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Love, Nostalgia and Longing

The person in the above photograph is my wife’s grandmother, Norma.

Earlier this evening, we visited Norma at her apartment. She lives alone in a lovely place, surrounded by myriad books and bright artwork and a magnificent view. When I first began dating Catherine back in the late 1990s, her grandmother confused me. Like most Americans, I was used to a certain model of the modern grandma—soft, cuddly, wobbly; a tad senile and overly anxious to talk about Benny Goodman and the world of black-and-white television.

Norma, on the other hand, is sort of like Walter Payton, charging into a defensive line. I still recall the first time we met—she was holding a bunch of shopping bags, marching across a busy Manhattan street. “That’s your grandma?” I said to Catherine. She laughed—”Yup.”

Through the first few years, Norma and I had what I considered to be a unique relationship. Early on she sat me down in a California Pizza Kitchen and asked my intentions. (“My intentions,” I told her, “are good.”). We once had a heated argument over the phone that I thought had ruined everything (it was largely forgotten the next week—though, knowing Norma’s memory, it’s never been fully forgotten). She’s baked me numerous blueberry cakes, tells her friends all about my books, etc, etc. I recently told the wife that one can go 1,000 years and never meet another Norma. She’s wickedly intelligent, insanely stubborn, loyal beyond belief, task-oriented, feisty, hard-nosed. If you’re one of her grandchildren, you’re her life. The bond is written in blood.

I digress. While we were at her apartment, Norma broke out a CD of a 50th anniversary party she had thrown for her parents, Leah and Harry, back in 1968. She had recently had the recording transferred from tape, and insisted we listen. With that, three chairs were pulled up toward a small CD player sitting atop a kitchen counter, and Norma pressed play.

Magic ensued …

Norma’s face changed before my eyes. It really did. This woman—relatively stoic in facial expression—traveled back in time. She was 40-something again, standing at a microphone in a ballroom, wearing a gown and sparkly shoes, calling one loved one after another to the front to light a candle. I watched her—really, really watched her—and was amazed. Tears streamed from her eyes. Her lips pursed. I’d never seen her look like this. She wasn’t merely sad, but nostalgic. And remorseful. Her parents have passed on. So has a younger sister; friends; husbands; a son.

I occasionally think how senior citizens must not merely feel aged, but left behind. Loved ones leave, never to return. They’ve departed; you’re here. That can’t be easy to grasp or cope with. In fact, midway through Norma held a tissue and said, softly, “In a flash, it’s over. And now I’m at the end of it.” More tears.

I could have done without the visit to my wife’s grandma. We’re seeing her tomorrow, we have things to do, places to go, blah, blah.

Now, however, I consider it the most profound thing I’ve witnessed in a long time.

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