Death ripped something open in me when I was 15 years old, and about 85% of my adult personality bloomed right out of it like a freaking Greek myth or something. I could feel it actually happening. Really.
Yes, it was my grandmother’s death, which may seem ordinary enough. But let me tell you, this wasn’t your typical central-casting grandmother. She was a painter, a spiritual poet, a humanitarian, and a big flaming liberal of a grandmother before “liberal” was an insult. She taught racial tolerance to school children in pre-MLK Philadelphia. She traveled through pre-war Europe on an art scholarship. She and my grandfather got a visit from the FBI during the McCarthy years. I don’t ever remember her baking cookies, but I do remember going to see Ralph Nader with her when I was about three or so. (Well, mostly I remember being bored beyond human comprehension. Still pretty cool, though, in retrospect.)
For most of my life, I just knew her as this wonderful grandma who made us paper dolls out of matte board and took us to the beach. She had this incredible capacity for joy and saw beauty everywhere. She used to stop us in our tracks to point it out: see how the light reflects on the insect’s wings? She was full of laughter and taught us to take joy in our mistakes. She lavished praise on us, just like the parenting books tell you you’re not supposed to do. But I loved it. I don’t ever remember anyone else but her calling me “beautiful” and “stunning” until years later when I started having boyfriends.
At 15, I was only just beginning to recognize what an exceptional woman she really was. One night, right before Christmas and at the height of our PBS station’s pledge drive, my mom and I were watching motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia give one of his talks. (Remember Leo Buscaglia?) That’s just like Grandma, I remember thinking. It was amazing. Here was this venerable, bearded fellow speaking so eloquently about love to a packed, adoring audience – popular enough to be run during pledge week, for goodness sakes – but to me, it sounded just like my grandmother.
“She would love this. I’m going to buy his book for her for Christmas,” I told my mom, and she thought it was a great idea. So we went to Waldenbooks at the mall that week and picked out a copy of Living, Loving, and Learning. And I felt so proud, realizing that my grandmother and I were on the brink of an adult relationship with each other.
There’s no writing workshop in the world that would let me get away with this next part. It’s cruel and formulaic to the point of being trite. But I swear, it really happened this way: Four days after I gave her that book for Christmas, she died. Heart attack. It was completely unexpected. Words fail.
The grown-ups were crying. I remember it was unseasonably warm for December, and the rain poured down. (Foreshadowing of Seattle, perhaps?) I remember feeling stunned and dark the whole time, drinking it all in but keeping my thoughts to myself. A plain casket, closed. That was her in there. How could that be?
We weren’t religious, but it’s amazing what you can come up with on your own when faced with death for the first time. I decided, first of all, that someday I would have a daughter and name her after my grandmother (which – remarkably – did actually happen 22 years later, almost to the day). And I decided that I would keep her spirit alive by trying to be like her. I would seek beauty and joy everywhere; I would keep fighting for justice in my own quiet way. The Leo Buscaglia book would be my guide.
Yes. Mere days after giving it to her for Christmas, I got the book back. So I read, read, and re-read until I somehow displaced all my jumbled existential despair and raw teen passion onto its author. It’s strange, thinking of it now, but I actually kept this writer in my thoughts more consciously than the grandmother I was grieving for. Walking in the fields near my parents’ house, feeling simultaneously empty and full, I yearned for him. Actual him. Not sexually, I don’t think. But not like a family member, either. There was an intensity to it that felt like love.
Had I made him into a guru of sorts? Did I want to sit at his feet and walk in his wise, benevolent shadow; a spoke in love with its wheel? I wondered: Was this the way religious people felt about their deities? Not the ideal sacred way you’re supposed to feel, but maybe something closer to Godspell’s “Day By Day”: that intangible yet total love that is so complete, joyful, and even fierce at times but can’t ever be attained or held. It’s not reverence, it’s not lust, it’s not apprenticeship, it’s not even love, really. It’s a bit of a mix of all those things and not quite any of those things.
I wrote to him once. He’d been the guest on some morning talk show and I scribbled his address down on a scrap of wrapping paper. After sitting on it anxiously for a few weeks, I finally sat down and wrote him the most banal little straight-margined letter that barely scratched the surface of my real feelings. I don’t think I even mentioned my grandmother. He or his office wrote me back, a warm and polite little response.
Eventually the whole thing started to feel embarrassing. I let go of my conscious attachment to the guy. But it was still there, inspiring me to pursue whatever unconventional, charismatic person happened to cross my path. I could carry the spirit of my grandmother, but I didn’t want to have to do it alone. I thought I needed someone to show me the way. Or maybe just someone to share it with who would understand.
Of course, unconventionality and charisma don’t always come from a heart of pure love and self-actualization, as I’d naively believed. Turns out there’s a whole lot of insecurity flying around there, too. They were either impossible to hold onto or they clung too tight. Most of them, to their credit, didn’t want to be followed. Their charisma was something of a coping device; they were just as uncertain as anybody else. But there were a few who absolutely craved an audience. They needed to be followed, but one special little follower like me would never truly be enough.
It was fun while it lasted, but gradually I gave up my pursuit of The Charismatic. Faced with a string of failed relationships and feeling out of step with the mainstream, I came to see myself as the Carrie Fisher to everyone else’s Meg Ryan. Something in me got tamed. The wild impulse to devote myself to The Charismatic simply turned into the desire to occasionally sleep with them. And not even that, really. Somewhere along the line, my attention shifted to The Aloof; the moon to The Charismatic’s sun; the vampire to their werewolf. (Yes, yes, a Twilight reference. We’re talking about female coming-of-age, aren’t we?)
In fact, I married the vampire. Or, at least, I married the geeky Gen-X version of him. He is cool and pale, almost supernaturally smart, barely eats, stays out of the sun. And when we met, he was a college instructor / rock critic getting ready to move to Seattle. Not sure how a wiggle-puppy like me even dates someone like that, let alone marries him, but it happened. (In all fairness, the guy’s got a warm side, too.)
Looking back on it all, I’m left feeling a little confused. Am I light or dark? Sun or moon? I’ve regarded myself as dark/bitter/cynical for so long, but there’s no denying my roots, my very spirit, soaked in innocent hug-seeking sun. Every once in a while I’ll come across someone who viscerally reminds me of the old Buscaglia days and it’s like a freaking magnet or something. I want to just . . . run to them. But I don’t.
And what about my grandmother? Am I keeping her spirit alive? Well . . . yes, I think. Not perfectly. Not always. But I do still stop and notice beauty in unexpected places. I do take joy in small moments and try to pass it along to anyone who might be willing to listen. And there’s my Little Girl, of course. Her namesake.
Those kids. That’s where my real sunshine is these days. They’re authentically charismatic and effusive and just so . . . present. They have no agenda; they simply love more than anyone could humanly possibly love. It’s what they do. And I can shine that love right back at them with reckless abandon. At least for now. I’m sure we’ll reach a point when they’ll be embarrassed by it, setting down paths of their own. All the more reason to enjoy it while I can, I suppose.