My grandma lived within the boundaries of her comfort zone on a diet of coffee, donuts, goulash, and strawberry frosted mini-wheats. She loved politics, tabloid magazines, those tacky novelty toys that light up, dance, and sing songs, card games, scratch-off lottery tickets, Frank Sinatra, the Detroit Tigers, and of course, the MSU Spartans. Her favorite restaurant was Big Boy and the perfect birthday dinner for her was to have KFC take-out at the house with the family. She was never short on something to say, and within two minutes of meeting her, you’d know the names and breeds of her dogs and would be holding pictures of them in your hand. After you heard about her dogs, you’d hear about my brother and I and know what a proud grandmother she was.
She was a daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, gambler, dog lover, worrier, sports fan, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and great-grandmother. But to me, above all, she was just grandma.
The phrase, “Grandma’s the name, spoilings the game,” held true for her. My grandma loved my brother and me unconditionally. We could have been derelict delinquents and she still would have bragged about how great we were to her friends and neighbors. She wasn’t that stereotypical grandma that could be found knitting or baking cookies, but her cabinets were well stocked with cookies and donuts, and half her wardrobe was #1 grandma sweatshirts.
She loved the holidays and every Easter she gave us baskets complete with a stuffed animal bunny every year until we were thirty years old. The older we got, the smaller the stuffed animal, but she still gave us one. At Christmas, sometimes she seemed more excited than my brother and I. Not for getting gifts, but excited for the family to be together and for us to open the presents from her.
I loved all of my grandparents but for some reason, grandma and I always had a special relationship. Grandma was my buddy. I think it started when my older brother became more active with extracurricular activities in high school. And as he got more involved with school, so did my parents. Sometimes I really didn’t like being the tag-a-long so spending the night or weekend at grandma’s house sounded a lot more exciting.
I was probably in 5th or 6th grade when I started spending this one-on-one time with grandma. We’d go for walks, porch sit, play cards, watch TV, play the piano, and sit at the table and just talk. I’d ask questions and listen intently as she told stories from her past. Through these visits we gave each other what we needed. She lived alone and needed someone to listen to her, and with my older brother in the spotlight just starting high school, I needed attention. And she did just that.
Grandma did what grandma’s do best, she spoiled me. Nothing major, but a free candy bar and a pizza dinner go a long way for a 10 year old boy. But other than being spoiled, grandma’s house was a place I could exert my independence. At home I was the youngest. But when I was at grandmas by myself, I was top dog.
Besides cutting the grass and trimming the bushes, I would try to fix things that needed fixing before my dad came over. Just to see if I could. To see if I really learned the things I’ve seen my dad do a thousand times at our house. And most often I could, and by myself too. She never protested either. “You want a hammer, a screwdriver, and an axe for what? Just be careful.”
As I got older, my ambitions got bigger and the projects I tried to tackle were more difficult.
I remember when I went through a cooking phase, I went to grandma’s house and had her invite her old-lady-card-game-buddies over for dinner and I cooked for them. I made cubed chicken cooked in a sauce made with a cream of something soup, served over white rice with a side of canned green beans. They loved it! But I could have made burnt grilled cheese and olive loaf sandwiches and she would have raved about them. “Oh Matthew, you are so talented you could be a chef!”
Or the time I decided to “landscape” her back yard. It wasn’t anything major, but I planted mums and some annuals and spread some mulch around to make the backyard look a bit nicer. While I worked in the backyard, she’d sit on the front porch and chat with her friends, and then coax me back inside for food.
As I got older and more involved with friends and activities in high school, I still tried to make an effort to make social visits to grandma’s house. Sometimes I would show up unannounced and rearrange her furniture just to switch things up for her. Again, she’d never protest. “Okay, just be careful,” she’d say followed by, “I love it!”
Or sometimes if I was out with a friend we’d stop in at grandmas for a short visit. “Hey, my grandma lives just down the street, want to stop in and say hi?” My friends seemed to enjoy her company just as much as she enjoyed the visit too.
She was a sweet, feisty lady with “colorful” expressions. She would swear in Polish (even though she wasn’t Polish, my grandpa was) and then say in English what she just said in Polish. “That means sh*t,” she’d say and then giggle.
When she met Aya for the first time, she said, “Oh that Matthew, he’s full of sh*t.” Then she’d wink at me with a smile and say, “He’s my little sh*t @ss.”
Sh*t @ss became her term of endearment for me, Aya, and her dog. My parents weren’t bonkers on her using this term openly in public, but I loved it. About ten years ago I stopped signing my name on her cards and started signing, “From your little sh*t @sses.” As she would say, “Our family is a little nutty.”
Not only was she a little nutty, but stubborn and sometimes a handful. She could drive us a little crazy at times with her repetitive stories and how she treated her dogs like people, but she always told us how much she appreciated what we did for her. After every family dinner or event she would say, “Honest to God, I have the best family…” I knew she meant it to.
This past Mother’s Day, shortly after grandma turned 92, she said the same thing, but it had a different tone to it. A sense of finality, a sense that she knew this would be her last Mother’s Day. Something I had avoided thinking much about was suddenly so evident. We had all been blessed with her having a long healthy happy life, but now she was at the end of the road.
The past few months had been very difficult for grandma as her health declined. A major surgery followed by weeks of physical therapy had finally taken it’s toll. We all knew the time to say good bye was fast approaching.
Two and half weeks later, grandma passed away peacefully with family by her side. I feel absolutely blessed to have had her be such a big part of my life for so long, but saying good bye is never easy no matter what the circumstances are.
I do believe she is in a better place and is reunited with my grandpa and all her other friends and family. I know that she will now look down on me from above and give me comfort.
I love you grandma, and this little sh*t @ss will really miss you.