June 20, 2012

Tell me a story

Today, I'm going to do something a little bit different. Today, I'm going to tell you a story.

It's not an excerpt from one of my novels or a short story. It's not fiction or fantasy or about a cheese man. It's the story of a very special woman. I don't know if I'll do the story justice, but I'm going to try my best.

This woman's name was Yolanda. She was one of eight children. She was born on January 21, 1922. She lived most of her life in a lovely old row house in Brooklyn.
This is not Yolanda, but her youngest grandchild

Yolanda married a wonderful man named Frank. She loved her parents and adored her father-in-law. She thought her mother-in-law was a witch.
Yolanda and Frank's wedding photo
Yolanda and Frank had two children and five grandchildren, although Frank died before the youngest three grandchildren were born.
Yolanda's five grandchildren. Recognize the squalling baby? You should.

Both of Yolanda's children moved to New Jersey to raise their families. Yolanda eventually found her way out there, too, but not for many years to come, not until her health prevented her from living on her own and she moved in with her son. She lived by herself in that old Brooklyn row house, but she was never really alone. Her family could be found all around the neighborhood; her nieces and nephews, her brothers and sisters, many of them still lived in Brooklyn, some just down the street from her. But it wasn't just family that she could rely on for company. Yolanda was a woman with a vibrant personality, a kind heart, and a wicked sense of humor, and she made friends wherever she would go. She treated strangers like friends, and friends like family. Almost everyone who knew her called her Aunt Yo, and they meant it.
Now leaving Brooklyn. Fuhgeddaboudit
Yo always had candy dishes filled with M&M's and a pitcher of iced tea. She had a set of blocks under the living room couch and a back room with some old toys and crayons that always seemed better than the new ones. When her grandchildren came to visit, she'd order fried chicken or pizza, and they'd play cards at the kitchen table. Sometimes, she would make meatballs with her grandchildren. She and her youngest granddaughter would make small ones that they would keep out of the gravy and eat together while they waited for the pasta.
The squalling baby, just a little bit older

When Yo moved in with her son, I'm sure that she regretted not being able to stay in her old Brooklyn neighborhood. I'm sure she missed the schoolchildren that called her Aunt Yo and her frequent visitors, but she was able to spend much more time with her grandchildren. Her daughter's family didn't live too far away, so they were able to see her more often than they could while she was in Brooklyn. Her youngest granddaughter, a teenager now, was able to drive up to see her, and they would play cards, or watch old movies, or watch game show reruns together. But living with her son's family also allowed Yo to be there when her first three great-grandchildren were born, and I'm sure she would have considered that an even trade.
Yolanda's great-grandchildren
My clever readers have probably already figured out that Yo is my grandmother, and the same one for whom I made a strawberry shortcake and some cookie dough truffles. You may have figured out that I'm the youngest granddaughter, the youngest of the five grandchildren. You also probably already figured out the reason that I'm telling her story and the reason that I've been missing the past two weeks.
Yup, the squalling baby and the girl on the steps are me.
Two weeks ago, on June 6th at about a quarter after eleven in the evening, Yolanda died. She was 90 years old.

I've always been jealous of those people that have memories of being in the kitchen with their Italian grandmother, learning to cook at their elbow. The only thing I ever cooked with her were those meatballs, the little ones made just for me. But I still think that I learned my love of cooking from her. She taught me that food was something to be savored, enjoyed, and shared with the people that you love. She taught me that the easiest way to show someone you care is to feed them good food. She taught me that the kitchen is the place for love, laughter, and family.
My grandmother was certainly no saint. She loved the f-word, was a little bit racist, and had an often inappropriate sense of humor, but that was all a part of her charm. The last time I spoke to her, when she was awake and aware, about a week before she died, she held my hand and called me beautiful. I then met a woman that my grandmother had befriended just for the heck of it. She made the nurse laugh, and that same nurse came in to kiss her goodnight before she ended her shift. I also got yelled at for laughing at a joke my uncle had made at my grandmother's expense, but that doesn't count because she was laughing too.
My grandmother, chugging champagne on New Year's Eve. We're classy like that.
If there's one thing that Yo taught us, it's that you don't have to be an angel to be perfect, and you don't have to be perfect to be an angel. Part of me is always shocked to know that the world didn't end on June 7th, that the world wasn't shaken to it's very core. Because there will never be another woman like Yolanda, and I can't help but feel that the world is a much poorer place without her.
The day of the wake, clear as day, there was a rainbow.
Grammy, I love you and I miss you. There's an ache in my chest and an emptiness in my stomach that can't be filled, not even with cupcakes. You loved every piece of jewelery I made, ate everything that I baked, and cheered me on with every word that I wrote. I don't know how I'll keep going without you, but I'll find a way. Because that's what you would want.