My FIERCE Sicilian grandmother, Rosemary, died in December of 2007. Even at the very end, at the deliciously ripe old age of 90, she was still TOP SHELF PUSSY.
If you ever needed proof of that fact, all you had to do was ask her. Trust me: She’d be THE FIRST ONE TO FUCKING TELL YOU.
Because of her lifelong love affair with dogs, when we were little, we started calling her Grandma Pupsie — because that’s who and what she was. She was also dainty and lovely — but with a husky voice and a devastating wit. At the time of her death, she was still the same as she had always been — except her voice had deepened even further from a lifetime of Chesterfield cigarettes…so much so that she sounded (and, incidentally, acted) exactly like the actress Bea Arthur – the devastating response. The slow burn.
Grandma Pupsie was the person who taught me two of the most important and valuable lessons of my life as a woman.
1) “When you pluck your chin — and trust me, honey, YOU WILL — go sit out in the car and do it. The light is better out there.”
And 2) “Some women get old…and some women stay 22. Forever. I am that kind of woman…and SO ARE YOU.”
I was just five when she took my smooshy little face in her well-manicured hands and looked me right in the eye and whispered this incantation at me, willing it to be so. And, I’ll be goddamned if both of her spells did not come to pass.
Despite being born at a time when women were expected to be reasonable, well-behaved, and to know their place, my grandmother was unreasonable, ill-behaved, and knew that her place was exactly, precisely wherever the fuck she wanted it to be; no man ever dared to tell her how it was because she always told them first – her husbands, her brothers, and all other comers, including her doctor, whom she saw for a standard check-up about six months before she died. When he asked her if she was still smoking, she snapped back at him with the full ferocity of her nine decades, “That’s none of your goddamned business. And why do you want to know, anyway? I suppose you’re going to tell me to quit!” He laughed sweetly and responded, “Oh, no, Rose – at this point, you can smoke all you want. And besides that, you’re as healthy as someone 40 years your junior!”
And she was. When my grandmother left this world on Christmas Eve – and wasn’t it just like her to make such a grand exit? – she didn’t die of ANYTHING. Her heart just stopped beating and she was gone.
On her last January on the planet, my family gathered in Fresno to celebrate her 90th birthday. She showed up — looking impossibly tiny and impossibly spry. Her second husband, Tony, (my beloved Grandpa T) died about 15 years ago. She outlasted both of her husbands and all her treasured and countless canine friends – and towards the end lived for that holy triumvirate of The Golden Years: gambling, game shows, and grandchildren.
After Grandpa T’s death, she moved for a time to Las Vegas — to a retirement community just outside the city. Even though she was already in her early 80’s, she loved loved loved the attention paid to her by all the adorable, shriveled, little old men who were her neighbors. According to her, one of them, a wealthy old bloke named Walter, fell madly in love with her — and would oftentimes send her extravagant gifts of trinkets, treats, and cash. When I asked her about him, she would always answer, with a husky belly laugh and a wave of her cigarette, “Oh, honey, he’s just a horny old man after my Mary Jane.” — Mary Jane, of course, being a euphemism for her naughty bits. I would scream with belly laughter — and this, of course, delighted her no end.
So, after the birthday cake was cut and served, she told further scandalous stories of her youth (including the night she lost her virginity to my grandfather, but I shall save that shocking tale for another time) to all those present around the immense wooden table — even the little children, who sat rapt and enchanted listening to this wonderful, beguiling old witch reach back into the past. The merrymaking ran late into the evening, and when she eventually showed signs of getting a little tired, my brother and his wife packed her up so she could be trundled off home to bed. Propped up by her walker and her size 4 1/2 ankle boots, she shuffled towards the door, all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren swarming around her in adoration.
But before they whisked her out the door, she insisted on stopping to tell one last story about how the old guy in the retirement community back in Vegas was still in love with her — and that when some other old broad had tried to move in on him, my grandmother had gotten in her face and told her to suck it — literally scooted her walker over to this woman one night at bingo and told her to go fuck herself. Needless to say, we were all howling with belly laughter. I then asked, “Hey, Grandma — what would you do if ol’ Walter asked you to marry him? What would you say?”
She paused for a moment…and in Bea Arthur’s sardonic and devastating voice, my 90 year old grandmother smirked, raised her eyebrows, rubbed her fingers together in the international sign for money, and answered:
“Honey, I’d tell him that Mary Jane is OPEN FOR BUSINESS!”
In the book of essays on which I am currently working, I open what is essentially a memoir with the sentence, “I come from a long line of loose women.”
And I do. Loose, marvelous, scandalous women — who lived by their own rules and sucked all the marrow out of every moment of life they were given; women who truly knew how to live. I feel proud and privileged to count myself among them.