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04/10/2004

Lost ball, tall weeds

My grandfather is a large man. Before he began to shrink in his old age, he was about 6'3", and since I've known him he's been substantially overweight. For years he's turned down the knee replacement surgery he's needed. Consequently he's found it increasingly difficult to get around.

He uses a walker now. Although at first he flatly refused to try, my uncle R., who lives down the street, bought one at a garage sale and left it in the corner. After staring at it angrily for a few days, my grandfather tried it while my grandmother was out, and has relied on it ever since.

...

My grandmother is a lady. She is 85, and she cooks and delivers meals "to the old people." She likes her cocktails strong. She's unfailingly gracious, with a kind word for everyone.

Last year when I finally came clean about why I wouldn't be attending our annual summer gathering, she sent me a stack of pictures from her garden in full bloom and a note saying Paul and I had her every hope. Predictably, it made me cry. Predictably, she never asked about the outcome.

Lately she's been somewhat dejected by the fact that their friends have begun to die. I say "somewhat" because nothing seems to keep her down for long (a trait I inherited, but in a dose so diluted it's practically homeopathic). Recently L.'s husband died. No one liked him — a jocular ass who'd say to my 60-year-old aunt, "How come you never got married, little lady?" — but everyone was sorry, because since his death L., always heavily dependent, has been adrift.

"A lost ball in the tall weeds," my grandmother described her, shaking her head and rattling the ice cubes in her Wild Turkey and water.

...

While we visited, my grandmother invited eight of her closest friends for coffee. ("I wanted to invite more, but I had to draw the line somewhere," she said as she hunted through the drawer for more demitasse spoons.) Every single lady besides my grandmother had a hairdo that required a weekly trip to the beauty parlor — yes, they call it that — for a wash and set. Every single lady wore stockings. Every single lady took me aside to tell me what a dear person my grandmother is.

I agreed with fervor.

...

Shortly before our visit, my grandfather fell. Without employing his walker, he stood up to toss a pillow across the room to the sofa. He overbalanced and ended up on the floor. He was mostly unhurt, except for a scrape on his forearm. "If I've fallen fifteen times," he insisted, "this is the only time I've gotten hurt," but even he agreed it could have been much, much worse.

My grandmother was telling the ladies the story of my grandfather's fall. Because of his weight, and because of the deterioration of his knees, he couldn't get up. "Well, I couldn't lift him, either," she said (an idea that was preposterous, as she must weigh all of 100 pounds). "All I could do was make him more comfortable."

She took the cushions off the sofa and arranged them around him so that he was reclining like an Eastern potentate. Then she had a brilliant idea: What if she heaped the cushions under him, one by one, until he was lifted to the height of the coffee table? Then he could use the table to lever himself up.

By now the ladies were hooting genteelly. The hooting turned to cackling as my grandmother described, with expressive gestures, the hilarity that ensued when my grandfather leaned from one side to the other to allow the cushions to be slipped under him. And the cackling turned to uncivilized shrieks when she illustrated how he'd kept slipping off the cushions, into the cracks between them, right back onto the carpet.

Finally giving it up as a bad job, my grandmother bowed to the inevitable. She brought a bottle for my grandfather to use as a urinal (though she left out this off-color detail when she told the story to the ladies), called my uncle on his cell phone, and waited for help to arrive.

My grandmother's ruthless optimism, her unfailing conviction that tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles, does not set her apart from her friends. They share her iron-clad belief that things could always be worse. So the chorus began.

"It was a good thing you were here when he fell," said one lady.

"And thank God he wasn't badly injured." Of course.

"He could have hit his head on the coffee table!" Murmurs of agreement.

"Good planning," said one slyly, a friend of my grandparents for years, "that he had that extra weight for padding." More laughter.

"I'll tell you what's good planning," said another. "Having R. in town to come over and help!"

"And for him to have his cell phone."

"Yeah, but the best thing," said one lady, perfectly groomed in an iron-gray suit that matched her hair, taking a cookie from the tray I passed, "is to have a child to begin with."

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