Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Kiss

The evening of his death, my Grandfather, James A. Kramer, Sr., left a goodbye gift for his wife that enriches our family history and opens a pathway to peace in death. Twenty-two years ago today my Grandfather died. My parents, having always been open about death, had allowed me, aged 10, to see the hardware staples surgeons used in 1988 on Grandpap because they didn’t think he would make it. This is not unlike the government knowing for years that the asbestos my Grandfather laid during the day would by no uncertain terms kill him later in life.

Those suffering from mesothelioma often feel as if their bodies are on fire. For this reason my Grandfather sucked on broken pieces of banana popsicles until he could no longer swallow. He was fortunate, they said. There are many sayings that come up through the ranks of Pittsburgh steel mills, coal mines, and nuclear power plants, and become integrated into my family’s coping strategies, often through humor at seemingly inappropriate times or in inappropriate places. My father always says that life is a shit sandwich for everybody, it’s just a matter of how much bread you have. My Grandfather’s death was fortunate compared to his brother. Bob Kramer, aged 36, choked on his own bowel until it caused his death.

“How are you?” I ask my Grandmother on the phone. “I’m fine honey.” A strain in her voice detectable for only a moment as she reports that she is removing red polish from a fingernail in preparation for her manicure later today. I let my Grandmother introduce the topic. Once she mentions the twenty-second anniversary, I tell her that I know. I ask again, “How are you.”

“I was twenty-two when he married me. We were married for forty-two years. And now he’s been dead for twenty-two years.” She continues, “You don’t realize how fast you grow old, honey,” Anna Marie Kramer says. “Have a good time. Live it up.

I had a hard time sleeping last night, honey. I prayed for him for a long while. I relived the kiss. It’s funny, you know, that night, at one point in the middle of the kiss I thought, ok Jim, let me go to sleep now.”

Then she begins talking joyfully about her great-grandchildren’s visit. My cousin Molly brought her two little girls over and my Grandmother could not have been more delighted. She retold the story of the younger one, Anna, asking her why she had wrinkles. Before explaining wrinkles to Anna, my Grandmother said, “Why, I didn’t know that I had wrinkles. Everyone tells me that I don’t have them.” I’m not sure if four-year olds understand sarcasm, but there is truth in her joke. For eighty-six years old, my Grandmother has beautiful, smooth skin with only a few smile lines around her eyes and mouth.

My Grandmother’s salmon colored Cadillac, (don’t you dare refer to the color as peach), was bought sometime after my Grandfather’s death that same year. My cousin’s eight-year-old daughter, Julia, looked at the twenty-two year old Coupe de Ville, put her hands on her hips and said, “Boy, you don’t see cars like this anymore, do you.”

My Grandmother explains that Julia turned down an offer to be in a commercial for Pepperidge Farm Goldfish because “I don’t like to say Pepperidge Grandma.” Not skipping a beat my Grandmother moved on to tell me that she magnifies the picture of Grandpap kissing her at the Elks Club, and thinks of all the nice memories. She honors her husband recalling these days with her platinum blonde hair and his thick hairline. “He was so handsome, you know. I often think had I married that other fella I had gone with in high school, since he had such big ears, I would have had seven dumbos. My children all have pretty ears.” That other “fella” my Grandmother dated until his mother, a German woman, made him break up with my Grandmother because she was Slovak. Luckily, for my existence, Granny Goodwitch, my Grandmother’s German mother-in-law was a bit more liberal on ethnic politics for her time.

Sometime while hearing that Uncle David likes his new job, Molly looked beautiful in a black sundress, my Mom is taking her to get her nails done this afternoon, I start to do the math. “Grandma,” I say. “I’ve been doing the math.” She laughs. I continue, “twenty-two more years.”
“Well, honey, I was thinking twenty more. That way I’ll be widowed the same number of years as I was married.” At eighty-six her math is better than mine. I tell her that I’ll accept one-hundred and twenty-eight instead of one-hundred and thirty. “My children have to know Great Anna Marie, or Granny Annie as some of the great-grandchildren call her.” We agree that she will live until one-hundred and twenty-eight.

Despite my Grandfather working all day as a foreman on commercial insulation jobs and then all night as a train engineer, he always ate dinner with his wife and seven children, afterwhich they prayed the rosary as a family. When my Uncles read this they will all snicker because it is euphemistic of me to say that my sleep-deprived Grandfather, with a crazier than hell Granny Goodwitch for a mother, was not always in the best of moods, but he did instill within my Mom the peace available in prayer.

The kiss that my Grandmother relived last night was the gift and legacy that my Grandfather left us. My Grandmother retells the story: “I got into bed. I realized that I forgot to replace the rosary around his neck. He could no longer speak. After I replaced the rosary, I went upstairs, said my prayers and went to sleep. An hour and fifteen minutes later, Jim walked into my bedroom wearing blue silk pajamas. He looked thirty-five years old. He held my glance. He walked over to me. He bent over me. He kissed me. Really softly. He licked my bottom lip very slowly. I felt his tongue along my bottom lip. It was warm. Then he left.”

A moment later my Mom, the night nurse on duty in the family room with her father, walked up the stairs. As she opened the bedroom door, my Grandmother was already sitting up in bed and said, “I know honey. Daddy came to say goodbye to me.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Project Rebirth

After September 11th the media returned quickly to celebrities and the Dow, while director, Jim Whitaker, has been following our nation’s tragedy meticulously through the ten people’s lives changed irrevocably by the collapse of the twin towers. Project Rebirth intimately focuses on the lives of four victims/survivors backdropped by the evolution of the site at ground zero. Over the course of nine years, each person’s private, psychological and emotional grief provides the arc as they and we cope with the aftermath of the attacks. The personal perspectives include: a fireman who lost his entire crew, a construction worker who lost his brother who was a firefighter, a fiancĂ© who lost the love of her life, and a teenage son who lost his mother who was working on the 104th floor. We each have a story from the events of September 11, 2001; Project Rebirth offers each of us the opportunity to process our grief, anger, and hardships through the intimate, honest portrayal of these four lives and losses.

The gorgeous cinematography captures the fireman shifting on his feet in the shadows of the service honoring his best friend. Clearly a body and soul feeling out of place and not worthy of living, these shots make palpable the intense remorse and survival’s guilt that nearly crushes him. Unapologetic footage and interview reels, expose the trials of a survivor and burn victim who undergoes over 40 surgeries in order to partially perform everyday tasks. Just when you think her spirit will never recover, she reasserts control over the medical care of her body, accepts her plight and recognizes the ways in which she was fortunate.

One of the many successes of this documentary in particular is the intense focus on each character’s interview. Prolonged camera pauses captivate the audience. For example, the young man who lost his mother looks intently and lastingly into the camera after recounting his feelings toward Osama Bin Laden. This son chose to walk in his mother’s footsteps by taking a position with his mother’s former employer Lehman Brothers. He walks in his mother’s ghostly shadows to recover a deeper understanding of the woman he lost. Throughout the interview clips it is clear that the interviewees, as much as the viewers, are gaining from the process of documenting their grieving and road to recovery. The young fiancĂ© must escape the city of New York in order to guiltily begin a new life without her beloved, Sergio. She is frank and forthright as is the native New Yorker and construction worker who lost his brother from local #20. He tells us outright that he yelled at his wife and his crew while suffering from severe PTSD resulting from excavating human remains at ground zeros. He worked from the years of relief and rescue to excavation to the building developments for the Freedom Towers.

Project Rebirth is moving, honest and intimate. The journeys of these four beloved survivors help the viewer to progress in their own personal or national mourning process. This story provides the never-before-told story of excavating, reconstructing and raising one’s life; this decade long work provides the heart and soul behind the raising of the Freedom Towers.