It’s been eleven years since my mother-in-law passed away, and perhaps it’s time to tell a bit of her story.
Geraldine Virginia was born on May 13, 1918. She’d have been 100 this year, had she lived. And she might have.
Although, as some of you already know, my birth family is generally long-lived, Mr. She’s family, not so much. We do share a common characteristic, in that most of us don’t go gently into that good night, nor do we die peacefully in our beds, if we shuffle off peacefully at all. There are exceptions. Like Uncle Maurice, who enjoyed his last measure of the full English breakfast, stood up, said, “that was lovely,” and dropped dead. Or Auntie Joan, who, having healed a decades-long breach with her son and flown to see him in California, went for a swim in the hotel pool, saw my cousin for the first time in years, climbed up the ladder and out of the pool, said “Hello darling,” and fell over dead (I guess her work was done). But, they’re the exception, rather than the rule, bless them.
Grandma’s sad fate (late in her life, everyone called my mother-in-law “grandma,” because that’s who she was), was to recover from a hospital-acquired infection in a nursing home, one of whose employees mixed up her medications with those of the comatose patient in the next bed, and who gave Grandma a cocktail of drugs which sent her into a tailspin from which she never recovered. She died about three weeks later, on September 17, 2007. She was 89.
Grandma was born into a working-class family, to first-generation Americans whose parents had emigrated from Poland some twenty or thirty years earlier. Her own parents married young, and shortly after baby Geraldine was born, something must have gone a bit sideways, because her mother fled the family nest, went to stay with relatives in Knox, PA, and poor Victor, a traveling salesman at the time, was reduced to sending beautifully-written and regular letters and messages of love to his “darling Stella” and his “little Dzeraldinka.” Eventually, family harmony was restored, and the three of them moved together back to Pittsburgh, into a nice house with a pretty garden where Victor installed a fishpond and bird feeders, and instilled a love for nature and animals in his little girl that would last all her life.
“Dzeraldinka” being rather a mouthful, it wasn’t long before the little girl acquired her childhood nickname of “Tutzie” or “Toots,” and not long again before her sister, known forever as “Babe,” (if your given names were “Edna Gladys,” wouldn’t you prefer that, too?) joined the clan.
They must have given Victor and Stella a run for their money as the little girls grew up into young and attractive women. Bright, energetic, sociable, and fun-loving, they made childhood friends who lasted a lifetime, and they knit themselves seamlessly into a large and eccentric extended family whose patriotism, faith, and work ethic formed Toots’s early character, and which she passed on to her own children when the time came.
And, for Toots, that time came pretty quickly.
Shortly after graduating from high school she met a “tall and handsome” man, fell in love with him, and married him. Like her, he was ferociously bright and gregarious. Like her, he was the child of Polish immigrants, although in his case his immediate family was quite large, and he was born somewhere in the midst of six boisterous siblings. Like his brothers, he was a steelworker, a welder at Pittsburgh’s Jones and Laughlin steel plant. The best welder they’d ever seen, it was said.
He was also, in the words of his older son, “a devout alcoholic.” But such a good welder that when an important and dangerous job needed to be done, they’d wait until he returned from his most recent bender, so that it would be done once, and be done right.
When he wasn’t indulging too heavily in his favorite pastime, Grandpa was charming and a good father to his two young sons. But his intermittent binges were hard on his little family, and particularly so on his young wife. Grandpa wasn’t a pleasant or a quiet drunk, and Grandma’s married life was by no means the proverbial bed of roses. As the boys grew into young men, graduated from high school and moved into their own lives, Grandpa, whose physical and mental health was deteriorating, became more abusive, and Grandma’s life became more difficult.
Eventually, at the age of 45, she’d had enough. She moved in with her parents for a time, went back to school, trained as an operating room technician, and launched herself back into the world with a job at Mercy Hospital. She did beautifully. When she retired, a little over twenty years later, she was the lead OR Tech, and much in demand as an assistant among the doctors, especially the eye surgeons, for her intelligence, her competence and her level-headedness, in no matter what sort of crisis.
Through it all, she enjoyed her friendships and she watched her family thrive. Her sons did well. She became a “grandma,” in fact, to six lovely grandchildren, five boys and a girl. And she enjoyed mostly good health, almost to the very end, when she was laid low by heart problems and the eventual infection.
My own relationship with Grandma came about due to my role as her elder son’s second wife. She managed that sticky wicket with her usual aplomb, and was, I think, the only person who never put a foot wrong, and who maintained civil relations with all the parties long before the rest of us got the difficult business sorted.
Not that she was of a shy and retiring disposition, or backward about coming forward. Not at all. You didn’t have to know Grandma for very long before she’d tell you exactly what she thought about anything or anyone. But she did it in such a pleasant and forthright way, and in a way that invited conversation rather than confrontation, that no-one ever seemed to mind. She loved everyone.
With one notable exception: She absolutely loathed the forty-second President of the United States. And his wife. She loathed them. I’m so sorry she didn’t live to be 98, because if she had, Grandma would have counted the act of voting against Hillary Clinton for President among her greatest achievements. Ever. (I’ll always be grateful to Bill, though, for saving Grandma’s life, during a brief medical crisis just before she turned eighty).
I think Grandma and I only had one long-standing disagreement, in all the years we knew each other, and that was over what some wag with an ear for a finely-tuned phrase termed, in Grandma’s obituary, her “inexplicable admiration for Elvis Presley.” She adored him. For all the obvious reasons, I suppose. Whatever they were (kidding, a bit). But she loved him, and, for her 80th birthday bash (a truly epic event) we celebrated with a (very cheesy) impersonator. And we played Elvis for her at the funeral home and sang the hymn that’s closely associated with him at the service.
Grandma’s last couple of weeks were rough. We spent a lot of time in her hospital room, and I don’t think she always knew we were there. But I took my iPod, and a couple of small speakers, and played her beloved Elvis to her for hours on end. I know she liked that.
The day before she died, I stood at her bedside with my hand on her arm, and tears running down my face, as I played her favorite song. She was very frail and very small. But she was there. At exactly the right moment in the song, she reached over, “took my hand,” squeezed it and smiled. And I knew what she wanted. She wanted to tell us it was OK. And she wanted us to let her go.
So we did.
Here’s the song that, for the rest of my life, will evoke that moment for me, and which perfectly expresses how I’ll always feel about this wonderful lady:
God Bless, Toots. You can rest in peace.
Hillary Clinton will never be President of the United States.
The “Elvis” reference in her obituary caught the attention of a features writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune review who wrote this lovely story, giving Grandma’s son the opportunity to tell the story of how his mother hocked her wedding ring to pay the application fees for engineering school at Carnegie Tech, and how, not too long before her last illness, she and her best friend broke into her own apartment to spare the janitor the trouble of having to come and let her in.