A schnauzer, a hatchet and a rosary were some of the tools my grandma relied on when she was forced into retirement at age 84 the day after my grandfather died.
They ran a little shot-and-a-beer bar called the Rose Cafe on Michigan Avenue in Detroit that served Cadillac and Chrysler autoworkers. It was a two-person operation and it was impossible for my entrepreneurial grandma to keep it going after my grandfather died in his sleep in 1986.
The bar closed the day after he died.
She sold the entire operation, right down to the shot glasses, in short order. Looking back, she not only lost her husband of 65 years, her work and routine came to a dramatic and devastating end. Watching how she coped with the dual loss was a lesson in dealing with grief and moving forward. She would live another 14 years, nearly to age 99, and managed to craft a life of meaning, value and purpose beyond work and marriage.
Step 1: Buy a Pet
Not long after the funeral, Grandma announced that she wanted a schnauzer. Her new housemate was Buddy, a silver-and-black dog who developed a taste for cooked cabbage and never got the hang of housebreaking, but would play a major role in saving her life. The two were constant companions.
Step 2: Sleep with a Hatchet
Grandma’s Detroit neighborhood was experiencing a spike in crime at the time due to the crack cocaine epidemic. She was adamant about staying in her house because my grandfather had built it in the 1930s. Every detail, from the ornate mantle to the little witch riding a broom on the weathervane, had meaning. Her goal was to die in her own bed. She didn’t know how to use a gun, so she opted for sleeping with a hatchet, which no one thought she could or would ever even lift. We were wrong.
Step 3: Use Hatchet
By this time, Grandma was deaf and did not sleep with her hearing aids. Instead, she relied on Buddy to alert her to danger in the night. While she had bars on the windows of her house, there were some vulnerable areas, including the outside door to her tiny sewing room in the rear. It had six panes of glass. One night, a thief punched out one of the windows and was attempting to open the inside lock. Grandma woke up to Buddy’s barking, grabbed the hatchet and started swinging at the intruder. She scared him away and then called my dad, a retired Detroit vice cop, who raced over to her house and sat in the sewing room in the dark for the rest of the night with his loaded gun. The thief never returned. The next day, the two of them went to Sears and ordered a steel door.
Step 4: Stay Active
Grandma had no use for exercise classes or fitness instructors because they only achieved one goal, keeping your body in tune. She preferred heavy labor with a dual purpose. For example, she got great satisfaction out of shoveling her own snow, well into her 90s. In fact, it became something of a game with my father, who was determined to act as her outdoor custodian. If it snowed at night, Grandma would rise early, bundle up and shovel the driveway. Then she would crow about beating my dad to the job. Sometimes she would call me and say, “I need a bag of concrete.” When I asked why, she said she wanted to patch her driveway. That particular exercise involved a sledgehammer.
Step 5: Be Spiritual
Grandma always embraced her own unique brand of Catholicism and superstition. She kept a number of old “dream books” in her dresser drawer. These were paperback books that consisted of objects and situations, along with corresponding “lucky numbers,” for playing the illegal numbers games in the neighborhood. Once, grandma won $10,000, enough to put the down payment on a house, after dreaming about a monkey and playing the correct number. A constant mantra throughout her life was “If you dream of a monkey, call me.” She continued to consult her dream books well into old age.
Since her hands were crippled with arthritis, Grandma could no longer work the beads on a conventional rosary. I bought her a child’s rosary with big wooden beads. She hung it on her bedpost and often told me she would reach for it in the night when she felt alone.
Grandma also was devoted to her church, St. Cunegunda, just down the street from her house on St. Lawrence. Every Good Friday, she would join dozens of Polish immigrants as they crawled along the sidewalk on their knees and up into the church to pay homage to Jesus. Grandma became something of a prayer warrior as well. Friends of mine would come from as far away as Illinois to ask her to pray for special intentions, since she seemed to get results. She had odd rules. “I don’t pray for boyfriends,” she told one friend who was unhappy being single. “I just pray for what God wants.”
Step 6: Focus on Others
I never heard my grandmother complain about aches and pains, even though we eventually found out that she had suffered from five “silent” heart attacks. She always wanted to know what was going on in your life and seemed to provide the right perspective for any problem. For example, one of my kids was struggling with math. When I complained to her about this, she asked, “Well, can he make change for the bus?” Of course, I said. “He be fine,” was her response in broken English. And he was. When I got laid off from a teaching job in the early 1990s, I immediately went to her house, put my head on her kitchen table and cried. “Coulda be worse,” she said. She lived on Social Security, but always had a few bucks for the great grandkids. She kept the money in the vegetable crisper drawer of the refrigerator and referred to it as her “cold, hard cash.”
Grandma achieved her retirement goals, which had nothing to do with a 401K or fancy vacations.
She lived in the house on St. Lawrence until three days before she died of a massive stroke in 2001. The master of her own destiny, she decided to stop taking all her medications, including blood pressure pills. I came to see her the Saturday before she died. At the time, I did not realize I was speaking to her on her deathbed. We were alone and she had a series of questions to ask me.
“Are you making money?”
“Is Phil doing well in school?”
Is Dan graduating this year?
“Is Paul sober?”
She seemed satisfied with the answers and relaxed back in her pillows. Her last words: “Go in my underwear drawer and take five dollars. Buy yourself some ice cream.”