Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mildred B. Soule, 1916-2010

   Last week was among the worst that I can remember for a number of reasons, and its opening salvo was the death of my grandmother. Before I get into this, I don't want to make this sound sad. It's not. She was 94 years old and, though sharper than most I know at a third of her age, she was ready for it. I am grateful that her family and friends were given the time they had with her, and I am happy that she may now rest. This isn't a dirge or anything, just a way to process what I'm thinking.

   My grandmother, to anyone that met her in the last 20 years, could easily consider her a prototype for Lucille Bluth; a stubborn, sharp-witted, heavy drinking, old-school socialite who was remarkably quick for her age. She would regularly wound family members with unintentional quips and could let fly with some frighteningly dated comments*. I don't say these things to denigrate her memory, but to define her better as a person. She was widowed relatively young in her life (and again much later) and long before I knew her, she was traveling the world. For most of my life, that's how I thought of her. She worked as a travel agent and lived by herself in an old lady house on Long Island and did old lady things. It was a beautiful house, and I remember being allowed to touch about 4 things in it.

   We would visit a few times a year, and I remember she had cable, which seemed so extravagant in 1982. I remember her calling all of my siblings insane because we would go there for a week and I was the only one who went outside. Everyone else watched copious amounts of MTV, the boys falling in love with Martha Quinn and the girls watching it because, well, it was MTV. If I wasn't so freaked out by the dwarves in the "Safety Dance" video, I probably would've been right there with them.It was in a nice suburb, and I remember loving the prospect of having new yards and parks to explore. Every time we visited it was like moving without the hassle of having to make new friends.I like to think I climbed new hills and let my imagination soar or whatever, but in reality I'm sure I just sat on a bench and read somewhere.

   It's funny, because I started writing this with something else completely in my mind, but, but this one memory just unpacked itself in my brain, and I'd be foolish not to document it now while it's here. This is from later, when my siblings were old enough to want to (or be able to) get out of these visits to New York, and so I would be the one kid left to go with my parents. In retrospect, I have no idea what the rest of the kids were doing, but they were old enough for it to be no good. But I digress.

   I read a lot as a kid. I'd pretty much read anything, from album liner notes to sporting goods catalogs to whatever I was allowed to check out of the library. This included pretty much anything, but specifically by just grabbing whatever was on the new shelves. It's not the best approach, but nobody was going to complain, because I was a kid reading on his own, right? As a result, I read a lot of standard kid books, including most of the Judy Blume catalog. Yes, you probably see where this is going. In the autumn of 1987, I brought a book called Just as Long as We're Together** with me to Manhasset on one of these visits. I'm not sure if I read the whole thing there or what, but I remember walking back to my grandmother's house from the park and asking her what a period was. My parents weren't there, off visiting some of my mom's high school friends or something, and my grandmother went white as a sheet. So yeah, my grandmother then was tasked with the chore of explaining menstruation to her 9 year-old grandson. I wish I remembered it more clearly, but it stands as a rambling mess of awkward followed by shoving my towards my mom when she got home. I can't say I blame her for that, it's probably what I would've done, too.

But what really has had me rethinking my grandmother's life as of late was finding out when I was in my early 20s that she was a lawyer. This was a complete shock to me, and something I had never even considered. She had been a part-time travel agent for all the time I'd known her, and it was pretty shocking to me. Even more shocking to me when put into the context of the time. For the sake of argument, let's consider the world of Mad Men. Normally, I'd try to avoid including a reference to a TV show while eulogizing my dead grandmother***, but this is apt. Watching that show, it's amazing to see what kind of shit women had to put up with in 1960 suburban New York. It's incredible when juxtaposed with the climate today. Then I remember that in 1960 my grandmother was in her mid 40s and had passed the bar in 1943 and my head reels at what she must have been put through. The amount of determination and sheer willpower that must have taken is more than I can imagine. I'd be impress if I inherited a sliver of that. She was an amazing lady.

In any case, I'm thinking of her now as I look at my cat sleeping on a rug that she made for me when I was a baby. It has a picture of a Peter Cottontail on it and it's one of the only things I still own from age 2. It's remained a valued possession for all this time, and even moreso now. In fact, I might have to yank that cat right off of it. I'll try to attach a picture of it to this site later.

My reasons for writing this dumb and unflattering attempt of a eulogy are twofold. For one thing, we aren't going to be having a memorial for her until late September, and I wanted to get some of my thoughts down now while they were fresh. Second, when I was looking around for an obituary online, it was disturbing to realize that aside from one written up by a local funeral home and a lovely tribute written up by one of my mother's neighbors, there wasn't one. I don't expect my 94-year old grandmother to have much of a web presence, but it's kind of sick when you think about the complete absence of one. If this is what's supposed to pass for posterity, if we're supposed to forgo written documents and burial plots in an effort to reduce our planetary footprints, shouldn't we at least make an effort to remember our loved ones? It pains me when my grandparents tell me about how all their friends are dead, but it's also a plain fact of life, I guess. What isn't fair is that they rarely have anywhere to talk about them, remember them. It would probably take like 1% of the internet to set up a database that could host every obituary that was ever written.

I'd like to see more than that, but at least it's a start.

footnotes after the jump

*I don't mean dated in a racist way, but in a "your colored friend has such beautiful skin!" way. There is a notable difference.

**I had completely forgotten about this book, and a quick google search of "chartreuse macbeth judy blume" came up with a title (and the book!) right quick.

***"But Cotton," you say, "what about the second paragraph of this very post?" and I acquiesce.

1 comment:

bluejayway76 said...

Sorry for the loss, Cotton.

My aunt is a good 25 years younger and something of a firecracker, and still couldn't get past teacher/nurse/teaching nursing in the South in the 60s. She must have been quite a lady, your grandmother.