104 in 2013

On January 1st, we celebrated the first day of 2013 and my great-grandmother’s 104th birthday.

She lives in the apartment beneath my aunt and uncle. Every weekend, my grandmother (her 82-year-old daughter), goes up to stay with her so they have a little break.

She can’t see very well at all, and when I go up to kiss her, I always take my glasses off so she knows it’s not my sister. Hi Gramma, it’s Catherine. How are you?

Good, dear. And how are you?

I bought her candles – a 1, a 0, and a 4 – and I laughed and said, “Let’s forgo the 104 individual candles; it’s a little much.” We bought her a carrot cake at the grocery store, and while she was eating it, she asked, “So, who made the cake?”


“We bought it this year, Gram.”

“Oh,” was all she said. 104 isn’t too old to expect a homemade cake, I guess.

She’s still spunky, when the moon’s right. She’s started muttering such astounding things as “Oh, shut-up,” when one of us gets too annoying. When we call her on it – Um, Gram, did you just say shut-up? – she’ll deny it.

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I look at her, and I can’t believe she’s the same woman who used to play hide-and-seek with me. I’d always hide under the leaves in the old bus stop, even when she told me not to. All the bugs and filth, she said. But what I remember most was when she used to sing to me. On summer afternoons, we’d lie down on her bed and listen to the ceiling fan, and she’d sing to me.

She has the stories she always tells. We’ve memorized them, almost word-for-word. The one about me pointing to the sky and trying to say “moon,” and how she kept telling me there was no cow in the sky. The one about my sister crying when Gramma scolded her for not cleaning up the costume jewelry. The one about me getting stuck in the swing and how she, at 81.5, was afraid she’d never get me out (this one’s embarrassing; even at 20 months, one doesn’t like to be told one is fat).

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She ate almost the whole piece of cake. She wore a pretty cream-colored sweater my brother and sister bought her for Christmas, but she was confused. “Where’s my sweater?” “You’re wearing a new one, Gram, that’s all.”

[When I was little, I remember looking at her thin, veined hand, and thinking: Oh my gosh, she has lived for 92 years. Her heart has been pumping for 92 years. Her eyes have been seeing the world for 92 years.]

On January 1st, her heart had been pumping for 104 years.

She looked at us and said her old stand-by:

“I am getting o.l.d,” (she spells it, like it’s a curse word, but it’s her use of “getting” that kills me) “but at least I still know who I am.”

Every last person she knew when she was young is long dead. I think of this, when I watch her taking a sip of water from a straw. She probably wonders why she’s still here. Everyone she ever loved before her daughter was born in 1930 is gone, and she sits in her recliner and calls for my aunt to come down and bring her a glass of water.

I try not to think about “why” or “why not” or any of the other things I could wonder.

I choose to remember the woman who loved to sing, who hoped when she was little that a man from Hollywood would hear her voice drifting out the window and make her famous. I choose to remember the woman who shared with me a love of words and games, and an imagination that made every day sparkle.