The Gloria Dei

We writers often go silent at just the precise moment when there is so very much to say. That has been this past week for me. From the moment I heard from my aunt who sat vigil at her hospital bed. Grandma Gloria is gone from this world.

When such a powerful light of goodness in the world goes out it hits hard and at depth you knew was coming but could not possibly prepare.

I am reminded of Wrinkle in Time when the three Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit take the children to visit the Happy Medium who shows them the good and the light in the world and the darkness that overshadows. There’s a discussion of how to combat the darkness and the history of Earth’s inhabitants overcoming it through arts and sciences and philosophy–through thinking and creating. Jesus. Buddha. Shakespeare. My grandmother Gloria. All of them fighting the darkness.And she is all of those characters and her own character too.

She fought the darkness with love of the arts and the love of children–as simple and as complex as that. After her second son died in 1967, she had no more use for religions or gods and the comfort they could not bring her. She had no use for societal expectations that she or anyone else she loved be any particular way. She kept her distance from racists and homophobes even when it required getting rid of old friends to do it. She embraced those who others found not embraceable.

For my aunts and uncles and I, she embraced our friends and loved ones as her own children and made all feel welcomed in her house on Gunn Avenue in Whittier.

I can not get over her being gone. How could I? How could we, her family prepare? She died less than two months after her 98th birthday–she’d had many brushes with death in the last decade where we thought we might lose her–but now finally she’s gone. I wander still shell-shocked at the inevitability. I tear up in the car thinking of her singing old songs or happy birthdays at 6 am on mine. That at once sweet angelic voice and the harsh sarcasm of a bronx birth and upbringing all rolled into one.

She was a grandmother like no other and her fierce duty and loyalty deserved or not to children and grandchildren meant all other grandparents paled in comparison. If she didn’t like you, it was your own damn fault. She loved everyone but she didn’t suffer fools and she didn’t appreciate people who thought they were better than they were and she always saw right through that. Hence her disdain for pseudo-intellecuals and self-proclaimed know it alls.

But she had a soft huge heart for underdogs and the mistreated and those of us who wander without complete labels. I am the first child born (1969) after the death of her son. The first grandchild with nine years between me and the next one and a bastard at that. I fit not with her children nor my cousins but a spot she carved out for me all my own. A spot of special; she made sure I never felt less than even when others sought to make me feel so.

She was a woman of very few faults–my mother –her first daughter in law–would say it was her ambivalence towards pets. The poor woman suffered through the pets of six children and at least five grandchildren and even in retirement living with first one daughter and then the next, she never quite caught respite from dogs

Her other fault? Overwhelming sacrifice for the sake of her children and grandchildren. In her youth she’d sung on the radio and sketched commercial fashion drawings. But the depression meant she dropped out of high school to go to work retail –which is the kind of work she did most of her life–without fulfilling her artistic dreams. She lived those out through her kids and grandkids –most of whom sing or play instruments, draw, paint, write, act. All the things she sacrificed for love of family.

I think of the places she held dear as well. The theatre. The concert hall. The ballet. The margarita happy hour at the defunct Las Portales in Uptown Whittier. The love of a California road trip up north. The love of children. The permission to say yes to things because life is short. She gave us the love of California’s beaches and staring out into the ocean for endless possibilities. Queen of the dreamers, that one.

Grandma but for the love of children–it defined her and she was able to look deep into the child and find the good that perhaps no one else saw. It’s this super power that has so many of us gut-wrenched now.

I have enjoyed the position of being one of Gloria’s best friends as well as her granddaughter. We were each other’s plus one for more than two decades and confidantes.

I guess what it comes down to is this: it doesn’t just feel like grandma gloria died–it feels like the concept of unconditional love just died. I was lucky enough to have that for 50 years. It will take at least that long to recover.

I have a feeling her soul will not be at complete rest—it will instead be coaxing the stars to shine and surrounding the ether with as much love as it can bear.

My love to you always my dear, and thank you.


Aunt Dorothy (from New York) is Gone

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited New York. Since Uncle Frank and Uncle Don picked us up at La Guardia stopping at a favorite place on the way home to eat before whisking up weary Californians to Pelham Manor and aunt Dorothy with the perfectly manicured and finicky everything was there to greet us.

This one will hit me hard. In her lucid moments I’m betting it’s hitting my grandmother the hardest. My grandmother is 96–out living her mother and father and many others by decades. And now her sister Dorothy at the age of 92 is gone too. R.I.P. My grandmother IS the last of her family.

I always counted myself luckiest among my cousins on my grandmother’s side (the Scottish Grant side). I was the oldest grand kid and I lived at my grandmother’s house in the 80s. So I got to hang with the old New Yorkers in their prime. I’d also lived back East when I was a kid and we’d spent a Thanksgiving with Dorothy’s family. I still remember something like a nine course meal or something like that and my 2nd cousin Gloria taking me on a long walk in the hopes that the exercise would make us just a tiny bit hungry again.

Every summer at my grandmother’s in Whittier, aunt Dorothy (from New York) would come out and bring a New York grandchild for a visit when that child turned 7.  And when she ran out of grandkids turning 7 she just came alone.  She–and her daughter Gloria–were the ones that always came out and so they were the ones the California side knew best. My grandmother had been the only one who moved out of New York and back in the day when it was far too expensive to visit and phone calls could only be so long before they were expensive too, she missed home. So she named her two daughters after her sisters, Peggy and Dorothy. Dorothy in turn named her daughter Gloria. Which is why we always referred to Dorothy as (from New York)–so as not to confuse her with our Dorothy here.

My grandmother–sarcastic in the way only people from the Bronx can be, was also very reserved and preferred to be gracious and quiet and not make waves if she didn’t have to.  Even if she was mad it came in mutters under her breath first. Not so her sister Dorothy. Dorothy sent back the dinner if something wasn’t right. Dorothy told you when you weren’t living quite right. Maybe they thought the same things but Dorothy was the one to let you know.

I love my grandmother to the ends of the earth but it was Dorothy that intrigued me. She just knew things. She had country club glamour, but had an absolute and brutal honesty at the same time.

My favorite memory of her however had nothing to do with her annual trips to California. My grandmother and I had flown to New York because aunt Muriel on Long Island wasn’t doing too well and word had it the cancer had spread. So I went with Uncle Frank to drop grandma with Muriel for a couple of days. He dropped me at the office with Dorothy and the two of us hung out alone for the first time ever. The moment we were alone our relationship changed. We talked about everything under the sun (and also about everyone under the sun). In spanish I’d say we were chismosa hounds that day–getting each other’s take on every family issue and every family member. Dorothy weighing in on everything. Dorothy giving answers to some things I’d always wanted to ask and some I didn’t even know enough to ask. I always attribute my obstinance and argumentative style to the Garcia side of my family, but Dorothy proved me wrong. It’s on both sides.

She spoke with me at a time of transition. When I was feeling less than sure of myself and my next move. I was divorcing my first husband and accepting a teaching job in Japan to get out of coping with San Francisco rents. I’d always wanted to go and it seemed the perfect time to escape. She gave me her blessing. Told me I needed to embrace my life and who I was and just go do what I wanted to. I didn’t have children yet. I wanted to do things. What was I waiting for?

We were talked out by the end of the day.  The next day I took off to Manhattan by myself tourist style, went to the Met and bought shoes Sex in the City style. And I committed myself to not looking back. I never really thanked her properly for all that. She came to San Francisco to visit me with my grandmother when I returned from Japan.  And I’d seen her off and on in southern California after that.

It’s nearly impossible for us (the California family) to separate Dorothy out from grandma and their other sister Peggy who died in the 1980s from cancer. The Grant Girls were a trio of loveliness–and the absolute life of any party.  I love to look at old polaroids of them from the 1960s and 70s. Backyard parties at my grandma’s. Peggy cracking jokes and cracking wise. Dorothy holding court. My grandmother fussing too much. All of them laughing. All of them singing. They really belonged together as a trio.

In these last years, the annual visits just couldn’t happen anymore. The two sisters could barely understand each other on the phone due to hearing loss and stroke. Dorothy had always made New York so close for us. It was because of her that we knew who everyone was back east and who they married and what they were doing these days. Without her we just never would have established a foothold in the New York my grandmother left for sixty years ago. Dorothy made it present for us.

She was hospitable and gracious and kind to us and made us feel –and especially made my grandmother feel–like New York wasn’t that far away at all.

I will miss her deeply.