My grandmother passed away nineteen years ago yesterday. Her payoff for decades of good nutrition, moderate social drinking, regular exercise, and no smoking was death from pancreatic cancer at 62, which frankly leaves me feeling pretty vindicated about my many horrible lifestyle choices.
Grandma was a first-generation Italian-American and the first woman in our family to earn a college degree. After teaching special ed for years and raising four children as a single mother, she completed grad school and started a second career as a social worker. The summer after I finished kindergarten, she retired, sold her house on Long Island, and moved to Ridgefield, Oregon, where she started a llama farm. Bingo and porch-sitting just weren’t her style.
Somewhere my mom has a VHS cassette containing the home video of her retirement party. Grandma is in tears for much of it, laughing herself to the point of hysteria while coworkers and friends lovingly roast her. At one point during the party, one of her colleagues—I believe the superintendent of the school district—delivers a line that’s indelibly burned into my brain: “I’ll never forget the day I first met, or rather, encountered, for no one simply meets Vita Bollman.”
Upon being introduced, he recalls, my grandmother asked whether he would mind if she cursed in front of him.
“In anger?” he asked.
“No,” she explained. “I just like to curse.”
Grandma was an aficionado of all things inappropriate, as evinced by the contents of her library. An incomplete list includes The Naughty Victorian Handbook: The Rediscovered Art of Erotic Hand Manipulation, The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book, and a dictionary-sized tome titled simply The Limerick.
My mother says I have her
lacerating cackle laugh.
Before she died, I visited her every other weekend. It was our bedtime ritual for her to leave a new book under my pillow, which I was forbidden to peek at until she tucked me in. I was an avid reader, and most nights I would fall asleep with a book in my hands, which she would tiptoe in and recover after I had nodded off. In the morning she’d let me put on makeup in her vanity mirror. I still have one of her fire-engine red Coty lipsticks in its gold tube. She’d let me wear her jewelry, too, which made me feel terribly sophisticated.
Some nights we’d rent videos and she’d roll out the TV she kept on a wheeled stand in her closet. Our favorite movie was Ruthless People, a comedy about Sam Stone (Danny DeVito), an unscrupulous millionaire who plots to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler) for her inheritance. Instead, Barbara is abducted by a down-on-his-luck electronics salesman and his fashion designer wife who ransom her for $500K, which Sam refuses to pay. Incensed by his betrayal, Barbara teams up with her kidnappers to extort even more money out of her husband, and the movie ends happily for everyone but Sam.
I’m summarizing the plot to give you a sense of context for Grandma’s favorite scene: the reunion of Sam and Barbara, which occurred in the last two minutes of the movie. She would make me get up to rewind it six, seven, eight times, and she would explode with fresh laughter at each replay until the tears were rolling.