My grandmother died on Valentine’s Day, 1999. Later that year I met the man who would become my husband; I changed jobs and moved apartments and took major steps towards becoming the person I am today, but on February 14, 1999, I knew none of that. I was simply the girl who awoke to the phone ringing, which is never a good sign.
My mother was calling, she told me that my grandmother had died early in the morning. Rose, my grandmother, was my father’s mother. “How’s Dad?” I asked my mom. “Okay,” was her answer. “He’s okay. He’s asleep right now.”
I was home a few days after that for the funeral and memorial, and was soon back in New York. I remember flying back to New York from California already consumed with the drama surrounding the men (men? Ha! Let’s be honest – back then, they were all boys) I was dating. I loved my grandmother dearly, but at 23, few events had the gravitational pull required to divert long-term me from my male obsessions.
She had been sick for a few months before she died. A smoker, she had weak lungs and a bad heart. Her heart started to fail during the previous fall, and though she had open-heart surgery, she never fully recovered. Pneumonia ensued, cancer was discovered, hospice care was prescribed. Then, at age 75, she died.
She was never like other grandmothers – she managed an upscale department store and wore Donna Karan and Armani, ate dim sum and subscribed to Women’s Wear Daily. I don’t think my grandmother ever baked a batch of cookies or made a cake for my brothers or me. She did always show up at our house with pastries from her favorite French bakery in Oakland, and had me hooked on morning buns from La Farine while my friends were all eating Hostess Cupcakes. When we went to her house, she served us exotic fruits and cheeses, and always had free samples of makeup and perfume for my mother and me. Even when I was only 8 years old.
My grandmother was tiny – barely past five feet tall. Everything about her was small as well; she lived on a beautiful little houseboat, had a loveseat instead of a couch, watched a tiny television set and bought condiments like peanut butter and mayonnaise in the smallest jars I had ever seen. She served delicate champagne grapes on dessert plates for a snack.
When I was young I was really tall and gawky. Like, really tall, really gawky. My grandmother – over whom I towered – always marveled at my height, even as I slouched through adolescence, trying to hide it. She bought me designer clothes and was the first person to introduce me to Guess and Esprit (and Christian Dior and Bill Blass and Halston). She also bought me my first ever CDs (Aerosmith, “PUMP” and Living Color, “Cult of Personality”). When I was really young, she let me model in the fashion shows her store held seasonally, and for about three weeks in kindergarten, I was convinced that I wanted to be a supermodel when I grew up. The department store that my grandmother managed (a truly lovely store that is, sadly, now defunct) had a swanky salon on the fourth floor and in the 70’s, women would come from all over the San Francisco bay area to have their hair cut by Grant, the resident celebrity stylist. He gave me my first ever hair cut, at age two. At four, he gave me a little Dorothy Hammill bowl-cut. He taught me to spell “p-i-n-k.”
I think about my grandmother a lot and it hardly seems possibly that she’s been dead for five years. The entire time I was planning my wedding I thought of her and her impeccable taste and blunt fashion criticism. When I had my first fitting with the designer who made my wedding dress, I wished my grandmother could see me, wearing couture, just as she would have wanted. No off-the-rack for any grandchild of hers. I wish she could have met Kent, but their paths didn’t quite cross. I wish she was still here for Christmas, because she spoiled us so dearly that it nearly induced hysteria. I know my dad misses her, especially at Christmas, which was most definitely her holiday.
She was a tough cookie, and was several times recognized by the San Francisco Chronicle for being one of the top businesswomen in the area. I know it made her both sad and proud when I moved to New York. Sad, because of the obvious – she wanted her family close. Proud for equally obvious reasons – where else would her granddaughter live but in the capital of the world?
I like that every February 14th, I think about her; I’m glad that Valentine’s Day means more to me now. My grandmother would buy me fun gifts for Valentine’s Day when I was a teenager – silly underwear, perfume, candy. But as I get older, Valentine’s Day is less and less about cards and candy and crushes. It’s about love. Love, in whatever form it comes in, for whomever you feel it. Love.
Happy Valentine’s Day.