I’m in the middle of If You Knew Suzy by Katherine Rosman. The book is a memoir of a reporter’s investigation of her mother after her untimely death from cancer. Close though Rosman was to her mother, by calling people from her mother’s address book in the years after her death, she found there was a woman she didn’t know lurking in other people’s minds. A whole life story to hear. The book is both heartbreaking and joyful. And for me, it’s a pounding refrain of “You should be writing about Grandmom.”
I should be writing about Grandmom.
An anecdote: One day over brunch about fifteen years ago, Grandmom started talking about her days in New York as an acting student and someone, perhaps her sister, mentioned that she had studied dance with Martha Graham. I assimilated this new information as Grandmom said “She kicked our butts. But boy, I had a great body then.”
So, you see that I should be writing about Grandmom.
The woman I remember was a grandmother, but a cool one with a red convertible and large, artisan jewelry picked up in places like Mexico, the Czech Republic and China. She and Pop-pop traveled a lot when I was young, though I’m not sure why now. Maybe for pleasure or maybe because my grandfather, a prominent and much-published psychiatrist, was presenting papers at conferences. She took me and my sister to museums and movies when we would visit and read us stories in her trained, expressive voice. She played piano and sang with my mother and my aunts. She traded sharp banter with family and friends over large, noisy, and boisterous meals. And there was a wall in the study of their house of her in different roles on the stage over. At her funeral, someone found an old headshot, probably from before she was married, and goddam if she wasn’t sexy as hell in the mode of Rita Hayworth. She had been a stage actress when that was glamorous. A good one, from what I’m told.
Grandmom was no community theatre dabbler. Her story doesn’t devolve into Waiting for Guffman if you go too deep. Rather, she left her home in Philadephia to go to New York and be an actress when she was quite young. She studied at the illustrious Neighborhood Playhouse. She did a few summers as an ingenue-type singer at Catskills resorts, working with Borscht Belt comedians. She took over a lead role in the Broadway production of Pal Joey and acted opposite Gene Kelly who she once told me was lovely. She later went on the road with the show, and if memory serves, she was married to my grandfather by then. They eventually wound up in DC where she was part of the original company at Arena Stage as well as performing at other venues around town. She taught and directed at schools and community theatres and, according to what my uncle said at her memorial, treated her students as if they were professionals, but in the right sense of the word; the sense of bringing seriousness and respect for the craft into the process, not driving them until they performed like trained poodles. She was a reader in the Books for the Blind program at the Library of Congress, with dozens of books to her credit.
When Alzheimer’s began to rob her of her memory, she once looked at me and said “I hate this. I used to make my living with my head!”
When I graduated from high school with plans to go major in theatre, she gave me a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare because she said every acting student needed one. Years later, after she had died, when one of my cousins graduated from high school with plans to major in theatre, I gave him a complete Shakespeare because I knew Grandmom would have wanted to do it herself.
I am in tears over my keyboard. We all miss Grandmom. None more that my grandfather who is 96 and living not too far from me. The first time he met my husband, he directed him to the wall in his condo where all the photos of Grandmom now hang. My husband, bless him, looked obediently and said the right things about faded photos of a woman he never met to the man who mourns her.
And that grief, still so close and so real even more than ten years after Grandmom’s death, is what frightens me about writing about Grandmom. I don’t know if I have the strength to walk into a room with my grandfather and ask him the right questions to put together the framework of who Grandmom was. I don’t know if I can draw out the stories from my aunts, uncle and father. Perhaps I would be ok face to face with her friends, those who are still living, and her sister who, though frail now, would gladly talk to me.Or perhaps I would cry through every tale, every memory.
I am afraid that I would have to mourn my grandmother as the friend I never got to have by accident of generation if I truly learned who she was instead of leaving her memory to the fog of childhood recollection.
I should write about Grandmom. I know I should.
I received a complimentary copy of If You Knew Suzy as part of my participation in the now-defunct SV Moms Group book club. I am now participating in the From Left To Write book club, which grew out of the SV Moms Group one and will, hopefully, provide me with more interesting books to read.