Natural Causes

Fifteen years ago on September 11, my 83-year-old grandmother died. In her bed, in Queens. But maybe it was September 10 — by the time her neighbor discovered her body, the coroners in Queens were quite busy. The medical examiner’s visit to her home on 82nd Road revealed nothing unusual.

As a girl I was routinely mortified by her, but because she lived in New York, I visited her often. We’d go out for dinner, just the two of us, in Glendale or Maspeth, walking past the pizzerias and Chinese restaurants that beckoned with their spicy smells. But she always took me to the same musty restaurant under the elevated, where buck heads hung on walls and waitresses in dirndls served veal chops. Here’s an oft-repeated scene: a white man walks into the restaurant with an Asian woman — Dot, my grandmother, clucks her tongue loudly, purses her lips and says, “Chrissy, what’s that nice white boy doing with that chink?”

I could go on and on with these stories, by which I died a hundred shrinking deaths. But each time I sank through the floorboards, I had my solace. I knew that one day she would die, and her prejudices would die with her. I assumed that progress would eventually be made, the way it’s always made: one slow death after another.

Progress-wise, things seemed bright after 9/11. One of my cousins, a Staten Islander, volunteered with a cleanup crew near Ground Zero. When he talked about it, I heard his astonishment: New Yorkers were being kind to each other. “If you were at a pay phone and didn’t have enough change,” he said, “people would come up and offer it to you.” Strangers shared sandwiches with each other, he said. In those first few weeks, everyone was just American.

For a little while, it seemed that tragedy had escorted in a radical shift toward tolerance and kindness. From the borough of Queens, 244 people had died in the towers, and the firehouse with the most casualties, nineteen men, was Firehouse Squad 288 in Maspeth, where I had eaten many a tired German meal. This would pave the way toward something big.

Except, um, no. I’m 46 years old and fairly observant, and I have never witnessed contempt like what I see today. Newton’s third law states that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. We elect a black president, and abject racism bubbles to the surface. We nominate a woman to run for president, and the result is you-know-who running against her with a degree of support that shocks pundits. I could go on but I won’t because I’m more interested in who will save us from ourselves.

Say what you will about kids today — every generation has shortcomings — but I’m counting on our children. While we grown-ups were falling down on the job of safeguarding our planet and democracy, we were doing a great job of raising kind and tolerant future voters. It’s unfair of us to have saddled them with this broken system; on the other hand, look at the childhoods and cultural norms we’ve supplied them with: gay marriages, a black president, trans schoolmates. When I step out of line, they flay me. I said that I might get dreadlocks in my dotage, like Anne LaMott, and they accused me of cultural appropriation. “Mom,” they said, “you do know you’re white, don’t you?” I asked if one of their friends had come out as gay, and they said, “Why do you have to be so binary?” I asked if someone’s mother was, like me, divorced. “Mom, what does it even matter?”

My grandmother Dot was the daughter of hard-working German stock, trained to dislike entire categories of people: blacks, “Orientals,” Jews, Irish, Italians, poor people, rich people, people who emoted too much, people who procreated too successfully, people who cooked with herbs, and priests. And yet — she married an Irishman, who, despite being Irish, was handsome and kind. Her sister married a Jew; he had a job and a car and some charm.

I remember Dot at her sister’s house in a room filled with yarmulkes. “Poor Debbie,” she lamented, referring to my cousin. “She has such Jewy hair.” But she loved Debbie. She loved her ophthalmologist, too, a black man whom she kissed every time she visited him. She even became fond of my Sicilian father, whom she cautioned my mother not to marry on account of his being a “spic” with a mustache.

It took years and a bouquet of proximity, care and love to re-wire my grandmother’s biases. My children — our children — are light years ahead of her. Collectively, we’re training them to use their voices and hearts, and they are learning to be brave.

The neighbor who discovered my grandmother’s cool corpse on September 11 had a lot of trouble getting anyone on the phone. Eventually, Dot’s sister got hold of me, in Baltimore, and delivered the news. Already in a state of shock, it didn’t occur to me to be gentle with my mother. I blurted it out. “Your mother died.” I didn’t even warn her to sit down first.

Naturally, it took longer than usual to arrange the funeral. The undertakers and religious officiants were booked, the funeral parlors full. With a one-year-old at my breast, I was scared, and decided not to travel to New York. I should have been braver. As a nation, we all should have been braver. As we retire from these lives and make way for progress, I’m pretty sure our kids will have the courage to keep us in line.


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