I had planned to get a jump on the inevitable New Year’s resolution yawping by contrasting last week’s bacchanal with this week’s austerity: the beef dripping-soaked Yorkshire pud replaced by chai soba and seaweed; no more cream in the coffee my mom brought back as a Christmas present for Lloyd; the metric ton of Christmas cookies I ate over the weekend replaced by three, count ‘em, three simultaneous cups of tea which are not doing the trick because I want some goddamn cookies already. (I decided to have a little fun with my tea, and made myself a cup of green tea, a cup of chamomile and a cup of Red Zinger. “Look,” I said to my friend E. “It’s like a stoplight.” She gave me a brilliant, frozen smile and backed away from my desk, muttering that old standby about she needs to get a new job because Jen has finally gone freakin’ insane.) I will probably yawp about these very things over the next few days - and no, I will not take offense if you decide to consider this as fair warning, and go somewhere else for a few days until I’m done talking about seaweed - but tonight, thanks to the lovely bunni, I am going to switch gears.
Bunni and I both received David Sedaris’s Live at Carnegie Hall for Christmas. The first reading is his story “Repeat After Me,” in which he mentions that his sister Lisa is convinced that anything can kill you. Because she retains the alarmist headlines from the local news, but none of the information in the actual broadcast, Lisa believes that applesauce can kill you, but she forgets that in order to do this, it must be injected intravenously. Bunni’s grandmother is cut from much the same cloth. So is mine. Or, at least, she was.
Neddie is my mother’s mother, the wife of my late and much-missed grandfather. Because she was young when my mom was born, and because Mom was young when I was born, we have had a lot of time together, and that time has been a lot of fun. When I came to visit her, we never had to ask each other twice if we wanted to go to the mall. She was not exactly a cook or a baker, but she had her dishes (pot roast, lasagne, a really fine dark chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream), and the dishes she had, she did well. She used to bicker with my grandpop, good-naturedly but bickering nonetheless, that was the best entertainment in town. (Once when I was about 7 or 8, they were having words because she was trying to get him to take his blood pressure medication while he was trying to play computer chess. “I don’t want you making mistakes with your medicine,” she said. “Mistakes? Let’s talk about mistakes,” said Daddy Joe. “I made the biggest mistake of my life on September 19, 1941.” There was silence from the kitchen. I recognized September 19 as their wedding anniversary, and I thought, oh god, she’s going to kill him. After a beat, she yelled back, “1942!”, which was, of course, their actual anniversary. I nearly laughed my iced tea out my nose.)
Neddie was fun. She was also a worrier. As my mom said, “Anything that was the least bit fun, she knew someone who had died from it.” Walking to the corner store. Hayrides at the apple orchard in Bucks County. Learning to ride a bike. Moving to New York. It was all fraught with peril for her.
In her defense, she had received an early, harsh lesson in the perils of life: when she was a child, one of her brothers had died at the age of 3. He had been ill, was hospitalized and apparently made a full recovery. Her parents were told, essentially, you can pick up your son at the hospital on Friday afternoon, and when they went to pick him up, he was dead, having suffered a sudden, violent relapse. I can’t imagine the kind of grief and shock that Neddie and her parents and other brother suffered, but because my great-grandparents were stoics, and didn’t believe in any form of psychiatric help or grief counseling at all, my grandmother was left believing that life was chaos, the world was chaos, and you fought chaos by controlling anything you could, and getting overwhelmingly frustrated by what you could not. This had repercussions, for my grandfather, for my mom and her brothers, and, eventually, for me, my brother and our cousins.
Knowing what I know about Grandmom’s little brother, I can feel sympathy for her, but her fretting still drove us nuts for years. “Make sure you don’t carry your bag on one shoulder like that,” she used to admonish me. “Cross it over to your other shoulder, so that robbers can’t steal your bag.” She told the same thing to my brother when he started carrying a briefcase with a shoulder strap. He told her that that just meant that a potential robber could still still his briefcase, with the added benefit of breaking his neck, and then she really worried. When I moved to New York, she told my mom, without a trace of irony, “I really think it would be safest if Jenny just didn’t leave her apartment after dark.” Mom nearly swallowed her own tongue, trying to contemplate telling a 21-year-old living in Manhattan, “your grandmom doesn’t want you out after dark.” I thought it was a great idea because it meant that in winter, I would have to leave my office at 3:30 in the afternoon.
When I moved to Philadelphia and acquired a live-in fiance, my mom (who was thrilled with this arrangement because she was nuts about Lloyd) phoned my grandmom. “How’s Jenny?” said Grandmom.
“Fine,” said my mother with trepidation. “Still in the same apartment. Uh, Lloyd has moved in with her.” She winced and waited for the outrage.
“Oh, thank God,” said Neddie. “I’ve been so worried about her, living alone in that city. Thank God she’s not living alone in that apartment.”
“WAIT A MINUTE!,” said Mom, who knew that if it had been her, shacking up outside of the bonds of matrimony, Neddie’s response would not have been “oh, thank God.”
“It’s Neddie logic,” said Aunt Nan, my mom’s best friend, who knew it well.
Neddie logic failed her at least once, though; of course, since it’s Neddie logic and only she can understand it, maybe it worked in some mysterious way that only she can see, the way my believer friends tell me that God works. I am speaking specifically of September 11, 2001. I will not rehash the specific horrors of that day, or of the days that followed. I will just say that once the phone lines started to free up, I was on the phone for two solid days, with parents, friends in England, friends in New Zealand, friends all over the U.S., co-workers, corporate weasels from LuthorCorp who were surprised, and a little put out, to discover that I was not at my desk on September 12 (one of them had the nerve to tell me, “now, Jen, you know that a work-at-home day means just that"). After the 203rd phone call in two days to my mom, it hit me that I’d never called Grandmom to let her know that Lloyd and I were okay. Oh, lord, I thought to myself, Neddie has to be going absolutely batshit. I called Mom back immediately.
“I knew there was something I forgot to tell you,” Mom said. “You’re going to love this.” It turns out that Neddie, who lived in front of CNN 24/7 at the time, saw everything, basically thought, “oh, how terrible,” as if she were watching footage of a distant plane wreck in the Russian steppes, and then drove to her local Genuardi’s to do groceries for the week. Mom reached her on the phone when she got back. It was obvious that Mom had been crying. Neddie’s response was a surprised, “why, what are you so upset about?”
“Uh, Mom,” said my mom, “did you see the news? Did you know there was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center? And on the Pentagon?”
“Oh, yes,” said Neddie. “I saw that, and I thought, ‘oh, that’s terrible’ [which in Philadelphia-speak is pronounced ‘turble’], and then I went to Genuardi’s and did my shopping.”
“Mom,” said Mom patiently, “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, because they both work miles away, but I haven’t heard from Jenny or Lloyd yet.”
“Oh, well, when you do hear from them, just let me know.”
I am still trying to figure out the logic whereby living alone is a virtual death warrant, but being in Manhattan during a terrorist attack is no big shakes. I really don’t care, though, because I laughed my first laugh in days when I heard that story. I am laughing now at the thought of it.
Neddie now has mid-stage Alzheimer’s and lives in a locked Alzheimer’s ward in the retirement community she and Grandpop moved to after selling their house 10 years ago. She still worries, but because she has lost a lot of memory about who we all are, where we live and what we do, she worries less about us, and more about running out of money (she will not, thanks to my grandfather’s savvy investing), paying her bills (my mom takes care of the bills), and wondering why all of her mail has been forwarded to Mom’s house (so Mom can get the bills on time). Mom told her that she needs to stop making herself sick with worry, and Neddie replied, “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t worry about something.” This makes me heartsick, and it fills me with a seasonally-appropriate resolve: All of the worrying that I do, it is not an amusing personality quirk, it is a drain on my energy, and I have to cut it off at the knees. Since Neddie could not, and still cannot, I will.