My grandma Anne died last weekend. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, she was 92 after all, but then again it was a total surprise. Every time that I’ve seen Gram over the last few years, I always knew there was a possibility that I would never see her again. Then again, I always thought that she may well live to 146 and outlast us all. Gram was like that.
Gram, like all of my grandparents, was born and raised in Chicago. She spent her entire life on the South Side. Her father, Joseph, known to all as JVL, moved from Sicily to Chicago when he was young. JVL was the immigrant American dream, and became fabulously rich, literally a millionaire at a time when that meant something. He had a mansion on the South Side, a large property in Michigan, and a beach house in Florida. He also had his own train car to travel between them. Fabulously rich.
Gram likely could have married a pro baseball player or the son of an industrial robber-baron. She fell for my working-class Grandpa instead, which was fairly key in my eventual birth. Grandpa, wisely, went to work for JVL. In 1950, Gram and Grandpa bought a house in the Beverly neighborhood of the South Side. They sold some stocks and paid with cash. Children of the depression weren’t too keen on mortgages.
JVL had five daughters and one son. Predictably, the son was the youngest of the kids. Sicilian to the bone, when JVL died, he left the business and pretty much all of the money to the son. The son is still fabulously rich, upgraded the train car for a plane, and lives down in Texas. This is where I got my not-so-false sense of entitlement.
Grandpa died young, well before I was born. He died nearly forty years ago, and Gram never re-married, never even dated. She decided that that part of her life was over. To this day, her phone number in the Chicago phone book is listed under his name.
Gram took on the role of matriarch. She had,four grandchildren at the time of her husband’s death. This would ultimately balloon to 12. Gram became the center of a large family. Throughout the 80s, the family would meet for a week each summer at JVL’s old Michigan place. Everyone would come - Gram, her four kids, all the grandkids, all the spouses, plus grandparents and relatives from other branches of the family. Gram was the unifying force behind it all. Gram had two primary jobs at Michigan - she looked after the various babies, and she made the salad before dinner every night. Nobody was better with the us kids, and the Waldorf Astoria doesn’t serve a better salad.
Things changed a bit in 1990. The family lost Michigan, thanks to a shady Texas land deal. Gram was 72, had given up driving a couple years before due to her horrific eyesight, and gave up flying as well. She began, or maybe ramped up, her long process of checking out. I began feeling that each time I saw her could be the last, a feeling that proved to last 20 years. It’s quite possible that after 1990, Gram never left Chicago or its suburbs ever again. With Michigan gone, Gram’s house on the South Side, the one that she moved into in 1950, became even more of the family’s home base.
Though Gram became even more of a homebody in the 90s, she was still sharp as a tack. When in town with my family, we’d stay at her house. I’d stay up with her watching Johnny Carson and talking to her about girls, sports, and travel, generally the same stuff I talk about now.
In 1999, I went to Europe. It changed my life in one or two ways. I flew Air France from Paris CDG to Chicago ORD when I returned to America. My scheduled connecting flight back to Kansas was on American, ORD-MCI. American didn’t run the flight, they were too chicken to fly in the storm. I had a credit card and nine American dollars. As I did not have enough money to take the Tri-State bus to the South Side ($14), I had to spend $90 on the credit card renting a car. I drove, of course, to Gram’s house.
I talked to Gram for a couple of hours. She told me how I should do my best, even if I’m just sweeping up after the party. The next day, I had a Southwest flight to Kansas City. As I was leaving, Gram gave me a $50 bill. Gram and my buddy Daniel are pretty much the only people in history that carry around $50 bills. I had a 2 pm flight. My mom called me at 1, because in my jetlagged state I had thought that my flight was at 3. Mom told me to leave now, my flight was leaving soon. I told Gram that I had to go. Gram asked, “Oh, is that the airline calling?”
It wasn’t. Clearly. Still, I want to live in a world were the airline calls you.
Later, I heard wind that Gram had called my mom about the money she gave me. She was worried that she had given me a $5 dollar bill, and just wanted to make sure that I had gotten enough money to deal with the airport.
In 2002, I moved to Chicago. Gram had definitely started to lose it by this point. I went to her house to visit her (and do laundry) every couple of weeks for the first two years I was in Chicago. She could still carry on a conversation, but she gradually began repeating herself. She would ask a question, then ask the same question again two minutes later. It was difficult to witness. She was quite cognitively aware of her growing senility, which made it even harder on her. She knew that she didn’t know.
When I was in my early days in Korea, Gram got sick. Everybody thought that it was the end. Gram may be under five feet and no more than 89 pounds, but she was still tough as nails. She came out of whatever it was. She stopped dying her hair. She was happier. She no longer knew that she didn’t know. The dementia had taken over. When I visited her when I was home from Korea, she no longer asked the same question over and over. She didn’t have to. She probably thought it was 1956.
Gram gave me so much. Of the 12 grandkids, I always felt like I was the favorite. The other eleven all felt the same way about themselves. When I was a little kid, my family’s two hour drives from Rockford to Chicago to see her molded me into a map nerd. She gave me all of her cool 60’s era maps of Chicago. Michigan and Indiana Beach trips were the best trips of my young childhood, and those trips all began or ended at Gram’s place on the South Side. Gram’s place was THE place for holidays, always made all the better by playing a game called “Awards” with my brother and cousins in Gram’s basement bar. Early 90s trips to Indiana Beach were the best of my adolescence, and those all started and ended at Gram’s. Gram’s house was the destination of my first major road trip, a Kansas to Chicago run with my buddy Daniel when we were 17. Gram’s house was the first place I went after my college study abroad in Europe, the best trip of my life. In my early days in Chicago, when I had few friends and zero money, holidays at Gram’s meant the world to me. I went to Gram’s the night before I moved to Korea. I went to see her a week after I came home from Korea, in December of 2008. I made what proved to be my last trip there, in August 2009, a day before coming back to Korea. It’s been tearing me up, but I can’t go back there for her funeral. The timing and logistics and minutia of trans-Pacific flights on short notice has more to do with it than the hefty cost of the ticket. Then again, it’s not Gram’s house anymore. It’s just another house on the South Side.
Gram influenced me in so many ways. And here we go with sports again, because I’m better at talking about sports than I am at concepts like love and death and home and the human heart. I follow Notre Dame, the Chicago Bears, and the Chicago Cubs because of Gram and her branch of the family. Apropos of this week, I’d like to think I had a small influence on her too. I’m sure I went to a KU game or two in the early 80s, but the first Kansas basketball game that I have a vivid memory of watching on TV was, not surprisingly, at Gram’s house. It was the Duke game in the 1986 Final Four. A loaded KU team lost, and I instantly started hating Duke. Kansas basketball had been the most important sport in my life ever since. Gram had a Jayhawk statuette in her house after that, and I’d like to think that she started following Kansas hoops, at least a little, because of my brother and me. So yes, the Hawks are playing for Gram now. Sherron Collins is from Chicago too. He’d understand.