I’ve had plenty of grandmothers in my life, what with all the family blending that’s gone on in the past 30-plus years. There was the Arcadia grandma, Mildred, previously mentioned mimeograph wizard (See “My Dumpy Spirit Guide” post). There was Martha, who defined the term “crafty” before it was in vogue — she made everything from crocheted hats embellished with soda can panels to Styrofoam Christmas ornaments illuminated with rick-rack. I had a Chinese grandma, Sun Fung, a four-feet-nine dynamo who cooked enough chow fun to feed at least 50 when my husband and I came for dinner. She left me her jade earrings when she died in 2001. And I have a living grandma, Lorraine, who will be 86 this month and has just taken up the ukulele.
Well, there’s one more. Like Mildred, Martha, and Sun Fung this grandma has crossed over. She lived in Ohio and bred dogs for a living; she also groomed and boarded animals. I didn’t know her well, this woman who smoked and drank her whole life and remained firmly convinced that pretty much everyone was an asshole.
Petite, with clouds of white hair she piled on her head, this grandma was called Geneva, a deceptively peaceful name for someone so full of vinegar (I associate the name with peace because the United Nations is headquartered in this fair Swiss city, but the definition of the name is actually “juniper tree,” and may be the root of the word “gin,” which actually fits). She caused my stepfather much pain, perhaps especially once he helped her move to California in an expression of filial generosity she most likely did not merit. When she approached the end of her life, we were all relieved. Go to the light, Geneva — it’s time.
But to backtrack: One particularly unusual moment out of the many she created during the years I knew her happened when I was in elementary school, fourth or fifth grade. I was living with my mom and stepdad in a vivid green San Jose ranch house; his daughter, my same age, came to visit on weekends.
It was one of these weekends, maybe in June. Geneva had sent both my sister and me birthday cards (by freak coincidence, our birthdays are four days apart). The envelopes were lumpy; when I squeezed mine it made a crunchy sound. What the heck?
We opened the cards sitting on the floor of my sister’s room. Out of each fell three or four small, dark objects. Puzzled, we examined these objects — a couple centimeters long apiece, curved and sleek toward the tips and crusty with blood at the stump. Then, almost simultaneously, my sister and I flung the objects down.
Here’s the gist of our circa 1979 conversation, translated to 2011:
Sister: “Holy shit, Batman, these are puppy tails.”
Me: “OMG, you’re right. Is she crazy?”
Sister: “Clearly. Who sends pieces of dead flesh as a birthday surprise? It’s like the fucking Godfather or something. You know, the horse scene.”
Me: “I feel sorry for the dogs.”
We figured that since Geneva regularly docked the tails of the puppies she bred, she’d thought it would be cool to send us a few as souvenirs. “Happy Birthday, Kate!” she’d written cheerfully in her quavering hand. There was no mention or explanation of the animal body parts included in the birthday greetings.
The thing is, once I got over the initial shock I found the puppy pieces oddly compelling. I turned them over in my fingers, feeling the contrast between the stumps’ rough edges and the ends’ silky fur. Actually, they sort of reminded me of all the teeth I’d lost and that I kept in a tiny crocheted box in my dresser — dry physical artifacts, rusty with blood.
I started to feel strange. Puppy tails? Teeth? Maybe I had something in common with this crazy grandma — a capability for morbid fascination, perhaps — and that couldn’t be good. But then I found a way to comfort myself. Sure, I kept my baby teeth, even took them out every once in a while just to press their jagged crowns into the pads of my fingers. But I probably wouldn’t be slipping them into anyone’s birthday card anytime soon. That would just be weird.