It’s Monday night in Detroit, and I am in the presence of two legends. On stage under bright lights and surrounded by pure musical genius, the incomparable Leonard Cohen sings and sways for an adoring, packed house. Seated next to me, smiling and swooning and falling in love with the man on stage, is my gorgeous grandmother. Two legends in one room.
He dips his hat, drops to his knees and recites the words to "A Thousand Kisses Deep". He sings "I'm Your Man" -- directly to my grandmother, as she jokes. He returns for not one, but two encore performances. His fans are loyal and loving and in awe of one of the most iconic performers of our time. He does not disappoint.
But enough about Leonard. It’s Grandma’s turn to be adored.
She is 94 years old. She reads the newspaper daily, stays up on all the latest news and trends, sings and dances and goofs around as though she is channeling both Lucy and Ethel simultaneously, and come hell or a tornado or a blizzard, drives herself to the beauty shop to get her hair washed and set every single Saturday morning as though her life depended on it. And perhaps it does.
I have traveled to Detroit regularly throughout the past 10 years to visit my grandmother. I adore these visits. I revel in the time spent curled up next to her on her uncomfortable couch, cozy in one of her scratchy old nightgowns and bathrobe, groaning in agony as we watch Fox News, the television blaring at an obscene volume (she insists she is nowhere near old enough for a hearing aid) and listening to this tiny, fit woman in amazing health complain about her pooching tummy as she polishes off a jumbo-sized bag of low-calorie popcorn.
She moans about the fuddy-duddies she plays cards with and their suffocating lack of a sense of humor. She jokes about the two of us going to a local Singles event and picking up on men to dance with, or opening a bottle of wine (that she doesn’t have) and getting drunk together (she doesn’t drink). She tells stories of my young and dapper grandfather wooing her into marriage, and the street smarts and remarkable fortitude of her mother emigrating from Russia as a young girl and making a life in America. She explains the meaning of the many Yiddish terms I have heard over the years, like “lech and shmech” and “kibbitzing”. She tells me to find myself a “mensch” – a good, honorable man. Believe me Grandma, I am looking…
She jokes that I am a “pain in the ass” – which I am. We see movies, sometimes two in one day, and eat salads at Greek diners named Leo’s or Kirby’s. We argue over politics and how much of the Sanders Hot Fudge Cream Puff Sundae I didn’t eat. We visit places I remember from my childhood: Kroger’s, the Franklin Cider Mill, my old house on MacQueen, my best friend Marietta’s house around the corner. She gives me advice about life and love (“never talk to strange men, unless they are rich and handsome and love their grandmothers”). She passes on her mother’s advice about life and love (“a woman should always wear a sexy nightgown and perfume”).
I adore this woman, and cherish every second spent with her.
Yet for reasons I can’t quite convey, this most recent visit feels different. As she dozes on the couch, I watch her peaceful face and become more aware of my grandmother’s mortality than ever before. I am struck by the sad reality that these visits may not last much longer. I implore myself to remember every detail of our time together, or to write down all that I might otherwise forget. I take photos: the kitchen table lovingly set for our next meal hours in advance. The hand-written note next to her ancient television set that explains how to work the remote control. The freezer filled with just about every candy known to man, all wrapped in reused plastic baggies. The weekly television listing from the Detroit Free Press, carefully marked out hour by hour with her favorite shows.
She is still with us. She still drives herself to her hair appointment every Saturday. She still reads and dances and sings and goofs around. She is still as strong and sharp and sassy and spunky as ever. And yet, illogically and without reason, I already miss her.
Like Leonard Cohen, my grandmother is a living legend. Yet to me and the family she continues to astound, she is so much more. To us, she is everything.