A long goodbye and the woman who taught me how complicated — and how resilient — love can be.
Forced out into the world after her husband died so much earlier than anyone expected, for twenty-five years my grandmother was a social worker for the county of Los Angeles. In her bright orange 1970 VW beetle named Clementine she commuted hours each day to the iconic County General building, immortalized by the opening of the soap opera General Hospital. I was so proud as a child to point to the TV and imagine my grandmother there. I’m not sure specifically what she did inside that building, but I do know that either A) she was not suited for this task in the first place, and it confirmed every stereotype she ever had about people who didn’t look like her. Or, B) she had never thought much about difference, and two decades immersed on the front lines of poverty slowly eroded her compassion for her fellow citizen. I’m a philanthropist, and I loved my grandmother, and so I tend to lean toward option B.
Leona Drayer, who much preferred to go by Lee, lived her entire life in Southern California. She was born in Bakersfield and after marrying my grandfather lived for fifty years in San Gabriel in a house they built together on Drayer Lane — Lee and Walter Drayer, homesteaders and first inhabitants in a sea of citrus groves in 1939. At age fifty-five, after Walter died, she took her first job outside the home. At age seventy she sold the ranch-style cinderblock rambler she and Walt built and moved to Pomona. At age eighty-two I moved her into a one-bedroom apartment in assisted living, just down the road in San Dimas.
With the exception of Bakersfield, this map spans about a twenty-mile radius. It’s not unusual to spend a life in a small geography. It is unusual to for a white woman to be present for so long, and to watch that geography change from a rural agrarian landscape to a concrete jungle of graffiti, to watch blue-collar exurbs become seas of shops marked by characters illegible to you; to watch as all the symbols of place surrounding you begin to draw you on the outside, delineating your otherness in a world you built in your prime, with sons and daughters playing in the streets and a Great America enjoying the fruits of shared sacrifices during our great wars.
Inability to face the legacy of colonialism, ignorance of the fact that wars across the globe spur migration and listening to Rush Limbaugh every morning cultivated a resentment in my grandmother. A sense that her world had been stolen away by immigrants who neither appreciated nor deserved what was rightfully hers. Her resentment of this imagined theft grew through the decades into a strong and robust social and fiscal conservatism.
Grandma Lee, GL to me, and I spoke on the phone each Saturday morning since I could remember, she in Los Angeles and I in Seattle. As a young child it was a highlight. As I grew older it became a duty. I began to understand that she and I were very different people. At age eight it didn’t matter to me what my grandmother thought about Catholics or Mexicans — anyone from South or Central America was a Mexican to her — what mattered was that she would send me a whole bag of mini Reeses cups for Christmas, and new outfits for picture day at school. My difficulties with multiplication tables were easily relatable.
Around age thirteen, I changed fundamentally. The schism with my grandmother became official. My mother’s recent divorce and progressively more demanding relationship with alcohol found me in charge of my own life — logistically and emotionally. I started carving out an independent personality, as many teenagers do, my own search free of parental interference and temperance. As GL became more conservative, I began experimenting with some pretty liberal ideas about society, race relations, politics, and the like.
As I became a leftist teenager, it became harder and harder to share my life every Saturday morning with a woman to whom I could no longer relate. Full of youthful optimism, I had no way of understanding or interacting with her bitterness. Cultivated in a white, English speaking environment, embracing difference for me was novel and non-threatening. While I remembered that I loved my grandmother, memories of summer vacations in SoCal filled with laughter, swimming pools, tangerine push-pops and learning to ride a bike became one-dimensional. Separated by geography and identity, slowly our vibrant relationship faded. My youthful adoration and idealization collided with ideology and teenage angst.
I am the only child of my father, who was my grandmother’s only child. My dad died in 1979. My grandfather had already died some twenty years before that. In a world increasingly isolated and foreign to my grandmother, I was a last familiar. I’m sure she understood teenage ennui, but I’m also sure it was plenty painful to keep calling, week after week, to record my one-word answers. To her considerable credit, and my great luck, GL held on. If the world she knew had abandoned her, mine had as well. At age fifteen I essentially lived alone. By seventeen I’d moved in with cousins for my last year of high school.
Those chlorine and popsicle-filled summer visits to my grandmother’s as I was growing up were more than vacations. For a young girl in a long-troubled family, they were my chance to glimpse socio-economic stability. A chance to spend a week in a home that was not plagued by alcohol abuse, and to interact with boys and men who were not angry and violent.
She and those visits were also my only connection to my biological father. A man who, by all accounts, was brilliant and evolved. My sole caretaker for the first two years of my life, he unapologetically brought me along to job interviews in Texas to places like Motorola, and industries not known in the 70s or even now for their family and woman-friendly workplaces. He’d start interviews with the toddler on his lap, “I’m raising a daughter and she’s part of my life — if that doesn’t work for you, I can’t work here.” Certainly not something a woman could get away with then or now — but we could certainly use more men in the world like my father.
I know of my father only through my grandmother, because my mother never really spoke of him. My grandmother, grand-aunt and cousins were the lone keepers of the rarely told stories that helped me to understand who I was, where I came from, and a world that had once been and could still be mine — one that was not defined by economic anxiety and addiction.
Yet when I started college in Claremont, CA, only fifteen minutes away from GL’s immaculately kept condo, I’d describe us as a long-married couple at the brink of divorce. Our Facebook posts might read something like, “After eighteen years together GL and I have decided to separate. We still love each other very much but have come to realize that we are just both very different people. I will always care about her, but I’m not the person I was when we met and fell in love.”
Still, we persisted. Each week she would take me, and sometimes a lucky friend, off-campus and out to dinner. I kept my mouth shut about my queer-theory courses and GL would wrinkle her nose and describe walking out of movies like The Birdcage. “I just couldn’t stand to see men acting like that. Can you?”
In 2000, shortly after graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. and put down the kind of roots you do when you’re in your twenties. A rented apartment, monthly payments on a used car, a revolving door of girlfriends, and a tight knit community created by spending night after night at happy hours, complete with free pizza and $1 well drinks. Christmases were still spent with GL, surrounded by much older distant cousins, aunts, and uncles who shared her views about “those people swarming across the border.” They would honestly badmouth ‘that Catholic dictator, John F. Kennedy.’ I drank away the holiday season, silent and surrounded by ideology antithetical to my very identity. Unwittingly my family, and my grandmother, clearly drew me on the outside of their cultural geography. GL had persisted through my youthful resentment. Lonely for any connection to family at all, even a tenuous one to people who horrified me, I kept my silence at holidays.
In 2004 a close friend of the family called. GL had had a stroke and fallen, or fallen and had a stroke. Details were unclear. What became clear in the months that followed was this: Grandma could no longer live alone. Dementia caused by the stroke was not fading, it was progressing. The friend suggested I consider moving to Los Angeles, to which I simply replied, “I can’t.” So began my career as long-distance caretaker to a much-loved stranger with progressive dementia.
I learned more about my grandmother and my family in the weeks it took to sell her home and move her to assisted living than I knew about her in the two decades previous. Entitled by a sense of necessity, I sifted through photos, financial statements, letters and accrued belongings. Alone with the artifacts of her life, I discovered stories she’d never told me about my dad and my mother, divorced a year before his death from leukemia. My dad has always been a ghost to me. His substance was never formed by my grandmother. There were no pictures of Ron anywhere in her home, and she barely ever spoke of him, her grief desperate and unending. Nor did I learn of him from my mother, whom I can only guess never knew exactly what to say to her only daughter about her estranged ex-husband.
Finally, though, through well-kept files of forgotten papers, I had context. Finally, I had photos of my father — with my grandmother, and with me. Finally, I was able to understand my grandmother’s character and her loss, and to share it with her. She became a whole. Through letters from friends and family, letters from the state documenting loss and acquisitions, the span of her life unfolded to me. Friends lost in World War Two. A husband lost in his prime. A son lost in his. A best friend who committed suicide. There was so much context to complicate my frustration. Already much of Grandma’s personality was lost to dementia. Yet I finally knew more about who she really was than I ever had.
During her decade-long decline, I commuted to visit GL at the assisted living home every three to four months; first from D.C. and then from Denver. For several years, my wife and I woke up every Christmas morning at the Sheraton hotel in Ontario, CA, near her facility. When seasons got blurry for GL, I finally conceded that it would be okay to stay home for the holidays and we began our own traditions that didn’t involve airports and hotels; and I still cry when I hear Colorado Christmas by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
When I first moved GL into assisted living, we talked about where she wanted to live. She stated that Los Angeles had been her home her whole life, that she could not imagine leaving. She also made it circuitously and firmly clear that she did not want to move away from “David,” with whom she’d been having a casual extra-marital (on his side) affair for twenty years. Surprise! I respected the wish that the relationship remain intact but undocumented, and GL stayed in L.A. instead of moving to Denver. For her first few years in assisted living, David, about fifteen years her junior, was her quasi-caretaker. This situation lasted about five years into her decline, when one day on the phone, GL reported that he had “moved away.” I’ve never heard from him since the abrupt departure.
Almost ten years after moving GL into her first facility, my wife and I moved her to a memory-care facility in Rancho Cucamonga, once again just down the road, still in Southern California. By now she existed only in a world of the immediate. There was no real past, no subjunctive version of the future, no way to imagine and subsequently resent what might be better if we were all white and all spoke English. There was no such thing in her world as ideology. GL’s fervent racism faded to a skeptical or confused look when she conversed with a caretaker with a heavy accent, as many had. The irony that the very people she’d spent seventy years hating were now in charge of every aspect of her life — and carried out that charge with love and compassion — is profound and informative.
I never came out to GL. I’m sure it would have made her happy if I showed up with a husband one day, but she smiled brightly when I brought my “friend” Erin to visit. By that time it was impossible to be angry with her for not accepting her as my wife, because she didn’t have the capacity to conjecture about what she might want for lunch that day, much less change her personal moral compass on gay marriage; a concept that didn’t even exist when GL was doing things like falling in love. What I felt from her was contentment that I had someone in my life who cared about me the way she did.
Before she passed away, in most ways GL was already gone. In her place was a woman I finally understood and could connect to, and with whom I shared a closeness we had both previously made impossible by our own intolerances. We were no longer strangers to each other. She still recognized me, and she trusted me. She smiled when I showed up and she cried when I left. I looked after her in the ways that I could. I kept her safe, healthy, and cared for. I finally accepted that I could not keep her from the loneliness and isolation of her condition, nor from the fact that at ninety-four, her friends had died or could not travel, the rest of her family had passed on or moved on, and that the world of Southern California as she knew it was a memory as faded as those she no longer had.
I remained my grandmother’s last familiar. Through her dogged determination to stay in my life, she taught me what it means to love persistently; for decades hers was the only home in my life that had not been completely broken by loss and grief, not addiction or adultery. Through her many hates and -isms she helped me understand my own, and my own complicity in the violence that plagues our world. Through her long decline she taught me what it meant to be kind to those who were suffering, including myself.
Sometimes when I visited, GL would smile and forcefully squeezed my hand or pat my leg and say, “You’re such a good granddaughter.” I struggle to accept that I can rightfully claim that praise. I struggle to accept the joy and the richness she brought to my life in the disguise of heartache, guilt — and wishing it were all just easier. I struggled with my love for GL then and I still do — and it’s been worth the fight. Because I know it made her happy, and it made me less unhappy, when I simply smiled and replied, “Thank you Grandma.”