Last weekend my brother graduated from college, and I got to fly down to see him. I was silly-proud of him, this recently tiny boy proving that he could walk across a stage without tripping–in a GOWN, no less–and that he knew how to take a roll of paper with one hand and shake with the other. And, yeah, all the stuff he had to do to get to that point too, I guess. It was a lovely ceremony, if long and a bit chilly.
What I appreciated most about the weekend, though, was that it was a reunion for 3 generations. My maternal grandmother lives about an hour and a half from my brother’s college, and she’s my only surviving grandparent. For this trip I got to fly in and spend an evening and morning with her, then join my parents and brother for the graduation celebrations.
My Nana lives in an elegant retirement community, in a penthouse condo, and dines at her Clubhouse every night. The Clubhouse has valet parking and an extensive menu that always includes some kind of decadent Southern dessert. All of the rich old ladies from Savannah and Charlotte who now live there wear their jewels and nice suits to dinner. It’s completely charming.
I did my best to do my grandmother proud–I wore lots of makeup and dressed in my best imitation of Grace Kelly. I could tell that she was having fun showing me off, and I had countless older folk telling me how beautiful and creative I am and how proud of me they were. This was just after a sentence about how I’m doing theatre in Chicago!
I had a great time, but I couldn’t help noticing certain things. How much more slowly my grandmother moves now than when I last really noticed, at some Christmas or other. The way her hands have curved with arthritis and her skin has wrinkled and pouched. How every move, no matter how minor, requires choreography. I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, she’ll be 85 next month, and she’s still mobile enough to be planning a cruise to Amsterdam this summer. For some reason, though, it hit me harder than I’d expected.
I didn’t get to see my paternal grandparents (excuse my bluntness) deteriorate with age. They’d both had health troubles for as long as I could remember, and I missed the end in both cases. My Grandpa Jim on my mom’s side was also an odd case–the last real memory I have of him was a couple of Christmases ago, because after that the Alzheimer’s was bad enough that he had trouble traveling. Also, in all these contexts there were other young people to hang out with, aunts and uncles to make jokes with, presents to open, movies to see. I haven’t spent considerable one-on-one time with a grandparent in…ever, really.
My Nana is great fun to talk to because she’s always been spirited and adventurous. She won a national advertising competition in college and travelled to New York for it (I can’t help but think of The Bell Jar when I hear about this). She moved to Chicago with enough money for three weeks when she graduated, and by the end of that time had a job with Sears and a place to live in a girls’ club over a garage. One summer she waitressed for millionaires by Lake Michigan and hitchhiked all over, stealing corn for roasting and realizing too late that it was the lowest quality corn, intended only for livestock. In her later years, she’s been everywhere from Africa to India to Europe to (I think) China. Sure, she still calls the Eastern world “Oriental,” but it’s not a sign of anything other than the changing vernacular of political correctness in her case.
She’s had a great life, and she got a lot out of her youth. That’s the other thing I thought about this weekend–youth. Whenever we young’uns get back together with our parents (and maybe this is the case for you old’uns as well), we tend to revert back to at least teenaged behavior. I’ll stop speaking for everyone else. I tend to revert. I let my parents make the plans and the transit decisions, and I hang out and go along for the ride, occasionally hinting at toiletries I’d like to pick up if only I hadn’t forgotten my wallet and always mentioning that there’s an ice cream place nearby. Between that and all of the ladies at the Cypress telling me, “You’re so young! Enjoy being young!” I was very self-conscious of my youth, and also that it won’t last forever.
I mean, come on, I’m 24 and I can’t even remember to tell people my age accurately. My brain’s stuck on 23, because 24 is almost 25 and 25 is when it’s acceptable to start thinking of marriage, and hello, that’s way too soon for my liking.
I very much enjoy being an adult. I enjoy scheduling things for myself, being in control of where I go, when, and how, of what I eat and how I prepare it, even of how clean or messy my living space is. Sure, I could use another dozen hours or so in a day to get everything done. Sure, I’m learning the hard way about compromise and how difficult it is to exercise, cook, work, shower, be social, take down time, and also get creative work done in one day. But I enjoy it. And when I’m with my parents, I get annoyed when I feel patronized, or I’m impatient when waiting on everyone to decide what to do or when suppressing my desire to listen to The Book of Mormon in polite company. But there’s always an adjustment period when I return from being with my family. For this trip, we added to my mixed feelings about age, death, experience, and family a whole heap of exhaustion, so the emotional response to returning to Chicago was a bit more dramatic than it might have been in other circumstances.
But you know what? That’s fine. I do not go gently into that dark night of growing up. Unexamined life is not worth living, et cetera, yadda yadda. Paying attention to the things that are changing around you, to the fact that the next time you see your family it might be different, even that there might be one less smiling face greeting you at the airport, is preferable to burying your nose in the sand-like details of your life and being hit over the head when you look up and nothing looks the same as it did. I’m also lucky enough to have lots of people I can muse aloud to, in addition to you thousands upon thousands of dear readers to muse silently to. That helps the processing, and gives comfort to the perpetual realization that my body is someday going to run down and stop working. At least I’m not alone.
And let’s all look on the bright side: If the Judgment Day happens on Saturday, we’ll have lived fast, died young, and had beautiful corpses. Of course, we’ll be burning for eternity. But we’ll look damn good doing it.