Thursday, February 10, 2005

A Tribute

Today would have been my grandmother's 102nd birthday. She died on May 5, 1998. At her memorial service on August 2, 1998, I wrote about her and her influence on my life and her contribution to my development as a writer.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was almost twenty-one, I was a student at the University of Miami. I had a small apartment in a part of town called Coconut Grove, which was then a section of town that might be compared to Greenwich Village. Grammie lived in Bal Harbour, which is more like Park Avenue. When I could, I would spend weekends with Grammie at her apartment. We’d go out, maybe to a movie or to visit her sisters Marjorie and Dorothy, or to dinner at the Beach Club or the country club. She always let me drive her Mercedes — I think more for the pleasure of having someone else do the driving than for me to have fun behind the wheel. Sometimes, we’d just stay home, have dinner, and watch television; Saturday night sitcoms seemed to go along with her needlepoint.

For both of us, we were learning to live independently. For me, I was just starting out, finding my way around the real world of rent payment, grocery shopping, and getting to class from the third-floor walk-up cinder-block apartment on Virginia Street in Coconut Grove. Grammie was starting out, too. For the first time in nearly fifty years, she was living by herself; there was no cook, no maid, and no family except her two sisters who both had husbands and lives of their own. And we both had lessons to learn. For me, it was clear that I could learn by watching my grandmother deal with the ups and downs of starting a new life. For example, she was learning how to cook. There were successes, and there were some spectacular failures... like the time she tried to make cookies.

I don’t know where she got the recipe… perhaps out of a cookbook, perhaps a magazine. Wherever it came from, it didn’t turn out the way they were meant to, and what started out to be chocolate granola bars ended up being more like a concoction from a particle board manufacturer. She was woefully disappointed, and I tried manfully to eat them, but we both knew it was a lost cause, and she teased herself mercilessly about them. From then on, whenever she cooked for me, she made it clear that homemade cookies would not be the dessert. Ice cream and Pepperidge Farm were it from then on.

Those years in Miami were good times. She saw every play I was in at the University, sometimes not really caring for the play themselves but always supporting “her grandson, the actor.” I would return the favor for her, going with her to church sometimes, or going with her when she visited friends. And I really got to know her—not just as my grandmother, but as a person. I found out what was important to her, and she learned about what was important to me. I know that there were times when she may not have understood me, but I never doubted that she loved me, cared about my happiness, and shared both the joys and the sorrows that come with every life. And I knew when she was hurting how I could be there and comfort her as well.

About ten years ago she and I came to this little chapel one Sunday morning. The service ended as it always has, and I hope always will, with the hymn, “I Feel the Winds of God To-day.” I listened to her clear voice singing out. And then we sang the second verse:
It is the Wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise The Purer, Brighter Years.
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
Lord let me feel thy freshening breeze, And I’ll put back to sea.
I was struck with that phrase, “The Purer, Brighter Years,” and I thought, like the playwright that I am, what a wonderful title for a play that would make. Within a month the first draft of the play was written. It told the story of a woman, who, after years of living in a “retirement” community, decides to spend her last years in the summer home she and her late husband had built on the shore of Lake Michigan, and had been the beloved summer home of her children and many grandchildren. Her family is aghast. What could she be thinking of—how will she get through the harsh winters all alone? And she tells them that living here, hardship and all, where she spent some of the best years of her life, will be a worthy and fitting end to her life…she is seeking the purer, brighter years.

I thought a lot about Grammie as I wrote the play. I think I got her spirit in it, if not the reality—after all, I don’t think she’d have traded Hilton Head for here no matter what. But I know that she faced life—all of it; the struggles and the joys, with a grace and a dignity that few of us can match, and she did find those purer, brighter years.

Grammie, I’ve come here to see you safely ensconced in a place where I know you are among friends and beauty no matter what time of year it is, and forever at the address that I sent so many letters to as a child…Number 9. Thank you, Grammie, for your love and for sharing it with us. Thank you, Grammie, for your steadfast courage and faith and being an example to us. Thank you, Grammie, for giving us this place that has been and will always be a part of our lives, and thank you, Grammie, for being the bond that makes us all one family. Oh, and Grammie—thanks for the cookies.


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