Monday, April 10, 2006

Goodbye, Grandma

My dear grandmother, Christine Blythe, died of lung cancer on Friday, April 7. The loss is still too fresh for me to really wax eloquent. But my grandmother was a fascinating woman. She was tiny, compared to me, and you could see the Cherokee heritage her family tried to deny in her jet black hair and killer cheekbones.

Born in Oklahoma, my grandmother was the treasured youngest of thirteen children. When she was 17, her 21-year-old boyfriend, LT Moore, was killed while driving drunk. A month later, young Christine found she was pregnant. After my mother, Jacqueline Kay, was born, my grandmother remarried the man my mother thought of as her father. Four more children were born to her -- Jerry, Barbara, Michael, and Tommy. Five years after Tommy was born, she divorced, remarried, and divorced again. Now living in Key West, Florida, my grandmother worked hard as a bartender, in what was mostly a gay bar. She served drinks to Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, among others.

She later said that she really enjoyed her life -- that she liked her job, and that she had many good times with her friends. In fact, she was quite the partier, smoking and drinking enough to put the current Spring Break kids to shame. Even as she suffered with lung cancer, she said she never regretted the smoking and parties. She lived her life the way she wanted.

She must've been an excellent bartender, because she chatted easily with anyone. Everyone liked her. Even in her last three weeks of life, when she was taken to an in-patient hospice, she won the hearts of all her nurses and attendants with her easy-going nature and interest in their lives. She hardly ever complained, and enjoyed nothing more than juicy gossip, baseball (especially the Atlanta Braves) and football, particularly her beloved Miami Dolphins.

Nine or so years ago, she came to live with my mother. She was suffering then from various lung ailments and osteoporosis. For the rest of her life she moved around the country with my mother, uncomplaining, making new friends, and reconnecting with Mom, her oldest daughter. This was when I got to know her best. I didn't see her much when I was a child. Grandma was closest to those who were closest -- physically closest. With her in Key West and me in Hawaii, I never got to know her. But when she came to live with Mom I finally got the opportunity to really find out who she was, and to love her. For that and many other reasons, I'm grateful to my Mother for making a home for Grandma. She made a mean martini, watched "Regis & Kelly," and could quote baseball statistics till my eyes crossed. She loved chicken 'n dumplings, and baked carrot cake so good I'd end up having dessert for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

She always carried her soft southern drawl, and wasn't afraid to make tart observations. Her bartender training gave her a sharp eye for character. I asked her what Capote was like. She shook her head: "Mean drunk." And Tennessee Williams? "A flaming faggot."

"Grandma!" I said. "That's not a nice way to put it."

"I can't kindly help it," she said, shrugging. "I had a lot of gay friends, but I never liked the ones who were, you know, flaming. And he just always wanted attention, saying 'Look at me, I'm the big writer.' Well, nuts to that."

I tried to plumb her memories about the man who had been my grandfather -- the biological father my own mother had never known. But she couldn't remember much, and she didn't seem to care that she'd forgotten. Oh sure, she'd been upset when he died, she guessed. But that was all a long time ago. She wasn't a sentimental woman. That served her well during difficult unmarried teenage years with a baby, perhaps. It also lead to some estrangement from her children. And for an unsentimental woman, she nonetheless came to regret that distance. She knew that she'd created it. It had helped her lead the life the she wanted, but it had its cost. In those last nine years together, she and my mother came to an understanding, I think. And I came to love her more than I ever thought possible. She is missed.

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