My grandmother, Florence Duran, passed away at 10:45pm Saturday night. She was 95, and I had a ticket to go visit her in LA on March 16. She was ailing, but I hoped to be able to visit with her one more time.
I was the first grandchild – amazing to me to realize she became a grandmother at 43. She chose to be called Grandlady. She had four daughters, seven grandchildren, and nineteen great grandchildren, ranging in age from a few weeks to 25.
She had four daughters. But I only know three of them: my mom, and my aunts Gloria and Janet. The second born, my mother’s sister Jeannie, died at 21, of a congenital condition that kept her from growing properly, and she had been mentally disabled and an invalid. Since she had no direct involvement on my life, I hadn’t thought much about her. But I realize now, Jeannie was very much a part of Grandlady’s life, even though she was physically gone for many more years than she was a living presence. It is only with my own loss of Eitan that I realize how devastating her loss must have been to my grandmother. And I hadn’t thought about Jeannie in terms of my mom losing a sister, as she was not part of my mom’s adult life. But she was a part of my mother’s entire childhood.
When I lost Eitan last year, Grandlady sent me a card. She didn’t mention losing Jeannie, but she did mention another loss she endured, that of her kid brother Art. He was in his early 20s, and was killed by a drunk driver. He was also part of the fabric of family lore, but I hadn’t known him, either. Again, through my own loss, and knowing my children’s loss of their brother, I have a glimpse of what Grandlady had felt, and still felt, so many decades after losing Art.
My five maternal cousins are all much younger than I am, and grew up in California. When my brother and I were in college, Grandlady and Grampy, my grandfather, moved out to LA to be near the younger group of grandchildren. They packed up the house in Amsterdam, New York, and headed west. They didn’t take EVERYthing – I got the family kitchen table, a great piece of furniture with a wooden base and a metal top, still my kitchen table today.
In October 2008, my Aunt Janet, who had been Grandlady’s primary caretaker, planned a festive 90th birthday party for Grandlady (her birthday was October 14).
The kids had to miss school – Gabriel was a senior and Eitan a freshman in high school, and Shoshi was in 6th grade. We arrived a couple days before the party. At Grandlady’s house, the kids appreciated the space of her back yard as they had when we visited two years before, and had a good time running around at dusk. My grandmother was pleased to see another generation of kids enjoying her garden.
For the party, Janet decked out the house with Grandlady memorabilia (unfortunately for me, hereditary packrat tendencies run on both sides, hard to fight it!) – her wedding outfit (complete with dried bouquet, veil, shoes), favorite childhood books, toys, photos. And “Sweet 16” confetti decorated the tables – that was always Grandlady’s favorite age.
My aunts and various cousins read tributes; here’s what I wrote for Grandlady:
To Grandlady at 90
Some 47 years ago, the woman known as Florence, Aunt Flo, Mom acquired a new name, one that she chose for herself: Grandlady. As the first grandchild, I take credit – deserved or not – for that moniker. Family legend has it that, with the imminent approach of grandparenthood, Grandlady needed to make a Big Decision. What would she, at age 43, be called by her grandchildren? According to family lore, she settled on “Grandlady,” a title, I was told, she admired from the book The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. The plan was that I would likely transform that name into some cute child-speak version of the word, much like my own mother did with her grandmother, known to the family as Gra-Gra. Apparently cute mispronunciations were not to be. Grandlady was always Grandlady, starting with me, in 1962. I thought it was kind of cool to have a grandmother with an atypical grandmother name.
My brother and I were the first generation of grandchildren – the East Coast grandchildren, and the only grandkids until I was a teenager, so I feel like we experienced a different point in Grandlady’s life as a grandmother. After all, she was just in her 40s when she became a grandmother – incredible for me to imagine, being in my late 40s now and not expecting to be a grandmother for a long time. She was still working, living in Amsterdam. She and Grampy (he only became Poppa Eddy when they moved to California) would come to Washington to visit for Thanksgiving and other times. And when she retired, she would babysit us when my parents went away for vacations.
It was always the most fun to visit Grandlady’s house, though. I loved going in the winter, because Amsterdam had Real Snow. Sure, we had a snow storm here and there, every few years, in DC. But nothing like the banks of snow that were as tall as I was, the huge icicles dangling from the roof. Absolute Snow Fun. And inside, there was the attic. It seemed huge to me then, covering the entire footprint of the house, with areas delineated by various dressers, chairs, trunks. I even wrote a poem about it when I was a kid:
To Grandma’s attic! I climb each stair
Wondering, wondering what I’ll find there.
A forgotten letter, a lock of hair?
A chest of drawers, a rocking chair,
Old magazines, a coin that’s rare,
All put away with the greatest of care.
I loved exploring up there, discovering elements of my mother’s and aunts’ childhood – a Chiquita Banana costume, Indian Head pennies and Buffalo nickels, rhinestone hearts, hat boxes, stuffed bears, dolls, dresses and sweaters from the ’40s and ’50s. And of course it was the ultimate place to play hide-and-go-seek.
In the summer, there was the garden – Grandlady was the consummate gardener. I remember numerous flowers and a variety of trees, including a ginkgo tree – I thought the fan-shaped leaves were something special – surrounding an expanse of grass. A peaceful, beautiful space. She has created a similar feel in California, and it was a kick to see my own kids running around and playing on the grass as parrots called to each other at dusk when we visited a couple years ago.
While I did not inherit Grandlady’s green thumb, she did inspire me to maintain a vegetable garden. Almost 20 years ago, when I first moved into my house in Cambridge, which has a small yard, she gave me a book called The Two-Minute Gardener. It was simple, with lots of pictures, and ideas that made it feasible for me to actually grow tomatoes and herbs, something I’ve continued to do almost every summer. She’s good at giving thoughtful gifts like that. I still use the manicure set she gave me when I was a teenager.
Grandlady has always struck me as a very spiritual person. While her religion and mine are different, that never seemed to be a block – her faith is in God, no matter how you choose to observe, and I’ve always felt a warm embrace from both her faith and her love.
Happy birthday, Grandlady! I love you!
Incidentally, when I wrote the tribute, I thought I’d dig up the source for her name in The Good Earth – and I couldn’t find it! Perhaps it was another translation? But Grandlady reiterated how she had found it in that book, and loved the sound of it.
Last year in January, Gabriel had an internship in Silicon Valley. Since we were in the relative neighborhood (the West Coast) we went to LA first to visit Grandlady. As I had for previous trips taken since 2010, I asked Eitan if he wanted to join us, since he was home for semester break from UMiami. And, as on previous requests, he said no. I remember saying, this might be the last time you’ll see Grandlady, she’s 94, but still no. Of course I didn’t think that he, at 18, would go before her.
It was the last time I saw her, and I’m very glad we did visit her, I’m grateful for the time. She wasn’t very mobile then, tho had all her faculties. Janet lives nearby, and came over every day, which enabled Grandlady to live in her own home. Watching the evening news, Grandlady, at 94, made complaining noises regarding the newscaster. “His hair has gotten so grey!” she exclaimed. “I hate that!”
I asked Janet if she could recommend a restaurant nearby for me to take Gabriel, and Janet started listing various chains – Denny’s, Olive Garden. As my kids know, foodie me eschews national chains – I like to check out local places. I asked if Janet could recommend anything that wasn’t a chain. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I only go to chain restaurants.” There you have it! One exception is a decent Italian restaurant my mom discovered several years ago, a favorite of Grandlady’s. But when I asked for other recommendations, Grandlady turned to Janet and said, “She doesn’t just want to go out to eat – she wants to dine! She wants something special!”
I was impressed that she got that. We did end up going to a local Mexican restaurant – we were in southern California, after all!
It was an ordeal for Grandlady to move around, so she didn’t go out much. Knowing she had a sweet tooth, I ordered an extra dessert and brought it back for her – behind Janet’s back, since Janet was trying to keep her on a healthy diet. I was thinking, at 94, she’s entitled to eat what she likes – live it up!
I have been going to visit Grandlady in Los Angeles for over thirty years. It is difficult to realize this chapter of my life has ended. I do feel fortunate to have had Grandlady in my life for as long as I have. She was a spiritual woman, full of love.
I wonder if she and Eitan will meet. The traveled in such different circles. Do souls have blood ties that create some kind of magnetic pull? Like, oh, one of ours has joined the ranks! Better send out the welcome wagon. I can picture Eitan and Larry hanging out; it’s more difficult to imagine Eitan and Grandlady. And then there’s Great Uncle Archie, and Aunt Jeannie, a soul whose body was restricted by disabilities. What is the sense of time, I wonder, where souls are? Do they age, gain experience? Is there the same magnetic pull going back, and back, grouping those connected by family, and by love?