Irene was my maternal grandmother. Born in 1899, she managed to eke out an eighth-grade education before being shipped off to care for her younger half-brother while he attended a private high school. He went on to become a wealthy banker. She went on to become a widowed lunchroom lady. When she was in her twenties, she worked as a cashier in a Catskills restaurant where she met a handsome and charming cad. She ran off with him, and they married. It turned out, however, that he was already married, and his plan was to blackmail her family. He wanted money in return for not making a scandal. Her family, notoriously tight with money, had him arrested and there was a trial. My grandmother was so mortified that she left New York for Newark, New Jersey, where she worked her way through the Great Depression. She ultimately married a man she did not love, had my mother at age 40, and was widowed seven years later. By the time my mother was a preteen, my grandmother had established her reputation in the neighborhood as a cranky, beleaguered old woman. My mother's classmates called her "Mrs. Hitler."
Irene had succumbed to dementia by the time I was a teenager in the early 1980s. She moved in with my family, and for the next five years, she wandered our house day and night, not knowing where she was or who my parents and brother and I were. She was convinced that my younger brother was her own pampered brother, and she hated him. She ate the napkins her sandwiches were wrapped in, declared that cold lasagne was delicious cake, flushed twenty dollar bills down the toilet, soiled herself regularly, and muttered curses under breath all day long. Eventually, her heart gave out, and she died at age 85 in a nursing home on Mother's Day. Tomorrow would have been her 110th birthday.
So, I was, of course, shocked at myself for calling my own darling Roma by my grandmother's name. Roma is not senile, but she does share with my grandmother that unvarnished quality of old age—by which I mean that in old age, all the soft stuff is finally burnished away—the pretense of politeness and the things we do to show that we are civilized and socialized. Self-interest rules. When Irene heard that her daughter would have to undergo a surgical procedure over Thanksgiving one year, she did not put her hand out and say, "Honey, what can I do to make this easier for your and your family?" Instead, she clutched at her throat and said, "What about me? Who will take care of me?" My parents and I did. And we resented every minute. Who will take care of you, Roma? I will, you tough, old baby, and I'll do it gladly.