I have a picture on my refrigerator from my 1995 graduation dinner at MacArthur Park in Palo Alto. In it, my grandmother, Deedles, and I are sitting almost on top of one another, smiling widely under our identical haircuts. Looking at the photo, I can feel her long, elegant fingers along my back and the cool sensation of her cheek on mine. As a child, I told Deedles that her cheeks were like two soft pillows that you fall into, and I think she always liked that.
I was standing in my kitchen recently and happened to look at that picture when without warning, I just fell apart. Luckily, my two boys were at school and missed the absolute puddle of muck I became in that moment. I think of Deedles every day. I miss her every day.
But it had been a while since I’d had a good cry about her and I guess it was just time. I thought of all she had meant to me and all that she had given me and along with the tears came an overwhelming sense of gratitude for feeling so strongly about someone.
Deedles, who passed away four years ago at the age of 89, was the most influential person in my life. She was the smartest, funniest, most capable woman I have ever known. She was a poet, a writer, a gardener, an artist, a dancer, a seamstress and one heck of a ukulele player.
She used to sit with me at the upright piano in my parents' front hallway and have me diligently practice three times with the left and right hand, correcting the phrasing and the crescendos patiently and sometimes humming the harmonization to the tune I was playing.
Her gifts of harmony continued even after her stroke, despite her loss of speech. One day when I visited her, I brought a record player and my album of Crystal Gayle’s Greatest Hits. When I was little, I used to listen to “Don’t It Make my Brown Eyes Blue” and sing along to the music, my long hair whipping around and Deedles smiling at me from the couch. When I arrived at the nursing home, I gave her a hug and plugged in the record player next to her bed. I put on that same song…our song…and despite that fact that her mouth couldn’t necessarily form the words, she harmonized with me as I laid next to her in her thin bed, my legs dangling over the side through the rails.
The smell of her hand lotion and the words of the song mingled in that room for one delicious second and she was mine again.
Since her passing, I have tried to explain our relationship to people who did not know its depth and intensity. I often have said, “She was always that person for me,” hoping that the listener would understand in that simple phrase that Deedles embodied all I have ever wanted to be. She offered solace and wit. She and I read The Hound of the Baskervilles together. We both had crushes on Jay Gatsby and her favorite quote from Fitzgerald’s novel was when Nick yells to Jay, "They are a rotten crowd…You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." And we’d say that to each other whenever we knew the other might need it, and it always helped, no matter what.
I always knew that Deedles was absolutely crazy about me. What a gift to own that knowledge from an early age and carry it still.
I think of myself as a spiritual person. I believe in God. I tend toward superstition, calling “padiddle” when a car has only one headlight, always knocking on wood and saying “bread and butter” when I’m separated from the person with whom I’m walking. But I never realized how strong my faith in the continuation of life after death was until I lost Deedles.
To think of her as ending is unfathomable. She must continue on somewhere, in some fashion, for her existence was just too intrinsically linked with mine for it to be over. Against all rationale, I find myself feeling more connected to her now than I did during the last four months of her life when she was without speech or movement.
She is more accessible to me now than she was before she passed. Strangely enough, I’ve only had one dream about Deedles since she died. And in it, I didn’t see her or touch her. Rather, the phone rang and when I answered, I heard her voice say, as it always did, “Hello, darling!” I was so excited to hear from her and, since everything makes sense in dreams, I asked her how she liked being in heaven. “It’s just lovely,” she said. “They have the most wonderful buffet.” And that one dream, and subsequently imagining her, together with my grandfather and all of her friends, lining up outside St. Peter’s all-you-can-eat restaurant has given me a great deal of peace and laughter.
Deedles once relayed a story to me of an event that happened to her soon after her mother passed away. There was some sort of family get-together at the house, with all sorts of relatives there, talking and mingling. Suddenly, Deedles made her way through the people to the front door as if she had heard the doorbell. She opened the door, smiled excitedly and said, “Mama!” And although no one else in the room saw her mother, Deedles felt as certain of that sighting as any truth in her life.
I struggled at times with the veracity of that experience, wondering if Deedles just needed to see her mother one more time, and therefore made it happen in her mind. And yet now, having experienced the greatest loss of my life, I wonder. And I silently hope that one day the door will ring for me.