortunately, this ended up causing her a lot of pain because what with the leukemia, arthritis, liver cancer, and whatever other ailment she collected in her final years, it made living very difficult. But, damn it, she was owed a full life as an American and she wanted every drop. Good for her, I say! Screw those medical nay-sayers. My grandmother was in the “any day now” stage for about five years.
However, there came a point when we were really REALLY sure that this could be it and so my mother and I got on a plane to get to Indiana. Literally as we were walking down the aisle of the plane, my mom got the call that my grandmother had passed. Distracted by this news, my mother, who was ahead of me, turned around to let me know that grandma was gone, in the process beating several passengers about the heads with her carry-on bags. I assume that they had heard her say, “Mom is dead,” which is why they had the decency not to say anything. We flew to the Midwest without further incident (. . . other than the death of my grandmother.)
(Come on, that’s funny!)
After almost getting killed by my Aunt J who, addled by her grief (I imagine), slammed her hatchback door down on my head before I could get out of the way, we arrived at my uncle’s house where we would be staying. Uncle R is the youngest. As the last of nine, he had to make a name for himself somehow, and he did so by being somewhat of a troublemaker. He was the one who would chase the cousins with poopy diapers around the house. He was the one with two seven-foot boa constrictors that he would just let roam grandma’s house while toddlers ran around (I really don’t know how no one said anything about this). As a child, he used to hang the baby Jesus from the rafters of the nativity set for my poor religious grandmother to find. There are horror stories about Ken dolls with hotdogs attached to them. I’ll let you put two and two together.
So, fresh off the plane, me with a head injury, and my mother in a fragile state, we arrive at Uncle R’s house. After hugs all around, he holds out his hand and there, in his palm, are teeth.
“Look, I got mom’s teeth!”
Welcome to Fort Wayne, folks.
This is also the uncle who, after I was back at work in the Bay Area, sent out a mass email entitled, “Photos of Grandma.” Now, I’m thinking, you know, some old photos of grandma, young and beautiful, some Christmas photos, photos of her with her grandkids, making pies, serving mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. I eagerly opened the email.
And screamed. I stood up at my desk and screamed. And my friend B came running over, but it was too late because then she saw them too.
of my freshly dead grandmother.
Not from the funeral. Oh no. Lying there dead in the bed where she drew her last breath, hospice robe and all. I guess he had time to take a few photos for posterity and snag Grandma’s teeth when my Uncle S left the room to get one of the nuns or a priest or whoever it is you get. Now let me say this, these were tasteful (???) photos. It’s not like he was putting bunny ears on her and using her skull like Yorick. And my Uncle R was over there every day, talking to her while she slept, making sure she had her rosary, keeping vigil. I mean, really sweet tear-jerking shit, I’m telling you. But really?! Post-mortem photos?! What is this, 1917? At least in the Victorian era they put them in nice clothes and closed their mouths.
As a long lost friend once said, “This will be funny after a couple of weeks and a couple drinks.” I have to live that way. And, seriously, you can’t tell me that getting emailed photos of your dead grandmother while at work isn’t funny.
Now, finally, the story where I was interrupted by Lady Bracknell.
We managed to get through the open casket service, despite no one knowing when to sit, stand, kneel or how to respond to the priest (if my grandmother had been in her grave yet, she would have been rolling in it). We’re at the cemetery, watching them tenderly lower my grandmother’s casket in between the graves of my grandfather and my Uncle B. A quiet moment for reflection. A quiet moment when you realize that this it. My grandmother was gone, her body a mere symbol of the beautiful human being that lived inside.
And then the forklift thingy stopped.
Because the casket wouldn’t fit.
Literally up to the very last moment of daylight, my grandmother did not want to go.
They lifted her back up and frantically started digging as a line of cars from the funeral home wound through the gravestones.
And right here, while telling the story last night in the restaurant, came the withering, “Not that way. Not that way.”
So you tell me, gentle readers, which of these stories would you have found offensive to overhear in a restaurant? If the answer is all of them, well. . . maybe we owed that lady an apology. Even though the Good Girl in me is still a little chagrined by the whole thing, another part of me wants to tell her to lighten the hell up. Get out of the new way if you can’t lend your hand, the times they are a-changin’. Maybe I should revise my decision to become a crabby old lady, especially if it means losing my sense of humor — or my ability to tell the difference between some little brats making fun of their grandmother and a couple of adults working through sad events by laughing about them. I really don’t want to be a downer.
And, Grandma Hilda? I hope from where you sit, you find this all very very funny.