by Paul Schroeder
Just before my grandmother on my mother’s side died at the age of 95, I whispered a kiss in her ear and thanked her for her wisdom.
One odd piece of advice, that she had taught me when I was a child, I had carried close to my inner ear, all of my life.
It had been an Independence Day warning, borne of a distant Russian wisdom, one that she had whispered to me four decades ago, when I was nine or ten years old, impressionable and the apple of her eye.
The imprecation that I got from her, the warning whispered in my small rapt ear when I was nine or ten years old had been an odd warning that ruled and guided my life, and through angst, had come to define a larger part of what I called my soul.
Her ‘Russian optimism’ for the world, was childhood overwhelming for me.
For her, life was always a cup of optimism, half filled ….. but, with something, that could likely kill you.
Now, she at ninety-five was far from that woman who in giving advice could be ironic and poetical.
She had used lipstick as a rouge to color her cheeks and then decided that her whole face was of a pallor that also needed color, rubbed lipstick all over her face.
She was quite a shock when I got onto the seventh floor of the retirement home and turned the corner and saw her sitting in a wheelchair, as though apparently waiting for me.
She still had her sense of humor.
She earnestly asked with a childlike innocence if I could bring her some new makeup and some big diamond jewelry for her to wear to dress herself up, when I visited her next?
Cautiously, I had asked her, skeptically dubious ;”What type of diamond jewelry?” She had said;
“Expensive, fancy jewelry.”
She labored under the delusion that she was in a hotel in Miami, one that slouched in basic standards;
“The meals at this hotel are terrible, but what is a person to do?”
She did not ever surmise herself to be in a nursing home near the beach in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
A person’s senior mind can lend a type of psychic anesthesia that acts in many ways to protect it from uncompromising and painful truths. .
Now I was an odd adult.
I wanted her to know that I loved her, how her whisper had returned years later as my gratitude.
I had loved to cherish ideas; a rare few philosophers had touched my early soul .
Dr. Seuss had barely competed with grandma.
But, he wrote : “Be who you are and say what you think, because those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind, don’t matter!”
But grandma didn’t recall her similar advice or the small pleasures and agonies of our past.
My other odd philosopher was sitting here in her wheelchair, armed and propped with a pillow/ alarm that would audibly alert nurses in the retirement home if she pitched forward and left her chair’s upright fixed position.
She was different the next time I saw her, the way she used to be ;
” Hello, Paul; sharp as a matzoh and twice as crummy!”
“How come you don’t call your grandma more often? Humph!!”
“Humph;You going to wait until I’m in the cemetery and THEN you’ll visit me?”
“I’m sorry, that you’ll be sorry, but THEN it’ll be too late!”
This was the same verbatim greeting that I had gotten from her over the years over the telephone . I presumed that I was calloused to it all.
It always deeply riddled me with guilt but I never let her know, but instead I saw it rather as a good sign that she was still feeling feisty.
When she successfully aimed ring-toss-Velcro-guilt in my direction, I rationalized, she must be feeling much better.
I quickly tried to change the subject; ” Grandma I remember that boardwalk we can see here in Brighton Beach from a time when you were fifty years old and I was about nine years old and I still remember the good advice that you gave me, back then.”
“What advice did I give you?”
I told her.
It had stayed with me for many years as a token of her wisdom.
“You brought me to you on a bench on that boardwalk, in Coney Island, on a hot 4th of July afternoon, when the whole family was there suddenly hugging and kissing each other,
happy for once, to be all together and happy seeing the fireworks, and then you whispered it in my ear:
“Don’t get too close to people; you’ll catch their dreams,” You told me.
“What?”, she said, so I told her again;
“Don’t get too close to people; you’ll catch their dreams.”
“OH!”, she said,”I am VERY sorry, if I ever told you that!.”
“I AM very sorry.”
I reminded her, however, what an impact she’d had on me then.
“That whisper, as a recommended life philosophy, was both poetry and true and that, your advice, really stayed deeply with me.”
Taken to heart, it had allowed me to remain aloof and separate from everyone, as a type of self protection, to preserve my OWN dream.
She looked at me as though I were some stranger in a dream.
I said it, again;
“Don’t get too close to people, you’ll catch their dreams.”
She was thoughtful and then looked worried.
She looked into my eyes.
“I never told you THAT.” …
“You shouldn’t get too close, because…”
“Germs”, she said.
” I said that you’ll catch their GERMS.”
“I told you and your sister MANY times;
“Don’t get too close to people, ’cause you’ll catch their GERMS.” she said, again.
“And YOU’RE supposed to be the smart one?!”
“Oh,” she groaned in pain.
“Take me over to the dining room; it’s still too early for the lunch, but I want to get there anyway, early.”
That wrong belief had overshadowed every relationship in my life with an ambivalence and a craving to just be left alone.
If one was alone, one was safe from what people could do to you, I had always reasoned.
But, I had been running away from my own shadow.
Two marriages and a dozen influenza later, I had realized her truth, too late.