I come by my dark sense of humour honestly: Part One

My grandmother will turn ninety-nine this year—if she makes it, and there is a good chance she will—with the somewhat grudging acceptance of a woman who remembers being hidden in a garbage can as a child during World War One bombing raids on Poland. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. Maybe that’s where she gets her wonderfully detached sense of humour.  My own began with her.

My earliest memories of Granny include darkly comic snaps that seemed to come out of nowhere. Often, they would leave me puzzled long after she made them, as though she couldn’t possibly have said what I heard. She was, after all, my mother’s mother. And, as a child, I viewed these two pillars of Lutheran strength as the paragons of goodness the Bible, with all its weight, told me they must be.

Her darkly comic snaps left me puzzled

How could such a woman assert—at Christmas dinner, no less, and with no discernible quake in her voice—that her own son would not be sitting there arguing in favour of access to abortion (this being Canada, in the 1970s) had she had such access twenty-odd years earlier.

Silence gripped the holiday dinner table upon her remark, giving my thirteen-year-old ears plenty of time to digest exactly what she meant. I was too young to have much moral or political opinion of my own. But for the first time, I fully grasped what it had meant to her to lose two babies, one to stillbirth, one after a debilitating eighteen months of painful life. This in the middle of her six-child run.

Granny earned her noirish view of the world, fair and square. And, as I recall, she won that particular debate. Check and mate.

She has outlived my grandfather a decade and a half so far, and lived in their grand fifteenth floor condo on her own until ninety-five, reluctantly moving into a retirement residence after one fall too many. Those last couple of years on her own, she had one of those emergency response pagers the elderly are supposed to wear around their necks so they can press a button to call 9-1-1. She kept hers in a drawer. I’d love to ask her whether that was out of a sense of pride or a fashion statement; what she told my mother was that she thought she could save on the fees if she didn’t actually wear it all the time.

Did I mention my grandmother, even today, holed up in care facility number three, remains lucid as the day she was born? I’m going with pride.

I took my kids along the first time I visited Granny in the old age home. We were in from out of town and she had been there a month or so by then. We joined her for dinner. The menu was pretty decent, a different slate of choices every day, and the kitchen was always willing to make grilled cheese if nothing on offer tickled Granny’s fancy.

She loved having her great-grandchildren join her for dinner

I had beef bourguignon; the children had pasta. Granny beamed with pride at having her grandson and two great-grandchildren with her for Friday dinner. She looked around the dining room and remarked on the finery. I had to agree that the place was not too shabby. The  décor was decent, the staff and other residents friendly and happy, the windows large. Very little institutional intrusion on a high-end assisted living space.

Sure, Granny’s room was small and she had made a crack about “This is all I have left” before we’d walked down the hallway to dinner, but it was well-appointed, and she had a couple of favourite pieces of furniture and a painting or two on the walls.

As we ate desert (which Granny never once missed in all the years I’ve known her) she smiled at me and her great-grandson and great-granddaughter and said, “So, what do you think? It’s pretty nice here, isn’t it?” We nodded. And she turned to me with a smile and those twinkling blue eyes and said, “Hope it’s not for too long, though.”