Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Not Just Pie

I grew up with grandparents and within 10 miles of probably 90% of my family. My first grandparent, my mother's father, died when I was 12; the next when I was 29; another one four years later; and my mother's mother died when I was 40 in 1999.

So I was blessed to have grown up with old people--grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and first cousins of grandparents. I was always comfortable around old people, and of course loved being spoiled by them. We gorged on plentiful amounts of candy and Drake's cakes at my paternal grandparents' home in East Hartford, CT, and the meatballs always tasted better when made by my other grandmother, who even though widowed in 1971, socialized with a group of widows who became a satellite part of our family.

One time I slipped a tape recorder under our living room couch shortly before a visit from Bubbe and Zadie Friedman. I clicked it on just as they entered the front door, and let it run for the next hour. I trailed them out when they left and said, "I was recording you the whole time."

My grandmother started laughing and waved one hand at me as if to say, "Oh, you rascal."

One year, when I was about 14 or so, I stayed overnight with maternal grandmother, Ida Bernstein, on New Year's Eve. Shortly after midnight we baked a tray of cookies and more or less convinced ourselves that we were the first ones to do so in the new year.

I remember picking blueberries and strawberries with my paternal grandfather, Myer, plunging my hands into the soft dirt as we filled baskets with fruit.

I've always liked being around older people, hearing their stories, and being a listener, which is often hard for me (since I also like to talk).

Verna, in contrast, was born after the death of her maternal grandmother and probably saw her father's parents, both of whom lived into their early nineties in Minnesota, fewer than a dozen times in her life. She was admittedly uncomfortable around older people.

Miguel and Maya have grown up sort of in between. Most of our families live farther away, at least four hours (though one of Verna's brothers and his wife and son used to be two hours away). And my family is all back east save for a first cousin of my father, who lives about three hours away in the Sierra foothills. We used to see each regularly before I got married.

But Verna's father still lives in San Francisco, and her mother, who died just about seven years ago, was a resident of the city for more than 50 years. Her parents visited us often, or took us to dinner, or traveled with us. We drove to Los Angeles with Verna's mother, Chela (Maria Graciela) in 2001 to protest what we believed was Bush's theft of the presidency. The four of us (Miguel was then 3) stayed at a motel not far from the conference at the Wilshire Hilton. The three-day protest-palooza featured Vincent Bugliosi, Warren Beatty, and several other notable politicians, activists, and celebrities.

In 2002, the four of us journeyed from San Francisco to Vancouver for a personal historian's conference, and spent nearly two weeks on the road, touring Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. When Verna was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 her parents literally came to our home five days a week for nine months to help her (and us) out.

So Miguel and Maya, who played on the carpeted floor of our living room with her maternal grandmother less than six months before she died on October 24, 2008 in San Francisco Kaiser's ICU, have been blessed to have old people in their lives.

And now Miguel works as a server at Drake Terrace so he experiences elders at least 15 hours a week. He has learned how important it is to smile or crack a joke (or listen to one) and not take it too personally when an older person, who may be in physical pain or suffering from cognitive impairment, lashes out at him or a co-worker.

When he came home from work tonight he saw a copy of my book, Golden Memories of the San Francisco Bay Area, near the landing up from the garage.

"Who are you selling your book to?" he asked.

"I bought it to give to John (not his real name)," I said. "He asked for a copy so I told him I'd get him one. I like him."

"John. I like him, too," he said. "I served him tonight. I also like Fred (not his real name). He said today would have been his wife's birthday."

She died earlier this year, and Fred went on to share with Miguel that he was looking forward to the dessert tonight on the menu, pumpkin pie. But Miguel had squirreled away the last two pieces for himself. So he told Fred there was no more pie.

"I really wanted some tonight," Fred said. "It was my wife's favorite dessert."

So Miguel gave him a piece of his. "I would've felt bad if I hadn't shared."

I was certainly proud of him as I know his mother, grandmother, and all his ancestors would be. He honored them all tonight in a very big way.

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