Picture stirs bittersweet reminiscences of my grandmother

I stood in my foyer with a handful of junk mail, yelling to my kids to pick their backpacks up out of the doorway when I came across a large, stiff envelope. This piece of mail had a California return address, my name and address written across the front in a handwriting that I couldn’t place, but didn’t look unfamiliar.

I ripped open the flap and pulled out a large black-and-white headshot of my late grandmother. I felt her eyes staring back at me. There were hints of my dad, especially in her eyes and her forehead, and maybe her nose, although the photograph was taken when my grandmother was in her 20s or 30s, likely when she was a young mother herself. And I saw a slight reflection of myself, because I have my dad’s forehead, his eyes and his nose.

And when I looked at the photograph, I felt like I saw some of my grandmother I never knew, partly because she lived across the country in California. But also partly because, when I did get to see my grandmother, who we called “Bubby” more often by the time I was a teenager and a young adult, her mind had already started to become ravaged by depression and dementia.

Bubby was the type of woman who, in her younger years, dressed immaculately and had a thing for hats and pieces of hair. As the daughter of Czech immigrants, she spent all her life in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, under the same roof as her parents until she came home one day and her husband, my grandfather, announced that the family was moving to California. He had the family car packed up with a trailer behind it, and they left the family home and my great-grandmother behind.

There was no discussion about moving, my dad later told me, because my grandfather knew that if he posed it as a question, my grandmother’s feet would remain firmly planted in Pennsylvania. She was the kind of headstrong woman who believed it was either her way or no way — but when it came to California, she reluctantly made the trek with her husband and young sons.

It was a move that she never quite got over.

There are plenty of family stories about her unique personality. She was a child of the Great Depression and saved everything. She reused aluminum foil and empty prescription bottles for other purposes. Bubby loved a bargain, but even more so she loved things that were free.

One of my father’s earliest memories was my grandmother lowering her young son into a dumpster behind the five-and-dime store to get deflated beach balls that had been thrown away. Years later, despite living in a mid-century home with ocean views in Orange County, many of her wealthy neighbors would confuse her for a local “bag lady” because she’d dig in people’s trash cans or pick up items off the street.

When my sister and I were young, she would mail us packages filled with newspaper clippings that she found interesting, or free perfume samples she’d get at stores. She once gave my younger cousin a box full of hotel shampoos she’d collected for her 5th birthday. And when I was in college, she sent me an antique gold compact from Tiffany’s — when I asked her where she got it, since the item was encrusted with a few emeralds and was obviously old, my grandmother shrugged and said she “found it” in her neighbor’s room at their assisted living, soon after her neighbor had died.

It was the thought that counted, perhaps.

She was the kind of person who often thought that she knew best. Soon after my parents got married and moved to California, my mother came home from work one day to find that she couldn’t find anything in her own kitchen. Bubby had come over while my parents were out and reorganized the kitchen, unknown to my mom or my dad. Once, on a trip to visit her, she was adamant that we go eat at the Sizzler – one of her favorite places. And while there, she continued to argue with the cashier that her two teenage granddaughters should be considered “senior citizens” because my grandmother was a senior citizen and she was the one paying for the meal.

Usually, with a little argument, my grandmother got her way.

For the first half of her life, she was a daughter, wife and mother; and for the last 40 years, she was a widow, living alone or being taken care of by my dad. She once told me, at the age of 86, that she didn’t want to live past 87. Her parents were gone, her husband died decades earlier, and she was tired. But she didn’t quite get her wish. She died in 2019 at 96.

She would have turned 100 last week, on Aug. 25.

Three and a half years after her death, I still have some of her ashes in an urn sitting on my mantle, waiting to be taken to Pennsylvania, waiting to be buried in a cemetery in a plot next to her mother.

It will happen sooner rather than later. But as I looked at my Bubby’s photograph, staring back at me, I thought to myself, maybe it’s time to take her.

Perhaps finally, maybe, it’s time to take her home.

Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News. Reach out to momstopcolumn@gmail.com.

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