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.”