When I saw my mom was calling from the United States at 6 A.M., I knew she was about to tell me my Grandmother had passed away. We had all been expecting it, but somehow it was still surprising. Grandma always seemed to just keep on living, despite everything. In India as life has continued for me, I have been thinking about my Grandmother a lot. Here I would like to share some of my memories of her.
It was always guaranteed to be a good time with Grandmother Duncan. She was blunt and candid, always telling interesting stories from her past and present. Even if I’d already heard them, which was often the case, I still enjoyed them. One of my favorite stories she told was the story of Chris parking her car. The first time Chris met my Grandmother, she drove up to the restaurant and he offered to park her car so she could skip the hassle and go inside. This one small act on Chris’s part forever awarded him high approval from my Grandma. After that, she sung his praises for the rest of time. This story became famous amongst our family because she repeated it to so many of us.
Grandma often told me about living in San Francisco as a young woman and working in a time when women were just beginning to enter the workforce in America. These tales always included a mention of the boarding home she lived in with other women, including her lifelong friend Shirley; driving a convertible over the Golden Gate Bridge; and going to the Conga Room, a lively dance club. My own mother, Claire, once shared a story with me that Grandmother defended her black friends when people questioned why Claire was hanging around with people of color. Hearing these stories always made me proud that my Grandma wasn’t afraid to break social norms, working in a time where women were supposed to aspire to marriage and accepting people in a time when racism dominated social culture.
Stories about Will and Charles were always good and often related to them playing with fire as children or living in a sketchy neighborhood outside USC. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories because, at the time, I myself was living in a sketchy neighborhood outside USC and I found them very relatable.
Grandma and I often spoke on the phone. During these conversations she always mentioned riding the train across the country to get to College; or some variation of a cruise story, often featuring the Panama Canal or riding a helicopter to a Glacier in Alaska. Many conversations began, “You know, I remember when you were born”, and followed with stories of baby sitting Cara and I, and sleeping on a blow up mattress in our upstairs living room. Grandma also often spoke of Jazz shows she attended seasonally in Walnut Creek. On these occasions Shirley and she would always dine at Scott’s and then go to the concert, two activities my Grandma adored.
One of my favorite experiences with Grandma was a lunch we enjoyed just the two of us at the Golf Clubhouse in Rossmoor. That day, I heard many stories I had never heard before and during this time I realized how similar our sensibilities were. The highlight for us both was ordering chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream. Though her false teeth fell out, she wasn’t bothered and pursued her cake with unapologetic pleasure.
In the last year of my Grandma’s life, the year prior to my sisters wedding, she spoke endlessly about how excited she was, usually followed by an expression of her need to purchase an outfit for the occasion. She finally found a beautiful crème colored gown with the help of my mother. On the day of the wedding she was able to walk down the isle on my brother’s arm to her front row seat and later sat with her brother Jim whom, though they spoke much on the phone, she didn’t get to see often. Afterwards she told me, “What a beautiful wedding!”
My grandmother was the kind of woman who loved to have a glass of chardonnay with lunch and to watch Broadway shows like Book of Mormon, afterwards remarking “they used a lot of foul language.” She laughed with sincere amusement on her 86th birthday when her granddaughters gifted her a book about a dinosaur titled “All My Friends are Dead” exclaiming amid bursts of laughter that it was true. She always had perfect nails, fake, but religiously changed every month. She had a great taste for British television shows and murder mystery novels. Her bookshelf was lined with best sellers and books by James Patterson. If you opened her fridge you would find it well stocked with Lipton’s Ice Tea, Eggo waffles, and a huge chocolate bunny that sat eternally uneaten. She loved steak, seafood, sandwiches, See’s Candies, and my Aunt’s famous green Jell-O, guaranteed during Thanksgiving just for Grandma. At our many lunches she never failed to order either a Crab Louie salad or a Pastrami sandwich. She hated balloons and had a dark sense of humor, which I loved. I remember vividly the time she burst out into song at one family gathering in Pacifica, randomly singing ‘Chicago’ at the dinner table. These are some of the things I loved about my Grandma. She was unconventional, one of a kind.
To me, my Grandma was an excellent grandmother. She never failed to send me a card for my birthday or a holiday, including Halloween, whether I was living in LA, SF, or Italy. She loved her grandchildren, always wanting to hear about our lives and see photographs of where we had been and what we had been doing. One sure fire way to make Grandmother happy was to show her photos or gift her a photo album or a frame. For this reason her apartment was covered in photos of all of us. She went to many of our graduations, whether it was middle school or high school. And she always spoke to me with so much pride about how smart and successful her own children had become. Many of her stories also featured her best friend Shirley or her brother Jim. I loved hearing stories of Jim and Amanda and their picturesque beach house on Bainbridge Island. I was so intrigued by these stories that I went to visit my Great Aunt and Uncle on the Island where we sat down for lunch and Jim ordered a pastrami sandwich.
I can’t imagine what our next Thanksgiving will be like without Grandma cracking jokes and praising Christine’s green Jell-O, but I am happy that I got to spend so much time with her, hearing stories from her past and present. Though she is gone, I know her stories and her spirit will live on through me and all of her Grandchildren. For me, she was my last living grandparent and she was a gem. She will always be in my heart.