My grandmother’s funeral took place this past weekend. Below is the essay I wrote and read at the service.
When I was 11 years old, I thought my grandmother was the coolest woman in the world. Forget Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson. They had nothing on Mammy. Coming from an eleven-year old, that is quite a statement. At that time in my life, there was nothing more embarrassing than my parents and other parent-like figures. But that was never the case for Mammy. She ran an art gallery. She had Reebok sneakers. She wore a Swatch watch. No wonder she rocked my eleven year old world. And she never stopped doing so.
Mammy was not like other grandmothers. Instead of baking cookies, she took us out to eat at nice restaurants and always cleaned her plate. When I was in graduate school with plans to spend a weekend in Richmond, my roommate asked me if I was looking forward to some home-cookin’ from my granny. I laughed. Chinese take-out was more Mammy’s style.
Mammy volunteered for both Obama campaigns, and I got to boast to my friends that my grandmother was doing her part to turn Virginia blue. She was always polite when it came to her liberal views and had lively political discussions with her pest control guy, of all people. He was conservative, but they got on well. They actually saw each other rather frequently, since Mammy’s house was a magnet for Richmond wildlife. Thanks to her experiences, I know who you are supposed to call should you ever find a family of possums in your basement.
Mammy was always so much fun. We watched Sex and the City together. We had long, dishy chats on the phone about everything. We even had a great time shopping for bras. My poor brother sat outside a dressing room in a department store while Mammy and I roared with laughter. This could have been a mortifying experience, as we were easily the loudest people in the store, but in fact, I had the absolute best time helping Mammy pick out the right support.
Mammy was always so youthful that people often mistook us for mother and daughter. Not surprising, considering how she never had a gray hair upon her head. Her colorist clearly did good work. One time at the gallery, I called her Mammy in front of one of her many Richmond acquaintances and that person thought it was such a hoot to hear his friend referred to as Mammy. My grandmother was anything but a Southern mammy. She may have left the city when she married my grandfather, but she was a cosmopolitan New Yorker through and through.
When I was almost nineteen, Mammy took me to New York City for a few days. I met her at the hotel, where, in the lobby, she was busy chatting with the concierge, telling him how her daughter was about to arrive. She was not talking about my mother. It was a combined work/fun trip. We attended a wholesale craft fair at the Javits Center, and I got to be her assistant, helping her curate the selection that would be available at the gallery in the fall. In the evenings, we went out to dinner and took in a Broadway show. One morning, we indulged in a champagne breakfast in the hotel dining room overlooking Times Square. Even though I was underage, no one carded me, and we had a good laugh at their oversight.
When I was a foreign exchange student in France, and when I went off to college, my snail mailbox was regularly full of correspondence from her. The letters were often short, but the loving thought was huge. There were postcards from her jaunts with Andre, and polaroid pictures of her and Uncle Bob dressed in their Halloween costumes. When Mammy later entered the digital realm, she quickly mastered email, even though her emails were always written in lower case. She loved shopping online and facebooked like a pro. Cell phones and Mammy, though, were another story. She got a very basic one, but she never used it. One time when we were in a store, we heard a strange ringing noise that did not stop. Mammy even said, “What is that ringing?” It was her cell phone, which had been buried deep inside her purse. I think it was the first time it had ever rung.
Fortunately, for Mammy, she had no need of a cell phone when it came to her trip to Italy in 2006. She already had the ultimate boutique travel agent: her granddaughter, yours truly. Her wish was my command. Mammy could talk up a good trip and often mentioned about the idea of going to Italy throughout my childhood. Considering her love of ice cream, Italy was a perfect destination for her.
I can’t begin to say how much it meant to me to be able to make this dream of hers come true. And what a trip it was. My mother and my aunt joined the party, and we made quite the quartet, laughing, eating lots of pasta and gelato, having a phenomenal time. My mom and I managed to treat Mammy to a gondola ride, which is a quite a feat considering how hard it could be to get Mammy to let you pick up the tab. Italy is renowned for its beauty for good reason. The art, the architecture, the landscapes. Then throw in the food. It’s an aesthetic paradise. However, watching Mammy experience it brought a new level of depth to all that beauty. The constant look of delight on her face was more powerful than anything else we saw.
When we were cruising down an Italian highway, driving from Florence to a village in the Tuscan countryside, out of nowhere Mammy blurted out “I feel like Pussy Galore.” At the time, I started cracking up. I thought it was one of the most hilarious things I had ever heard and could not wait to report it back to my brother. Now, when I think back on that moment, yet again, I can’t help but think my grandmother was the coolest woman in the world.
I love you, Mammy. And I miss you.