May 22, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
Grandmother looked terrible, her face faintly blue beneath the fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling and unfamiliar rolls of flesh ringing her neck. Her gray hair was a wispy halo on the stark white pillows beneath her head. Her greeting was barely audible as Dad, Mom, Kathy, Steve, Margy, and I entered her hospital room.
The Grandmother I knew always had rouge on her cheeks, a single firm chin, hair well coiffed, and an announcer’s clipped diction. Before leaving her apartment, she often paused in front of the framed mirror in her living room, removed a gold compact from her purse, and patted a little more red powder on her nose. She favored suits with a stick pin and small hats pinned in place by hairpins. Satisfied with her appearance, she would say crisply, “Let us go, Michael.”
Dad took her hand in his and kissed her sallow cheek followed by Mom and her four older grandchildren. The two youngest boys were with a neighbor. Grandmother’s face lit up as she asked me when I was going to California for my new position.
“It’s just a summer job in the City of Berkeley’s Planning Office. I leave Saturday,” I replied.
“A great opportunity, Michael,” she said in a strong, clear voice. “An article in Time magazine says there are many openings in your chosen profession.”
“Kathleen, Stephen, and Margaret, how are you doing with your lessons? Very important, you know,” Grandmother said turning in bed to look each of them in the eye, one of the practices she often preached to us.
Soon Mom said, “We’d better let you get some rest. You’ll get this operation behind you and soon be with us for Sunday dinner. The roses are blooming.”
On the way home, Dad assured us, “Grandmother will be fine. Removal of the gallbladder is a routine operation. Don’t worry.”
I thought Dad sounded worried.
* * * * * *
Ten days later, I arrived in San Francisco in a car Hertz needed there and contracted with me to deliver. I adjusted to Pacific Time and began my internship in Berkeley’s City Planning Office. I was staying with some friends from Ohio State on Geary Boulevard, not far from Cliff House, a restaurant on a point high above Seal Rock where seals scrambled out of the Pacific and sunned themselves. I slept on the couch unless someone brought a girl home. Then I took my blankets into a long, narrow walk-in closet off the hallway and slept on the floor.
I was surprised when a roommate answered the phone after I got home from work and said it was for me. Mom began, “I’ve got some bad news. Grandmother passed away last night from complications related to her surgery. I’m so sorry, honey.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen. How can she be gone?” I said angrily.
“I know. We don’t expect you to turn around and come home. You just got there. You saw her in the hospital.”
I protested, but Mom said she and Dad had decided it was better that way. I knew we simply couldn’t afford the train or even a Greyhound. When I hung up the phone, my roommates had retreated to the kitchen and left me alone. I shouted that I was going for a walk.
My heels hit the sidewalk hard as I walked rapidly toward the the sun setting into the ocean. My hands were jammed in my pockets. I cried. I kept my eyes down. I overtook strolling couples and did not look up when people approached. I tasted tears. My shoulders shuddered. The doorman at Cliff House stared as I passed under the canopy. The seals barked on the rocks below. I followed the walkway as it curved south onto Pacific Highway and sloped from the promontory down to parallel the beach. A cold wind blew in from the ocean. Surf assaulted the beach, and the sky above the darkened the Pacific to blood red.
Memories surged. Grandmother was combing my hair on the steps when I was six or seven years old. Leaning back and smiling benevolently, she said, “You’re such a handsome boy! So smart, too.”
As I walked, I recalled that Grandmother did not tolerate slang. Responding to a question with “Yeah” brought a dramatic frown that was my prompt to say “Yes.” Contractions were also frowned upon. Saying “Where’s it at?” was doubly condemned. Grandmother would say, “There’s no ‘at’ needed. ‘Where is it?’ will do.” I cringe today when I hear that unnecessary word at the end of a sentence.
At her Thanksgiving dinners, I needed three thick books to reach the table with a sinuously curved silver candelabra alight that was dangerous and thrilling. Dad struggled to carve the turkey while his younger brother gently placed the needle on a long-playing record that began with Gnoud’s Ave Maria and continued with other hymns. Afterwards my sister and I competed to stack towers of the wood cylinders from spent adding machine tapes that Grandmother brought from her office at Ohio State.
She importuned two OSU All-Americans to sign autographs on blue index cards and brought them to me. I may have them somewhere.
Only a faint light lingered over the black ocean to the west. Grandmother related more than once how her brother John had struggled on his deathbed to see one more sunset. He died shortly after a glorious display of orange, mauve, and purple light in the sky above the Missouri prairie. She concluded by solemnly reminding me that every sunset is a blessing from God’s glory.
She was born in 1890 in the town of Kirksville, Missouri to the Ryans, a large Irish family, that fled Philadelphia in the 1840s after mobs rampaged through Irish neighborhoods in Philadelphia killing 15 people and burning two churches and blocks of row houses.
The Ryans prospered on the frontier, and Grandmother attended a school for young women where she learned to embroider, crochet, draw, and discuss poetry, literature and art. A student at the nearby osteopathic medicine college courted her in a horse-drawn carriage, and she married the young man everyone called Cal. They relocated to Columbus, Ohio where he obtained an M.D. from Ohio State and established a thriving practice. Her name, Mary Agnes Calvert, was often listed on the Society pages of the Dispatch among the attendees at balls and soirees in the best homes of Columbus. Her three sons, Ed, Bob, and Bill, enrolled at the best Catholic schools. Grandmother’s eyes sparkled when she related the good times after the Great War.
The cold wind from the Pacific had dried my tears. I turned and retraced my steps toward Cliff House. I remembered how Grandmother’s voice tightened when she spoke to me about the following years. “Cal snapped. Something in his mind snapped.” I knew how he had taken up with a prominent socialite, married her, and moved to California as the Great Depression settled upon the country.
Grandmother was humiliated and laid low, but she couldn’t take to her bed with melancholia. She had a teenager and two younger boys to raise, and she was determined that they would have opportunities to be doctors, lawyers or whatever they might aspire to become. Aquinas High School gave Edward a scholarship, probably because he was a star tailback. My dad went to Holy Rosary, a more affordable school on the east side. The family moved from a grand house with two-story white pillars in Clintonville to an older shingled house off Iuka Parkway. Edward worked as a bag boy in the A&P grocery, and the younger boys had paper routes. Jobs were scarce, but Grandmother implored the owner of a movie theater to let her work as a cashier.
I smiled in the darkness as I recalled one of her favorite stories. Ensconced in the ornate booth in front of the State Theater, a boy approached the window wearing a jacket that my dad had left at a playground. Grandmother exited the booth’s back door, marched around to confront the boy, and demanded that he hand over her son’s jacket. Stunned, the boy meekly slipped it off and handed it to her. After relating this, she allowed herself a small chuckle.
“Gone. I’ll never see her again,” I croaked. Another wave of sadness washed over me, and I cried softly. I could see Cliff House’s neon sign in the distance. I buttoned my shirt to my neck against the cool wind.
I saved school tests with a circled A in red pencil to show Grandmother on Sundays. She knew when report cards came out and asked to see them as soon as she arrived for Sunday dinner. She gushed forth praise about each A before turning to the Bs and an occasional C. “You are very smart, Michael, and I am sure you can do better if you apply yourself. Promise me the next report card will be an improvement. You can be a doctor, lawyer, or businessman when you grow up.”
When I spent the weekend with Grandmother, she tutored me on the few treasures she had been able to retain from her years as a doctor’s wife. She taught me to appreciate the sound of fine stemware when pinged and the distinctive quality of good china. A French, marble-topped bureau with intricately patterned inlays was the centerpiece of the dining room. Two small lamps with fringed shades stood on crocheted doilies. An ornate end table and an umbrella stand were also survivors from the grand house where Grandmother hosted soirees in the twenties.
“Someday,” she often told me, “You will have a good position, and you will need to know how to live well. Some people make lots of money, but make fools of themselves.” I remembered nodding seriously as I wondered how they were foolish.
As I climbed the long hill to Cliff House, I knew that Grandmother placed on my shoulders her fervent aspirations to reclaim a prominent place in society for our family. She hoped I would someday own a grand house with a porte-cochere where guests would be met and escorted up broad steps to a bright central hall where a band played and glamorous couples danced. A servant with a tray of champagne flutes would appear followed by another with a tray of small confections.
Grandmother had high hopes for me. One son worked for the government and another was a school counselor. Both were college graduates, but my dad had been diverted by the horrific war and damaged by his experience at the front lines.
The doorman at Cliff House watched me closely as I turned onto Geary Boulevard. The seals were quiet, but the sound of the surf traveled up the rocky cliff. I was thoroughly chilled and eager to get to our apartment. When I unlocked the apartment door, I was grateful that it was dark and I didn’t need to explain to my roommates.
I retrieved my blankets from the closet, spread them on the couch, and lay down in the darkness. It was late, but sleep did not come. I flung the blankets to the floor, grabbed my
tablet of stationery, and went to the kitchen table. I addressed a letter to Dad. After crumpling two half-finished letters, I completed one. Then I began scratching out words and adding phrases in the margin. Finally I inserted the draft into the tablet, and went back to the couch. Eventually I slept.
In the morning, I sipped coffee and read my late night draft. I was surprised. It was pretty good. I rewrote it in my best penmanship with only a few changes and fit it on one page. No unnecessary words, no contractions, and no slang.
Dad thanked me with evident sincerity in a return letter that included a holy card with Raphael’s Madonna on one side and “In Loving Memory of Mary Agnes Calvert” from her sons, their wives and children on the other side.
In the five decades since 1966, I ached to tell her when I secured a good position, received promotions, photographed her great-grandchildren, traveled to Europe, and enjoyed good fortune. She would have said, “Grand, Michael. Just grand.”