Fifty-six. Five. Six. Fifty plus six. No matter how many ways I say it, it's still 56. I first understood the significance of my maternal grandmother's age when I was six years old. I recall the moment when I told friends that my bubby was a whopping 5-6.
Recently I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, wondering how old I look, caterwauling in response. In 2019, I will be the age of my beloved grandmother. This sudden revelation shook me to the core.
It reminded me of the time I asked my grandma to confirm the year she was born; the innocent way children blurt private, none-of-your business questions out loud. She refused to answer. But I continued to perpetuate the myth that she was old, and told my teacher such news to earn brownie points for being omniscient.
Sara was not your typical grandmother though. When I indulged in sleepovers at her one bedroom apartment, I came to expect the usual late evening sounds emanating from the next room. It was her weekend poker group - a bunch of fun-loving, cigar and pipe smoking, mostly male friends that I came to think of as surrogate aunts and uncles.
I never knew my grandfather. He died within a year of my birth. I imagined this rogue's gallery of characters to be a happy occurrence, to offset the deep sadness that Sara felt at being a young widow.
However, she never hesitated to bend the rules for her two precious grandchildren, and happily introduced coffee drinking to me and my sister at a very early age.
To understand my bubby was to really know and love her. She held firm to a tough exterior to complement her large figure. And she constantly measured and compared my love for her against the deep affection I held for my paternal grandmother. But stubbornness comes in all shapes and sizes, and Sara's was no match for a prepubescent girl like me. I hadn't developed the life skills yet to combat her insurmountable insecurities.
Being invited for dinner at grandma's apartment with my parents and sister was always a treat. Literally. She harboured a "secret" cupboard we nicknamed the "goody drawer" that contained a smorgasbord of chocolates to rival the neighbourhood convenience store. It was intended for her poker group cronies, but my sister and I relished it with wild abandon the moment we stepped into the room.
In contrast, conversation at the dining room table felt more like having ringside seats to a much-anticipated boxing fight. Sara's verbal jousting was no match for anyone's fancy footwork; she was quick-witted with an acerbic tongue. It was difficult to know if she was mean-spirited or simply hiding her love for us beneath that tough veneer.
"Alvin," she would say, staring at my father from across the dinner table. "There's a bus leaving for Florida in 30 minutes. Why don't you make sure you're under it?" She was the queen of one-liners. As hurtful as they were, we eventually learned to laugh it off.
Like the time, one evening, she took my sister and I to play bingo in north Toronto. When we got close to our destination, I could see the outline of a car accident on the highway. Sara's Ford LTD II advanced towards the barricades, until she came full-stop in front of a police officer re-routing traffic around the carnage. With an articulated gesture, he directed us towards a residential street to follow the slow parade of cars.
But Sara had plans of her own and rolled down the window.
"Bubby," my sister and I shouted at her. "Follow the detour! Someone may be dead on the road!"
Stubborn as Sara was, she heard none of our protests, and proceeded to tell the officer she knew only one way to get to bingo... straight ahead. After being admonished by the police, she eventually turned left. Score: one point for the law; zero for grandma. We couldn't wait to get home to tell our parents who laughed until they cried.
While most of my friend's grandmothers went to Florida, I knew where to find mine on our family vacations to Las Vegas: bent over the poker table for hours, making new friends with her one-liners and losing some pension money.
Sadly, the era of Wayne Newton, Sara's "boyfriend," and the original Vegas strip are now a dreamscape seeking refuge in the muted grey matter of my own aging mind.
At bubby's funeral, her age finally revealed as 92, my sister read a eulogy that was full of humour and long-forgotten stories. When Sara was in the nursing home in her later years, she remarked with frustration at being the only one there with faculties intact.
One day, a cantankerous male resident walked up to her and abruptly shouted: "Drop dead and go to hell." And without missing a beat, Sara advanced her walker closer to the culprit and yelled back in defiance: "Which one do you want me to do first?" Then she shuffled away to continue our visit in the lobby.
Upon reflection, I realize it doesn't matter how old I look, but rather how I live my life. My bubby would be proud of who I've become, but disappointed in other ways.
For one, I have no interest in poker. But I'll raise you a cup of strong coffee and ante up a piece of my chocolate instead.
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