Who Moved My Groove?

Archive for May 2009

My grandmother is 90 years old.

Growing up, she was the apple of her father’s eye, the favorite niece of two childless aunts and a beautiful young woman who enjoyed attention.  Her wedding pictures look like Hollywood publicity shots. She gazes soulfully into the light, her face turned slightly upward, just enough to highlight long dark lashes, brilliant blue eyes and a soft pink Angelina Jolie pout.

In 1938, at 19 years old, she married my grandfather. A young Dorothy sailed down the aisle of the church swathed in ivory satin and carrying Calla Lilies flown to Chicago from California — in November. My grandmother was the original high maintenance bride.

She married her handsome prince and they lived happily ever after.

The End.

Except.

Grandma was born 50 years before her time. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to be an accountant. She most definitely did not want children.

That’s what she wanted. This is what she got:

Grandma spent the first 20 years of her married life as a housewife raising four sons. She wanted a daughter so badly that the fourth son slept in a pink bassinette and was blessed with a girl’s middle name.

My grandpa talked her into the first child. They had been married three years and it was high time to settle down and get on with the business of having a family. She liked working in downtown Chicago at a large bank, but gave it up to become a mother. There wasn’t much choice.

She says when she left the hospital with her first son, the nurses told her they’d see her in two years. She says she laughed out loud and thought, “Not me. There’s no way in hell I’ll be back here in two years.”

She didn’t see herself in those other women on the maternity ward, some her same age with three children already. She was different. She had bigger plans.

She wouldn’t be back in two years.

She was back in 18 months. 

“And you know what?” she always says to me about her second trip to the maternity ward. “I threw that damn diaphragm in the trash after I had your father. I was so mad at that thing. It didn’t work worth a darn.”

Two babies under two years old. Two more to come.  Birth control was Russian Roulette in the 1940s.

Life had its ups and its downs. They raised their kids. She went back to the bank after her boys told her they didn’t think she could get a job. After all, who would hire a housewife? She showed them.

When I talk to her now, I sense great frustration that there were so few choices. She wanted career and travel and excitement. She got diapers and carpools and teenage sons who didn’t have respect for their mother’s sacrifices. I think about this sometimes. I think about her story and it makes me realize that even though some of my days are difficult, I had the choice to make mothering my main focus right now. The life I’m living in 2009 is by my own design. I have the freedom to choose what I really want.

In 1976, grandma and grandpa retired to the warmth of Arizona where my grandfather had a few good years and then spent a decade suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

This is where a typical “suburban couple raises a family” story takes an interesting turn.

My grandmother continued working in a bank to help pay for very expensive nursing home care. The bills almost left her destitute, so she took a calculated risk after grandpa died.

She took the last of her pennies and at the age of 73, had a full face lift.

She invested in herself because she knew those still bright baby blues could land another husband. She was finally going to get what she really wanted all those years. A little glamour and a little excitement. Grandma is smart. Her investment paid out more than any mutual fund in the history of the planet.

Husband number two had no children, but he did have a comfortable bank account. He liked a pretty lady on his arm. She liked financial security. Two months after they wed, he died of lung cancer and left her everything.

A couple years later, she married again. This time it was a family friend, a true gentleman and gentle soul. He also had no children and a good sized savings account. He didn’t live to see their fifth wedding anniversary. She buried her third husband, shed some tears and later told me, “Life is for the living. Don’t ever forget that.”

If life is for the living, Dorothy decided to grab what was left and live it to the fullest. She traveled all over the globe. She had fantastic life experiences and no one to answer to. She likes the company of a man, someone to squire her around on cruise ships, so she found a companion four years her junior. “Maybe this one will take care of me,” she confided.

Grandma and Bob moved in together eight years ago. She won’t marry him. She has her paperwork in order and doesn’t need another husband.

Bob is a dapper fellow. He wears a tuxedo on formal dinner night on the cruise ship. I imagine they make quite the pair with Dorothy decked out in her favorite sequined saphire gown (to match her eyes) and Bob in black tie and tails. He helps her put on her shoes and pulls her up from her chair. He drives because she can’t. He takes care of her, and she takes care of him. They struck a fragile balance to compensate for failing eye sight, stiff limbs and fading memory. The two of them together almost make a whole. Not quite, but good enough. Neither one could live alone, but together they reach the bed at night intact.

But, the hourglass is slowly running out of sand.

He has signs of Alzheimer’s disease. She is having little health hiccups. Her systems are starting to wearing out.

Their struggle to push and pull one another up and into the next day is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

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