Yesterday evening my grandmother Ruth Philbrick Jenkins, known to many as Ruthie, to some as G.G., was reunited with her late husband Walter in a heaven that must be some combination of rocky New Hampshire beaches brilliantly lit by warm sunlight and blue skies and a hurricane-free New Orleans with massive live oaks everywhere upending slabs of sidewalk with their powerful roots. In this afterlife uneven sidewalks are nothing to worry about. G.G., who spent the last two of her 99 and five eighths years bedridden and lovingly cared for by an underpaid hospice staff and my wonderful, tireless mother, has also been reunited with her true tribe, the centaurs. In the time I knew her, GG was never as animated as when she told stories of being a young girl riding horses down those rocky beaches alongside frigid waters. Over the years she collected bookshelves full of horse figurines to keep in touch with that girlhood of independent mobility and the joy that horse people know of being at the same time both alone and in good company.
G.G. didn’t tell many stories that didn’t involve horses or her pony Billy and the fixer-upper buggy she found for five dollars. Billy was a fixer-upper as well. He arrived in a train car in poor shape from parts unknown to this telling and required tender care. She didn’t share memories of working for the Red Cross in the pacific during WWII. She didn’t have anecdotes about what must have been a nutty transition when her husband Walter was offerred a job teaching music at Tulane and they left their fellow Yanks and dove into that swampy below sea-level cultural cauldron. I guess after the Pacific the South felt like home enough. And although they returned to the chilly waters of Rye Beach every summer and she never lost her crisp, pseudo-English accent, my yankee grandparents certainly made Metairie, Louisiana home.
When, 20 years ago, Walter took a late night spill down steep stairs during one of their visits up north and did not recover, GG was pissed off for about ten years. My sister Joel and I made a game out of counting the number of HORRIBLES!, STU-PIDS! and AWWWFULS! she’d employ in the service of her bitterness against the space program, the church, or anything that caught her attention in this unrecognizable world she found herself decoupled in. But she kept lifelong friends in her compatriots Becky and Polly, a librarian and chemist who worked at the same research center, bawdy broads both. For decades she volunteered doing mysterious things (stuffing envelopes… but with what?) in the basement of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and always kept a hand in at her bridge club. I don’t know how many of you folks have tried to play bridge but that is one maddening game. It involves elements of chess, poker, and mind-reading. I’m pretty sure the allies won the war because we had better bridge players. And Scrabble…
G.G. was a scrabble samurai. It’s the only thing in this life she loved more than Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy and kitty cats. Unfortunately for her, she invented her own variant that involves open dictionaries and reusable blank tabs and refused to play the normal way forevermore. The scrabble loving sub-culture is small enough, and the available pool of opponents willing to play her way was nearly nil. At her game she was an unbeatable triple score titan, and now that mantle passes to Mom, who earned it in the trenches of the twenty thousand games played as the only willing participant in G.G.’s word dojo.
So there was a rough decade of adapting to Walterlessness. They married late, because of a War delay (and I bitch about September 11 tweaking my own wedding plans!) but the life they shared was worth the wait and I get how miffed G.G. was to have that sweet deal cut short. In her last decade G.G. mellowed. Like a superhero, my father swooped in just before Katrina to rescue his fishing boat, and somehow convinced a wary G.G. to hop in his truck. She moved in with my parents in Woodworth, LA and never make it back to the Big Easy. It was terrible to be separated from her bud Becky and her important, hopefully illegal work at the museum, but Joel and I had to give up on the bitter word count. I guess Dad’s gourmet cooking, Jack and Jill the kitty cats (in G.G.’s world all cats are kitties, and all toMAYtoes are toMAHtoes), and an increasing population of great-grandchildren underfoot were adequate compensations. Maybe she just knew that a reunion with Walter and Billy was getting close.
A few remembrances:
G.G. stands for good grandmother. That’s what she wanted to be called and we happily obliged. The propaganda campaign was flawed because we were never told what the initials stood for. Most of my early thank you notes were misaddressed to a Gigi. She was not a traditional grandmother. She never baked a cake or a cookie, but when I lived with her after college she kept the fridge perpetually stocked with store bought cookies and Haagen Daz coffee ice cream. The good stuff. I’d polish off one of those puppies in an evening and without complaint she’d head back to the grocery the next morning, endangering the lives of countless motorists to satisfy my craving for that sweet caffeinated cream and to uphold her rightful title as the G.G. Thank you, Ruthie.
G.G. never discovered the word processor, let alone the internet. She lived by the pen and eventually the electric typewriter, and kept the postal service busy for the better part of the 20th century with a steady stream of incoming and outgoing posts. She had a special hookup for black market ribbons to keep her obsolete business machine clattering. When I was little she’d send me typed postcards at summer camp or on birthdays. Alongside her signature she’d always doodle a cartoon of a big nosed, ancient person with curling, unkempt nostril hairs.
Last week, she got spunky on one of the caregivers one morning and said, regally, “Leave me alone. I… am going home today!” Well, she finally made it. We love you, G.G.
Here’s something I read at GG’s memorial service:
After college I spent a year living with Ruthie in metairie, hiding from a woman. They were the best roomates I’d ever have- both GG and the woman I was hiding from, whom I’d eventually marry.
But GG didn’t complain when I ate all the coffee ice cream
and when I changed lightbulbs for her she lit up like I’d done magic. “That’s Marvelous!” she used to say.
The grandmother I knew was a quiet, reserved woman, who at parties would stay very still so as not to attract attention, while she secretly fed people-food to any animals present.
She was far more interested in scrabble games than socializing.
No matter how long I’d been away she was always delighted to see me, and always just a little more delighted to see my wife.
She was… a good grandmother, the best roomate, a merciless scrabble player, an animal lover, an introvert with a dazzling smile, a lover of sweets, a terrible cook.
It can’t be an easy, living a hundred years. Most of us won’t. She lived her time more often than not with grace, and patience, and enthusiasm for family and friends, animals and art.
I remember thinking, 20 years ago during my grandfather’s funeral after his sudden death that I’d never seen someone with so much grace and poise during a moment that must have been nearly unbearable.
GG’s always been such an unobtrusive presence that at our dinner yesterday I was halfway expecting to look over and see her sitting quietly on the couch, secretly feeding crackers to the dog.
Now that she’s finally left us I feel her presence intensely. It’s soothing, yet insistent,
like bright sunlight, or much needed rain.