Every January 21, I think about a little widow in a trench coat and beret. Every Sunday for many years, she walked or took a bus to my street, chatting with the driver, and came clicking along the road in her boots or high-heeled sandals to my house. At first her hair was dyed a uniform silver, and at last it was white as the filling of the vanilla cream cookies she brought with her.
This was my grandmother Gladys. She was widowed at 60 and lived to be 86. For 26 years, she was my principal model for the Single Life.
Grandma had been happily married, and Grandpa had been her constant companion. They had had only one child, and perhaps it was this situation that left them so free for vacation travel and sociability. Widowhood was a terrible shock to my grandmother, and it was said that she had had a nervous breakdown. I don't remember this time particularly well, having been only four. I seem to remember being in a hospital waiting room as my very pregnant mother went upstairs to her father, leaving me and my brother with my father, but memory is a funny thing.
I remember with more authority my grandmother's weekly Sunday visits. When my grandfather was alive, we all went to their house for Sunday dinner. Now Grandma came to us, bringing store-bought cookies wrapped, two in a package, in paper towel. It was years before I lost the taste for these objects which, for at least ten years, tasted faintly of cigarette smoke. Grandma was a cheerful Sunday addition, at first arriving when the rest of us were at Sunday evening Mass. Grandma, mysteriously, was a Protestant and never went to church.
She officially didn't babysit, either, although she must have, if only very occasionally, for I remember her weak threat to "skelp" us, a linguistic leftover from her family's Edinburgh past. But mostly she didn't, because of her Nerves.
"Oh," Grandma would say, her habitual cheerfulness momentarily vanishing, like the sun disappearing under a cloud, "my Nerves."
I have Nerves, too, so in hindsight I sympathize. It isn't easy having Nerves. And I might have thought, as a divorcee, that I had better reason for Nerves than Grandma, who at least had a nice house, a pension, a daughter and five bonny grandchildren.
Grandma worried about my divorce, especially since I was Catholic. She had got it into her head that Catholics could never, under any circumstance, marry again after a divorce and, like many a Protestant, could not get her mind around the theological gymnastics of the annulment procedure. She feared I would be perpetually lonely, and she advised me to turn to the radio for solace.
"It has always been company for me," she said.
But she certainly had more than the radio. She had her friends, who volunteered with her at the local nursing home. She had her Saturday raids on K-Mart, searching for bargains and doing her Christmas shopping months in advance. She went to a seniors' centre, where she took exercise classes and may have played cards. She had her hair set and her nails done. She did not date. She had no interest in remarriage, although her sparkling personality attracted the odd widower here and there, who invited her for coffee in the McDonald's closest to the cemetery the local widowed frequented.
And, of course, she had us, and as we were so many, we provided a lot to think about even though, taken altogether, we were too much for her Nerves. Eventually we visited her singly or in pairs at the same nursing home she had volunteered at. It was only three blocks or so from our house.
"My grandchildren keep me young," she said. Her one wedding photo, taken on the steps of a United Church (a union of Canadian Presbyterians & Methodists), was pinned to the bulletin board behind her bed.
When she died (liver cancer, and quick), a thread to my childhood, and no doubt my mother's childhood, was broken. But because she was so much a part of the family, because her visits for so many years had been weekly, memory of her is deeply layered in my mind. The sight of anyone smoking in a kitchen or sitting room is enough to bring her, the only open smoker in the family, back.
Young, suave man: Do you mind if I smoke?
Seraphic: Oh, please do! It reminds me of my grandmother.
Young, suave man: Slightly annoyed look.
But sometimes I need no trigger. Snatches of a song she used to sing as she swept the kitchen table, made a cup of tea or taught me the foxtrot just come bubbling up to the surface of my mind:
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.
I'm half crazy all for the love of you.
It won't be a stylish marriage-
I can't afford a carriage.
But you'd look sweet upon the seat
of a bicycle built for two.
My great regret is that she didn't live long enough to meet Benedict Ambrose. She would have been tremendously pleased that (despite being Catholic) I was going to marry a Scottish boy and go to live in Edinburgh.