My grandmother read several newspapers every afternoon in the precise, methodical manner characterizing everything she did. Of particular interest were the death notices in the Trenton Times, Star Ledger, and Princeton Packet. Sometimes my father brought home newspapers from Washington and Chicago. The London Evening Standard was her favorite foreign paper. Dad said the smell of newsprint was the one thing that made his mother’s exhausted brain grind into action. Obituaries were her passion.
Every day during the summer of the year I turned 11, I walked home from the municipal pool to have lunch with her. My grandmother and I would sit in the kitchen and she’d read. “Here’s a good one.” Leon Mendoker passed of coronary thrombosis at the not-so-tender age of eighty-six. “Not so ancient as to be rendered utterly useless,” my grandmother said with some authority, “but old enough.” She was seventy-four.
As she perused the obits, my grandmother often came across someone she believed she’d once known. “Make a note,” she’d tell me, to remind her to send a card. She didn’t know Leon. Still, something in his obit made my grandmother suck at her dentures in satisfaction.
Glory Tanner, dead at age twenty-three, was more worrisome. No cause of death was given. An automobile accident was always likely, leaving the woman’s lifeless body lying sprawled on the road, undergarments on display. Glory unwittingly indulging in a public display of indecency.
It annoyed my grandmother that the newspaper left her to wonder about the young ones, leading her to fret over the sordid aspects of life. “A botched abortion,” my grandmother said, her voice darkening. She grew confidential and shared her theory about poor Glory and a seaman. A rotten apple from the bottom of the barrel on rusty Greek steamer. A chase at midnight ending in a grubby Seaside motel, all leading to a fantastic nightmare. My grandmother repressed an involuntary shudder. She’d been prudish before dementia infected her brain. Now, according to my mom, whatever flew into her head flew out of her mouth.
Grandma took a sip of flat, warm Fresca, washed her teeth in it and wondered aloud if Glory Tanner would have a lot of flowers at her funeral. She shook off the reluctant fascination and returned to the column. “Look. Martine Waller, part-owner of Waller Fine Chocolates? She was sixty-six. A far more respectable age at which to meet the pale horseman.” She asked me what I thought someone that rich would die of?
“I dunno? Skin cancer maybe. From too many holidays in the sun. Or a drug overdose. Cocaine or something like that?”
“I wouldn’t bolt my tuna sandwich if I were you,” my grandmother warned without taking her small blue eyes away from the newspaper.
I took small bites and chewed carefully. “Why’s it lumpy?” I asked, but my grandmother was deep into another obituary. “Here’s a man from Morocco who worked as a health inspector. Dead at age 65. Says he was in his car. Probably on some mad, foolhardy errand,” she reasoned, letting go of a long suffering sigh.
As she read, she scribbled down numbers with her left hand. A trick cyclist dead at age 82; a man who edited Le Monde, age 78; a former model famous for once tripping over a loose stage light, 72. “That’s what you get from staggering around on bird bones. Old bird bones are the worst,” she said, frowning and recovering.
“A man whose car hit a fire hydrant, a woman who died from botulism. Probably from canning her own green beans,” my grandmother said. “Life is a delicate as a dandelion. One puff and poof. It’s blown to bits.”
I looked doubtfully at my grandmother’s lunch, a scoop of cottage cheese and a homemade canned peach on torn lettuce. The peach was brown and looked like a monkey brain. “Want half my sandwich?” I asked.
My grandmother took a bite of the proffered sandwich. I watched her jaw, its mechanical clicks still working the tuna and what I figured out were apple bits into a fishy paste around her mouth. She read about a saucier for La Fontana. “Hit by lightning walking home to his apartment. And Hans Kitula,” my grandmother said. “Name sounds Finnish. The Finns are a silent people. I know,” she said. “When I lived in Georgia, our maid was Finnish.” My grandmother stared thoughtfully at a middle distance, her eyes blue pebbles behind distancing bifocals. “Georgia on the Black Sea,” she said.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon,” I said. She didn’t hear me. Once memory had a toe in the door, it dragged her in letting the past scramble at her. “Grandma?” I watched memories chase themselves across her face.
She finally looked at me, her eyelids wrinkled, eyes puzzled, her mind still replaying some lost tape of my grandmother starring in her own film.
“Can I have blueberries?” I asked.
“Blueberries?” She came out of her dream and her lips pulled together under her small pale nose.
“Blueberries are for the birds. Did you leave your calculator at home again?”
“I thought you didn’t believe in calculators,” I said.
“I don’t. I’ll do it in my head.” After several minutes, she looked pleased. “The average age of today’s deceased is seventy-seven, so that gives me what?” My grandmother’s brain reached an unassailable conclusion. “Three more years,” she said triumphantly, and her nostrils breathed in the aroma of life and hope. Today would be a good day.
Adele Polomski is a writer who has published work in Woman’s World. She left central Jersey to live at the shore and was displaced by Super Storm Sandy. For Adele, fiction writing is the best escape