She was a fixture of my childhood. When I was in elementary school I thought she was like everybody else’s grandma.
Her freezer was always stocked with treats that were rare and precious like the good brand of popsicles and Stover’s French Bread pizzas. She had this basement that had wonders that made Willy Wonka’s candy factory pale in comparison. There was this shed that was only half-full of tools. Tons of room for us to have our own little kingdom. A forest behind her home was nothing short of magical. I remember in particular this one fallen tree that I’d sit on, and the smell: a smell of damnpness, even decomposition. But it wasn’t a bad thing. Even then, I think I sensed the amazing transformation of old life being transformed to new,
She had this “thing” about her “shows”… Soap operas. But she’d interupt her shows in order to play Yatzee, and teach us how to play other games… Like poker.
The first time I started to sense that Grandma wasn’t like other Grandmas was when she started teaching my brothers and I to play cards. Not go-fish. Not old maid. Poker. Texas Hold ’em. Five card stud.
She had this wicker basket that she collected pennies in. Thousands of pennies. She’d bust this out and dump it on these brown, folding TV trays. Some of the pennies would fall on to the floor but we’d ignore them.
Grandma would start herself off with some tiny fraction of the total loot. She’d split the remainder up between my brothers and I. And then we’d play. For hours.
And grandma? She’d slowly win her pennies back.
It was unbelievable. She was fierce. A warrior behind the cards. Like some mutation of little red riding hood, a Shark dressed like a grandma.
I remember, at one point, being very young, and thinking “Isn’t she supposed to let us win.”
The word ruthless doesn’t quite describe it. Because she was loving. But unmerciful. Slowly, the size of the piles of pennies would shift.
“Ante up!” She’d yell. To call it a cackle might sound unkind. But it really was a cackle. “Ante up! Ante up!”
Somehow, it was a good time, though. Perhaps this was because we always ended up with the pennies anyway.
Her ability and interest at cards was this gateway to the realization: she was not like everybody else’s grandma. She was, in fact, this paradox.
On the one hand, she divinely probabalities effortlessly. Not only cards, but also Yatzee. Often times she can even explain why a certain decision makes more sense. She didn’t just memorize a bunch of patterns and strategies. She actually could explain the math beneath them.
Yet, at the same time, I remember her asking me to show her how to use a calculator. She was notoriously absent-minded, bordering on the clueless. Some well-meaning neighbors once followed her driving home. She was absurdly lost, driving into a nieghborhood that she’d lived in for years.
She was incredibly loving and gentle. I remember how she’d kiss my forehead and say “Remember that grandma loves ya’ ” And at the same time, she had this hilarious, profane side. I remember her introducing me to phrases like “She’s uglier than a bucket full of …holes” From my very own grandmother. No matter how you feel about profanity, it’s hard to deny that there’s something perfect about a 70 year old giggling with a 10 year old over this phrase.
As time went on, I got glimpses of her story. She had over a dozen siblings. Her father worked in the mines, and spent nine months away from home. He’d come home each year and impregnate his wife and then return to the coal mines.
She and my grandfather got engaged right before he left for World War II. She stayed in Canada, riveting together planes or something. He returned, they immigrated to America and made a better life for themselves. (My grandfather drowned when I was little.)
Now… now my grandmother is old. And lost. I went to visit her yesterday at the nursing home. That’s a whole post in itself. But right now, I’m not ready to post about that.