Lori McWilliams. Lillian Feinberg. Muriel Dubkin. Mourning a lost matriarchy.

So my grandma died.

As grandmas do.

As a matter of fact, it’s been happening a lot around here: Jacob’s grandma died exactly a week before mine. Lillian Feinberg, we’ll get to her in a minute.

Grandmas die.

Particularly alcoholic ones with emphysema, who have lived hard and long, harder and longer than anyone ever expected, honestly.

But still less long than it seemed they should. I mean, less long than I figured she would. Not in my conscious brain, of course, the part of me that knew how sick she was, how her lungs had been slowly shutting down for two decades and didn’t have much more shutting down to do, but in the childish part of my brain that wants a hug from a grandma.

My grandmother loved Jesus and Jack Daniel’s in about equal measure, but if I’m being honest I think she loved me most of all.

Now my family, such as it is, is down to two. A mother and a brother. The father has never counted, and the others, the far away ones, I haven’t talked to in decades.

Really, honestly, we’re down to one. My brother…well, that’s a story for another day, or never. So it’s my mom. Not exactly a mom. A wonderful person, a sweet, dear, best pal, but not once ever a mom. Since we’re being so extra honest here and stuff.

It’s a bit lonely, to be honest.

On the other hand, I could write a lot of words about my love and my amazing community of friends and various sweethearts and what does blood matter, really. But tonight I don’t particularly want to be an adult with no real kin on this planet, none in the sense of: people I can still depend on who knew me as a kid. I’m just going to sit with that right now, feel how that feels. Two people who knew me as a kid still know me.

The Sunday before my grandma died, I talked to her on the phone.

I had been calling and calling (like I said I would, remember? It was hard to call—I was always so scared my dad would answer [my father, he lived with his mother—are you surprised?] and his voice would throw me into fear weirdnesses for a few days) but her husband always said she was sleeping. After a few weeks, I took this to mean that she could no longer talk. But one day he said he would get her, and he did, and we talked.

She said she loved me, and she said she wished I could have come to visit her.

She spoke in the past tense. (The pluperfect tense, I guess.)

She had been trying to get me to come visit for fifteen years. She was no longer getting me to come to visit, but she wasn’t over being sad I didn’t come to visit. She said she was square with God. I said I supposed that was about as good as things get, right? She laughed her rueful laugh. All of her laughs were rueful, always. She always knew about the shit mixed in with anything beautiful—often because she was the one making sure the shit was mixed in. Nothing is pure, life is hell. But you laugh anyway. Her laughs were those kind of laughs.

She said she wished I could have found it in my heart (the past tense was tearing away at me by now) to forgive my dad, so I could have come to see her.

I was very quiet.

I was sitting in my car in front of the garden store, having run out from work to do a few errands. I told her that it wasn’t that I couldn’t forgive him, it was just that I couldn’t see him. Everything in me ached to tell her that she had it all wrong—forgiveness implies something is over, but every time I hear his voice again I am six years old, watching him scream and rage and knowing with 100% certainty that none of us will get out of this alive (my brother? He kind of never did.).

I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t forgiveness I lacked, it was courage.

But we told each other we loved each other, and I hung up, and the next Friday my grandmother died thinking that I wasn’t a good enough person to put aside old wounds in order to see her one last time.

I say that, and my heart is exploding with pain as I write it, but it’s true and not true.

What she said was true, but she also knew this: I got out alive.

She marveled at it again and again—she knew her son. For years she lived in a camper van in our driveway, steadily drinking, occasionally setting her hair on fire when curling it into an inexplicably frizzy mass while smoking at the tiny camper table and telling my brother and me slightly X-rated jokes we didn’t understand while we hid from whatever was happening inside the house—sex parties, fights, drugs, drugs, so many drugs.

She had six husbands, and every one beat her except the last one, who loved her quietly and slavishly in a way she marveled at. Jimmy uses the N-word like a 1950s suburban housewife uses “oopsie,” has never not been drunk in the 25 years I’ve known him, has a prodigious stomach that stretches his white t-shirts in a truly fascinating fashion over his Levis 501s (the only outfit I’ve ever seen him in, including the day he married my grandmother), and spent 35 years blowing up mountains in order to release the fossil fuels within. But he never beat my grandmother, and for that he’s something of a hero to me.

My grandmother got pregnant at 16 with my father. My father’s father once dropped my dad off a roof, just for kicks. According to legend, he wouldn’t let anyone help his son get to the hospital to repair the resulting broken leg. After my father, she had three more children: one is gay and schizophrenic and no one has ever been allowed to talk to him. He lives with other family and I’ve never met him. Then the two daughters: one has nine kids with almost as many men and lives in a trailer in rural Pennsylvania. She routinely is sent to jail for a night here and there for failing to ensure her children go to school. Several of her kids were fathered by a neo-Nazi, a Yearwood Family Fun Fact I did not believe until she sent my grandmother a Christmas card with a photo of them wearing t-shirts festooned with swastikas. The other daughter tries hard to be a normal person, and that’s about all I’ll say about that.

I got out alive.

And, as you know so well, dear blog reader, I’ve never been back. My grandmother, who I spent so much time with as a kid, mourned for that, but celebrated my success as that rarest of rare creatures: the functional Yearwood.

She was dramatic and self-centered (aren’t we all?), and so she said what she said during that last phone call, but I have to remind myself that she also knew why I had to stay away. One self-preservationist always recognizes another.

My grandmother.

I had two, like you do.

The other was Germanic, stately, cultured, damn classy: Muriel Dubkin, née Schwartz. I use her spoons, her scarves, her bed linens, her shift dresses, her hair combs daily. I stare at her husband’s cufflinks on my windowsill as I write this: two florid Ls. I never met either of my grandfathers. For better (one) and worse (the other, sweet, amazing Leonard.)

I also had, through stories, and cute photos, and a few phone calls, and one meeting, Jacob’s grandma.

Lillian Feinberg, isn’t that a sweet name? Jacob looked just like her, right down to liking stripey shirts and having a giant mouth and wild curls.

She was a pure sweetheart—when I met her, she asked me what my parents did, and I mentioned my mother worked on a Jewish newspaper. She turned to Jacob and said, so sweetly, so happily, in that way only elderly Jewish women have, “A Jew? With a goyishe name!” A complicated Jew, with a Jesus-loving grandmother, yep.

Jacob’s sisters and father kindly gave me one of her rings when they were cleaning out her apartment last week. It joined Muriel’s engagement ring, which has lived on my right hand since she died, when I was 18.

Last month, my grandmother sent me all her turquoise, all her liquid silver and leather belts, including the one I always remember her in, the one with her name on it. We all had these belts once—mine was lost in a move, like everything else in those days. “Your aunt was absolutely P.O.’ed I sent you my jewelry, Gusta,” she said to me during that last phone call.

“And I figured, well, fuck her, you know?”

Truth tellers, these wild women were.

Survivors.

Miracles, really.

4 Responses to “Lori McWilliams. Lillian Feinberg. Muriel Dubkin. Mourning a lost matriarchy.”

  1. Noel Furie

    You wrote this so beautifully, Lagusta. Each photo is amazing in its own way. It is a lot to share. Of course, I cried. But the most important thing is yes, you are a survivor and, more than that, you have created a beautiful life for yourself. I’m sure all the Grandmothers are proud of you.
    Love,
    Noel

    Reply
  2. Selma Miriam

    Dear Lagusta.

    My computer did not allow me to comment here this morning, nor did it show the photos and much of the text, so i had to wait to see it all on Carolanne’s computer. I think that it is a great tribute to them that you told the truth. And now I understand why it was so hard for you to disapoint your grandmother Lori. Her love for you was uncomplicated, and now that is gone. But still, you are an amazingly courageous and self-created woman.

    Selma

    Reply
  3. Bettina

    Stay true, stay you. I’m sorry for your losses and happy to see you keep being you–keep on going.

    Reply

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