It has taken me a few days to gather my thoughts and decide exactly how to go about writing about this; three days ago, my grandma, Rita, died. How does a young woman sum up such a notorious lady? It seems no words can quite accurately depict her. For years I haven’t even called her grandma; she embodied her name, every inch of it, and Rita or “Reets” seemed the only fitting title for my fiery matriarch. There was her humor, and even that was multi-faceted. She was quick and witty and had a one-liner for everything, like “one foot on the grave and another on a banana peel” and “more nervous than a whore in church” that were repeated over and over. There was her insistence of wearing an oversized t shirt as a bathing suit cover-up with a curvy bikini body painted on the front and back. There were running jokes that went on for years; namely, a decade long game of hiding an Austin Powers keychain. Rita dubbed Austin Powers “quite simply the most hurtin’ unit I’ve ever seen.” His goofy teeth and his wacky chest hair, and Dr. Evil, she ate it up. My mom came across a keychain that was Austin Powers’ head, that had buttons on the bottom with catchphrases from the movie like “Smashing, baby!” and “Ohhh, behave!”, and it became a game to hide Austin right before we left for home, sometimes in her medicine cabinet, or on top of a candle, hanging in a wreath, or, most famously, inside the Thanksgiving Turkey and sitting pretty in the manger of the nativity scene. In return, whenever she found it, she’d hide him somewhere in the guest room or the games closet for us to find when we got back. It never got old. Rita’s humor even was above her awareness sometimes; by nature she was a funny woman, her interpretation of current events and trying to understand her logic and motivation for most decisions deserves a good laugh.
There was her meticulousness when it came to hosting; she had perfected "Dinner", and when her hands failed her and her strength failed her it was an ongoing battle when she would still run the meal from the sidelines. There was her stubbornness to succeed, her insistence of survival, through the loss of two husbands. Through the slipping of her health and the neglect of her walker: "I can stand just fine!" she would say, hobbling through hallways and holding herself up, leaning on the wall.
In an effort to shield us from retaining any affinity for evil whatsoever, my mom filtered what we watched, leaving out any sort of sorcery or rudeness or scandal. We weren’t allowed to be anything “dark” for Halloween (ie. a vampire or a witch or a goblin or a zombie or anything with blood painted on our face, which was just fine for us, particularly during the stretch where I was a ballerina for Halloween four years in a row). You can imagine my horror when: we were driving in the car with Reets, Becca and I, and I made some sassy comment to my sister, and Rita said, “Becca is just like her mother, the perfect angel. You’re more like me, Jessi, you’re a little devil.” The negative association with such a character was incredibly upsetting, and in my immature theology I assumed my grandma thought I was bound for Hell. As wary as I am to admit it, I now look back and can recognize my spirit that comes from my grandmother; her spunk and sass, her appreciation for a little trouble, the way her eyes would always light up when she saw others having the time of their lives; those colors are in my DNA, a little bit of Rita’s spark, I see it in my makeup now, and I am proud to wear them.
I flew home for the weekend, and it's perfect spring weather here in Seattle, sunny with a little chill in the air. The plants are budding; Rita loved to go for a long drive and see the progress of her neighbour's gardens, she loved the warming weather. There has been a lot of tears since I got here, and a LOT of laughter, reflecting, remembering, thankful for her peace of heart as she left us, thankful that she isn't in pain. My grandma Rita was many things, she was notorious in so many ways, but in the end, there was this sweet memory, and nothing else: her wonder, all of the joy she brought us, and a wink.
[Family pictures: Rita and Bud on their wedding day, leaving the reception; Rita and her sister Emma playing tennis; Rita and I at Christmas last year].