My Gram passed away yesterday. She was 93. She was my roommate.
She spent the last 14 years without my Pop. He died in 1998 after a year of living with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. That’s what brought me to their house in the Midwood section of Brooklyn in 1997 as a sort of valet for them as he battled, and that’s how she and I ended up as roommates after he passed away.
It wasn’t quite the Brooklyn-hipster lifestyle. She lived pretty far out in the borough. No cable. No dishwasher. No dryer. She didn’t drive. She didn’t eat red meat. We ate simply; the highlight was Friday night Shabbat dinners, usually featuring a potato kugel from the “good” kugel store on Avenue M and, hopefully, a black and white cookie.
Usually, we would break out the mini-TV and put it on the kitchen table as we ate, watching the local NBC news broadcast at 5, then the PBS NewsHour at 6. She liked politics. As the wife of a 40-year New York Timesman, she was a devoted reader of the paper.
(Even after she left New York and moved into the assisted-living facility in Maryland, she kept the subscription -- in her room yesterday, I found a copy of my piece from the Sunday Times a few weeks ago on a table. I have the voicemail she left me on the day it came out; it’s nice to know that at age 39, I can still make my Gram as proud of me as she was on that call.)
I tried to be as helpful as possible, but -- after all -- we were roommates. Given that I was 25 and she was 79, there would be squabbles, of course. But we got along pretty well. Gram knew I had her back, and I knew she had mine. She only called me “Daniel,” a holdover from when I was a little boy. When I was feeling particularly cheeky (or exasperated), I’d call her by her first name, “Lil.”
The months after my Pop died were hard for her, but we didn’t talk about it very much. I know she appreciated my help but I also know she needed to figure out how to live by herself. We finally decided I should move out -- she needed to find her footing on her own, without her husband of 50-plus years; it was time for me to find a non-octogenarian lifestyle in New York.
Besides, I would still be in New York to ferry her around if she needed it -- to doctor’s appointments and family events that she would never miss. She had a lot of friends and stayed active (that was something the folks at the assisted-living facility kept telling us -- Gram was always participating in whatever they had scheduled for the residents).
A few years later, I was in between years of business school and back in New York for the summer -- I think it was a foregone conclusion for me that I would be living with her. I think it messed with her system to have me around again, but I think she liked having me rattle around the house again. And at least this time she knew there was an end-point.
My favorite moment with Gram was that summer. You can imagine living in Midwood with an 82-year-old wasn’t exactly conducive to dating, although that was a lot more about me suggesting 5:30 dinner reservations than anything Gram did. I had gone out on a date -- my first in a long time -- and I had stayed out all night, which was not anticipated.
I called Gram the next day from Manhattan -- sort of a “Talk of Shame.” I let her know I was OK... and that, uh...well...actually, I would be staying in Manhattan for the rest of the day and another night with this girl from the date. (Obviously, it was a pretty good first date, although not exactly the kind you would want to talk about with your grandma-roommate.)
I could hear Gram chuckle through the phone. She had a lot of strong opinions, but she could be very “live and let live.” She knew I was happy. A few weeks later, as I was getting ready to move out of her house, presumably for the last time, I confided in her that I already knew this girl was going to be it. Gram and my wife had an amazing relationship over the past 10 years.
Gram was no-nonsense and wasn’t big on sentimentality. I know she missed my grandfather dearly, but she did not burden the rest of us with that grief. But she loved her two daughters and her five grandkids and she was particularly proud of her nine great-grandkids. I am so glad she got to meet her ninth great-grandkid, Lucy, who was born 6 weeks ago. I am so glad that, by moving to DC, we spent the last 8 months being a 10-minute ride from where she lived. (Obligatory plea that always seem to happen in moments like this: “You don’t call your grandparents enough, if you’re lucky enough to still have any. Call them to say hi and tell them a story about what you’re up to.”)
There is a special feeling I have for my Gram, unlike anything I felt for my other grandparents or my own parents and siblings or even my wife and kids.
Think about your favorite roommate ever -- the kind of loyalty and familiarity you develop. It’s not about the signature moments (although those stand out) as much as the pleasant hum of the every day. Gram and I had a unique and odd set-up, one that I don’t think either of us asked for or saw coming 20 years ago when it was your standard “proud grandma” / “loving grandson” dynamic -- senior and kid.
But for the last day, it has made things so much happier for me, to remember that “sit-com”-ish premise of our living situation -- hopefully, I made her life easier (maybe even happy). Living with her certainly made my life happier. But so much sadder right now.