G-ma and Me
My grandmother and I are roommates.
Eight months ago, my fiancé and I broke up suddenly—in Chicago, where we’d been living—and when the relationship ended I wanted to move back to New York. My friends, my family and even my job were all there, but the impending struggle to find an apartment was totally over whelming. I wasn’t in an emotional or financial position to commit to a lease, and though friends offered temporary couches, I figured that as long as I was nomadic I’d continue to experience those unsettled post-breakup feelings.
When my parents suggested that I stay with Grandma for a couple of months, I was intrigued, but hesitant. At Grandma’s, true, I would be able to have my own comfortable room and an easy commute to work. But how would this odd-couple pairing really work? I was 30 and used to living with someone my age. Grandma was a month shy of 85 and hadn’t lived with anyone since my mother’s stepfather, her second husband, died eight years ago. She was also fairly set in her ways, and I wasn’t sure how she would adjust to living with me, but her reaction was delight: “Of course you can stay, Lizzytisch!”
Frankly, I hadn’t thought much about our relationship before I moved in. I’d gotten to know this loving and opinionated clothes-hound through years of holiday gatherings, family parties, museum excursions, and restaurant-cum-theater outings. Over the decades, very little had changed in Grandma’s pastel environment—the peach-colored candles tick son the side board, the kitchen clock with its fading photograph of croissants. I thought: continuity like this sounds like just what I need in my life right now.
By late spring, when I moved in, I wasn’t the only one needing some support. Grandma’s memory, failing for a year or so, was starting to deteriorate more rapidly, leaving her at times frustrated and upset. These lapses were upsetting to me too, because Grandma had always been a very sharp and self-possessed woman, and rather formal (never a day without a skirt and hose).
At first it was strange to be living with G-ma (pronounced gee-ma; this is what I’ve always called her). But it turns out, wildly enough, that we have surprising qualities in common.
We’re both sociable, but we like our own space. We both pass out at around 10 o’clock most nights, and both of us sleep like the dead. We have almost the same tolerance (or in tolerance) for alcohol. After just one or two drinks we get tipsy, relaxed and giggly. A couple of nights a week, wee at dinner together and drink a beer—Grandma loves a lager—in front of the TV while watching “Seinfeld.” Grandma can’t follow all of the show’s improbable story lines, but she always laughs in amazement and says, “They’re so nutsy!”
Occasionally she likes to play up the Granny routine. One Thursday night (our unofficial “date” night) we were at the end of a long line at the movies. G-ma suggested I ask the people up front if my “Old Grandma” could jump the queue. When 1 got the go-ahead from the head of the line, my grandmother did an Oscar-worthy rendition of Little Old Lady. With a faux slumped back, she hobbled up to the front and even tied her silk scarf around her head, a la Old World babushka. We chortled at her performance the rest of the evening.
G-ma’s good nature extends into her neighborhood, something I never knew before. She’s on a first-name basis with at least two dozen waiters, shopkeepers, street peddlers and bank tellers. When we’re on our way to a joint manicure-pedicure appointment and we run into Esther from Burger Heaven or Shawanda from the bank, they’re always delighted. “Your grandma is the best,” they tell me.
Seeing G-ma’s routine close up, I can understand her more disjointed thought fragments. When she starts talking about “the store with all the beautiful things,” I know she means Bolton’s, a cut-rate women’s clothing store. When she says she went to “the funny man” for lunch, I know she means the bagel store up the street where the proprietor has ludicrous pictures of himself with celebrities all over the walls. Sometimes she’ll pick up a sentence half way through a thought, leaving out the subject and time frame, and by now I can guess with 90% accuracy what she means. She might suddenly ask, “When am I supposed to go?” and I’ll somehow know she’s asking about her next visit to the dentist.
I don’t share Grandma’s love of shopping, but one night I was giddy from a new purchase, a striped vinyl handbag. Even though the bag was far from her style, I could see Grandma appreciated its good quality and vivid colors. I swung the bag in my hand and put on a CD of early Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and other old time jazz greats. Grandma, who still gets her honey-colored hair styled every week, started humming, and then singing words to instrumental tracks that I had no idea had lyrics. Turns out she knows the songs from her girlhood. When I started dancing. Grandma stood up and moved her hip sand arms and tapped her slippered feet to the sultry horns. She smiled and chuckled without any of the stress that accompanies her memory loss. She wore a guilty smile. “You know,” she said, pointing at me, “I think you’re drunk from that bag.” She was right. I was a little high from my purchase, but more from the joy of dancing with her.
Relatives think I’m some kind of saint for putting up with G-ma’s repetitive 60-year-old family stories and her uncanny knack for asking me a question precisely when I pick up the phone to make a call. But when I tell contemporaries—particularly my women friends—that I’m living with her, the response is excitement tinged with jealousy. I’ve been surprised to find out how many women wish they could have (or could have had) the chance to live with their grandmothers. By a fortuitous accident of timing and real estate, I have had the incredible luck of getting to know my grandmother as a pal, not just as my mother’s mother.
While I’m in no hurry, I am starting to long for a home that is truly mine. But now that G-ma has adjusted to life with me, I’m concerned that it’ll be more difficult for her to adjust to life without me. We’re going to miss each other dearly. While we’ll still get together often, I won’t be able to watch the TV news with Grandma over breakfast each morning or see her flamboyantly kick her shoes in the air when she comes back from a long walk in the neighborhood.
Living with my grandmother has been a treat provided, unwittingly, by New York City’s inflated real estate market. I’m grateful.
Elizabeth S. Bennett is a journalist in New York City.