My grandmother looks like the storybook version of Mrs. Claus. Short, squat and more cherubic than any adult has any right to be, she has white hair permed into tight curls and cheeks so pink that she has never had to know what rouge is. My grandfather, on the other hand, is every stereotype of an old codger that has ever been. His shoulder stoop, his feet shuffle, his belly droops and the lenses of his glasses may as well have been taken from magnifying lenses. Where my grandmother is all smiles, sunshine and puppies, my grandfather is all scowls, piss and vinegar. She can “find the soft spot on an alligator”, as my sister says. He looks, as the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut once said of one of his characters, “as though he is sucking on a very sour lemon drop. And when the lemon drop is gone, he’s going to kill everybody.”
It should be fairly obvious that these are two of my very favorite people, albeit for completely different reasons.
This morning, my grandmother stood over the stovetop, raking a plastic spatula in a large skillet and eyeing it as though she expected its contents to leap out and try to bite her at any minute.
“Awful stuff?” I ask from my spot at the table. I’m being polite and making conversation. I don’t have to ask her. I know that she’s making what we’ve dubbed her “Awful Stuff” because I can smell it- a potent blend of wet dog, feet and- strange though it sounds- pine-scented deodorant.
“Mmhmm,” she singsongs, neither smiling nor frowning. “Awful Stuff” is just a bevy of whatever vegetables she thought looked interesting at the Farmer’s Market sautéed in oils of varying constitutions. As a diabetic, she accepts her limited diet the way that she accepts most anything she doesn’t much care for- with an acknowledgement that it will neither kill her nor slow her down.
“And what’d you find this week?” I cross out a line from a short story I am working on.
“Ehm, this is,” she stands on her tiptoes to see into the skillet. “Oh! Parsnips, turnips, radishes, onions- lots of onions, because they were going bad- and,” she pauses, studying something in the skillet and then raises her eyebrows with recognition. “Bok choy!” She plants her heels again and grins at me. “I’m sort of glad I can’t taste anything. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?”
“Well, it sounds like a-” I look at my feet where my dog lies. He looks up at me and then puts his nose in the air. When he gets a whiff, he stands with my grandmother and I watching, turns tail and heads into my bedroom. I look back at her and she shakes her head in amazement at the dog. “What he said.”
“Marilyn, what the hell is that schmell?” my grandfather shuffles in from the other room, his face contorted into a cartoony grimace where his bottom lip strains heavenward and his eyebrows unite into an obese, grey caterpillar.
“Oh!” she moans, equal parts disappointed and indignant. “Mr. Picky! That’s the good stuff!” She brandishes the spatula at him, splashing coconut oil on the counter.
“‘Good stuff’ my right eye!” he shakes his head. “I wouldn’t feed that to a pig!”
She looks at the skillet, a little deflated.
“Neither would I!” she chuckles. He shuffles around to see the contents of the skillet and they both laugh. They laugh even harder when she tells him that the dog went into another room.
They’ve been married for 58 years and they still make one another laugh.
“Hey,” he says, a section of the newspaper folded in half in his hand. “Do me a favor, wouldja? Cut hard left when you’re leaving out of the driveway? Away from the ditch bank?”
“Why’s that? Am I wearing a bald spot in the lawn?” she stirs the Awful Stuff and taps the spatula on the rim to remove excess oil.
“No, you’re just inadvertently ruining my drainage system that I dug the other day,” he asks without any hint of frustration, anger or enmity.
“Okay,” she says. “I can do that.”
“Thank you,” he says. “Now, did you see this gaffe in the paper this morning?”
And that was the end of the conversation. When my grandmother left in her car an hour later, she did indeed swing wide left so as to avoid whatever “drainage system” my grandfather had dug out. So simple, so straightforward. He asked, she acknowledged. He respected her enough in this matter to not feel the need to belittle, begrudge or condescend and she likewise respected him enough to listen carefully, consider and remember what he had asked. There were no minced words, no half truths with rounded edges, no criticism sandwich to ease the blow. No half-cocked rant or diatribe. Just a respectful request that said exactly what he meant.
Surely it’s because they’ve been married for 58 years. Surely it’s because they’ve spent the majority of their lives together and have had enough fights over silly things to figure out how to get what they need or want without ruffling each other’s feathers. Surely it’s because they’re two saintly people who are enviable communicators.
Because it just can’t be that easy.