Some people break under pressure, crumbling when faced with adversity. Then, there are those who walk tall under the weight of the world and rise above the strife. My grandmother was one of the latter.
In the summer of 2000, I traveled to Florida’s southern coast, visiting extended family members and doing genealogical research. For nearly two weeks, my grandma’s abode served as “home base.” When I wasn’t off seeing others, my grandmother and I sorted through family photos and filled out a memory book that I had given her.
For several evenings, after enjoying a delicious dinner that only a granny can make, she and I would sit down at the kitchen table and talk family. Her sons regularly stopped by to listen in as their mother shared her recollections and personal history. After one of the funnier memories, one of my uncles asked his mom: “Why didn’t you ever tell us about this?” To which she responded, “Because you never asked.”
It was during these kitchen table sessions that I learned of how my grandparents met. The year was 1943. My grandmother had just turned 16 and was working at the ticket booth in a Miami movie theater.
One summer evening, an 18-year old coxswain in the Naval Reserves (a native of Missouri who was stationed in Miami) bought a ticket for a movie. He came by the next night and bought another ticket. After coming back again that week for a third showing, he finally got up the nerve to ask that pretty young ticket seller out on a date.
These two young people quickly became an item. A year later, on 22 June 1944, they were married. A few months after their wedding, their first child was born. It was during this point in the story that my grandmother paused and said, “Yes, yes, we put the cart before the horse. It happens, you know.”
On 17 December 1945, my grandfather resigned from the U.S. Navy and entered the private sector workforce while my grandmother kept house and raised their baby.
Several years passed. Then in 1950, a second child was born.
In the late 1950s, my grandfather joined a booming profession spurred by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. He became a long-haul truck driver, delivering goods throughout the United States. Although a lucrative job, there were some negative aspects of this business.
First, obviously, long-haul trucking separated men from their wives and families for extended periods of time. Because my grandfather was missing large chunks of his wife’s and kids’ lives, he was becoming disconnected from his loved ones.
Add to that, there were no regulations on how many hours a driver was permitted to drive in a row or at what maximum speed they should travel. Consequently, drivers were often pushed by their employers to drive a little longer and a lot faster than what was safe. Because of faster-than-normal speeds on little to no sleep, accidents did happen.
My grandfather was no exception. He got more than his share of fines and was in a few accidents, both big and small, including one that happened on 29 April 1956, approximately 25 miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio. While en route to Chicago, Illinois, the semi’s brakes failed on the local “dead man’s curve”, and my grandfather’s tractor-trailer overturned onto a passing car. Luckily, the two passengers of the car sustained only minor injuries, and my grandfather walked away unscathed.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Despite the fender benders and speeding tickets, shipments still had to arrive on time, no matter how little sleep the driver got. To stay awake longer, my grandfather began chugging carafes of coffee and popping pills, lots of pills. These amphetamines soon became an addiction that would ultimately lead to his downfall.
Meanwhile, my grandmother had borne two more children, one in 1961 and one in 1963. But all was not well on the home front. My grandfather’s mood alternated between the highs of speed and the lows of alcohol. Because these chemicals messed with his mind, he fluctuated between anger and depression. And when he was mad, he was truly mad, both in temper and sanity. It was during these rampages that my grandmother bore the brunt of his wrath.
The worse of these episodes was also the last one which my grandmother endured. When it was all over, my grandma was hospitalized, bloodied and bruised from head to toe with loosen teeth, a broken nose, black eyes, and a fractured eye socket. My grandfather was taken into custody by the police. When my grandmother was released, she and the kids went to live with her mother.
It was at this point that my grandma stopped her story, excused herself, and left the table. I thought that perhaps the memory had been too much for her and that she needed a moment. I was packing away my materials when my grandmother returned with a photo in her hand. It was a picture of a much younger grandma, garbed in a hospital gown with a face barely recognizable. She said, proudly, “He tried to break me, but I wouldn’t let him.”
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Not long after my grandma had moved in with her mother, President John F. Kennedy visited the Miami area on 18 November 1963, to deliver a key foreign policy speech, meet with the Inter-American Press Association, and mingle with local politicians. While in South Florida, a bomb threat was made against him, and 250 police officers were dispatched to help the Secret Service protect JFK. He left Southern Florida that evening. Four days later, on 22 November 1963, he was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.
My grandmother vividly remembered JFK’s assassination and how much the nation mourned. For her, though, this was not the worse moment in that time period. The day after the president’s death, 23 November 1963, my grandfather, who appeared inebriated, pounded on his mother-in-law’s door, brandishing a gun and demanding to see his wife.
My great-grandaunt and great-granduncle were there, visiting. My great-granduncle, who had served with the Marines during the Pacific Campaign, had spent many hours reminiscing with my grandfather about their wartime experiences. Because of their connection, he volunteered to go outside to calm down my grandfather.
Unfortunately, the situation soon escalated, and a fight ensued. During the scuffle, my great-granduncle attempted to disarm my grandfather. Tragically, the gun when off. My grandfather lay dead on the lawn.
Now a widow with four children, my grandmother had to pull herself together and pull herself up by her bootstraps. And that is exactly what she did, working hard to keep food on the table while raising her family.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Several years later, she met a man who would eventually become my step-grandfather. Together, these two would own and operate an automotive repair shop in South Florida. It was a good business, but over the years, the area around their shop became run down.
Then, between April through September 1980, 135,000 people fled Communist Cuba and immigrated to southern Florida. This was the last wave of refugees Fidel Castro would permit to leave. While a vast majority of these people were hard-working, law-abiding folks searching for freedom, the Cuban government decided to empty its prisons and asylums and send about 2,700 hardened criminals, drug addicts, and mentally ill over as well. Afterward, Castro boasted: “I have flushed the toilets of Cuba in the United States.”
The criminal faction became the Marielito crime gang and savaged South Florida, especially the Miami area. Eventually, the Marielitos teamed up with the Columbian Medellín cartel to push cocaine, while the Anglo gangs ran the marijuana trade.
Throughout the 1980s, crime rates significantly increased throughout South Florida. For example, in 1976, Miami had 104 murders. Three years later in 1979, that number was 367. However, just one year after that, murders in Miami had climbed to 573. In 1981, the number had gone even higher to 621.
Despite the increased crime of the 1980s, my grandmother was not deterred. She still went to work, balancing the books and running the office while my step-grandfather repaired automotive electrical systems. For the most part, my grandma somehow avoided these malefactors, that is, until one day when she walked out to her car to head home.
Suddenly, a young guy ran by and snatched her humongous handbag. (“Big enough to take out a mugger,” she would always quip.) And my grandmother, all five foot nothing of her, age late 50s or early 60s, thought it would be a good idea to give chase. Kicking off her high-heeled slings, she raced after the thief, screaming like a banshee. And, according to my grandma, “I would have caught that son of a [beep] too if he hadn’t jumped over a fence!” (Did I forget to mention that she was feisty like a bantam rooster and cursed like a drunken sailor?)
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear,
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear,
When she told me this story, I commented on how lucky she was that the guy was not armed, or she might not have lived to tell the tale. To which my grandma replied, “You know, I DID almost die once.” Her brush with death was either caused by a serious car accident or by hemorrhaging during/after pregnancy. Unfortunately, I cannot remember which of these incidents caused my grandma’s near-death experience. Regardless, here is what happened.
My grandmother was rushed to the hospital, where, at some point, her heart stopped beating. The next thing she knew, she was up at the ceiling, looking down at herself and all the medical staff rushing about “like ants scurrying in the rain.” Then, everything got very bright, as if a spotlight were shining on her. She said that light gave her a feeling of peace. Suddenly, she was yanked back, and there she was on the gurney, gazing up into the doctor’s face. The next day, when the doctor came to check in on her, he told my grandmother, “I thought we had lost you, but you proved me wrong.”
That was the last story my grandmother shared with me on that trip—a doozy, I know, but one that would foreshadow the future.
Less than two years later, on 23 February 2002, I received a phone call. My beloved grandmother, the one person in the world who understood me best, was in the hospital on life-support. She had massive internal bleeding caused by two long-term medications that should have never been taken together. These two prescriptions, when mixed, react adversely and can cause hemorrhaging. (Talk about a medical malpractice suit waiting to happen…)
It was this slow bleed that eventually caused my grandmother’s organs to shut down, one-by-one. Because of the trauma to her body, she slipped into a coma with little to no hope of recovery. “Can you get here quickly?” My step-grandfather would keep her on life-support long enough for me to say goodbye.
Throwing some clothes in a bag and clearing my schedule, I hopped into my car and rushed down the road. En route, I picked up my grandma’s younger sister and her family. Together, we made the long journey, switching drivers when needed. Twenty-four hours later, we arrived at the hospital, exhausted. The waiting room was packed with family members, both immediate and extended.
After hugging everyone, I went to see my grandma. She was lying in the hospital bed like a Borg with tubes and wires connecting her to machines. One machine pushed air in/out, in/out, in/out of her lungs. Others supplied her with fluid, removed waste, and monitored her vitals. I held her limp hand in my own and talked and talked, hoping that my voice would bring her back. It did not. She was too far gone.
Dejected, I walked out into the waiting room. The doctor soon joined us and asked my step-grandfather if he was ready to sign the papers to take her off life support. With his signature, it was time.
The doctor asked if anyone wanted to be in the room as they unhooked her. Although most of the family could not handle it, I knew that I needed to be there when she took her last breath. My mother, two of my sisters, and one of my uncles came with me. We formed a semi-circle around the hospital bed. Laying our hands on her, tears falling from our eyes, we watched as the nurse turned off the respirator. My grandmother’s heart rate slowed until it beat no more. We stood silently sobbing as the sound of the flat-line filled the void.
A wonderful woman with a wicked wit, outrageous outlook, endless enthusiasm, and constant compassion was gone. I hoped that she was hanging out in heaven, wearing her bling and slings and sparkly things with a Seabreeze-filled Dolphin mug in hand, watching “that hunky Chuck Norris kick a$$ and take names.” It was that image that made me smile as I walked out of the hospital.
The next day, my step-grandfather, accompanied by his sister and older daughter, made the funeral arrangements. Since my grandmother and I had written her eulogy two summers before, I knew that this, at least, was done.
While they were meeting with the funeral home, I spent that time surrounded by family, going through bins and baskets full of family photos and laughing at the memories before separating them into piles for our immediate family members.
Eventually, my step-grandfather and his kin returned. Because he was overcome with grief, we rallied around him. After I talked with him, he directed me to go back to what I was doing.
At some point, his daughter and sister came into the room and headed straight for my grandmother’s jewelry armoire, where they began rooting around. I wondered what they were doing. They said they were finding pieces for grandma to wear. “That’s a good idea,” I replied. “She always liked to wear jewelry.”
Time passed, but no longer were they searching for finery for grandma, now they were claiming pieces for themselves. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I went to ask my step-grandpa if he knew this was going on. “That’s fine,” he said. “Your grandma would want others to wear her jewelry instead of gathering dust.” “What dust?” I thought. “She just died yesterday.” But I held my tongue and headed back to the bedroom.
By now, these two women had draped themselves in rings and bracelets and necklaces galore. Needless to say, I and the rest of my family were disgusted with the greed, not grief these women were showing. But for my step-grandpa’s sake, we stayed silent.
Two days later, we laid my grandma to rest. The open coffin was situated front and center. Dressed in a demure, pastel pink dress with white gloves and a few pieces of jewelry was my grandmother, looking as if she were heading to a cotillion or a debutante ball. Although lovely, this outfit was so NOT Grandma. Oh no, she was much more vibrant and robust than that getup. Bright colors and a boatload of bling was her thing.
Soon, the funeral director indicated that we should all take our seats. His blond, perky assistant welcomed everyone. As she spoke, she constantly paced the floor with her hands in perpetual motion. It felt as if we were at an Italian open-air market.
And then, she began the eulogy for our dearly departed Florence. Florence? Who the heck is Florence? My grandma went by her middle name, Jean. She absolutely loathed her first name. Oh well, maybe it was just a slip of the tongue. Sadly, it wasn’t. It was Florence this and Florence that. Not once did she call her Jean. As if that were not bad enough, the assistant regularly used her hands like Vanna White to call attention to my grandmother’s corpse in the coffin.
And the eulogy… It was not the one my grandma and I had written together. The new tribute had no humor nor did it possess any of my grandmother’s personal memories or words of wisdom. Instead, it was a generic presentation interspersed with many references to her in-laws and her life after meeting my step-grandfather. There was little reference to her life prior to 1968, and all of my grandma’s sassiness, quirky sayings, and unending devotion to family was missing. Everything that had made this amazing lady who she was had been omitted. I sobbed anew over her loss.
A few weeks after the funeral, my step-grandfather set up a small “shrine” to my grandma, including her ashes, family photos, the memory book she and I created, and her favorite pieces of jewelry. Each anniversary and birthday, my step-grandpa placed a vase of flowers beside her portrait. Even though she was gone, his love for her stayed strong.
Then, on 23 February 2006, one day before the four-year anniversary of my grandma’s passing, my step-grandfather died. Unfortunately, his family did not inform us of his death until a couple of months later, when my uncle made inquiries.
After offering his condolences, he asked when we could get his mother’s ashes and family heirlooms (i.e. photos and memory book.) My uncle’s request was met with a moment of silence. Finally, he was told: “I’m sorry, but we got rid of everything we didn’t want.” Incredulous, he asked, “So you mean to tell me that you threw my mother’s ashes away?” Their quick apology and immediate hangup said it all. So, instead of being buried beneath a headstone or carried away on an ocean breeze, my grandmother’s remains ended up in a landfill. Sounds like a Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” joke, doesn’t it?
So there you have it, the hard-knock life of my beloved grandma. But despite the disappointments and disrespect she suffered, she rose above it all with a sunny disposition and a healthy humor. She was the strongest person I have ever known.