My last surviving grandmother turns 96 in just 20 days.
An occasional double-take comes my way when I tell others that my grandmother is still living - and that she lives on her own. There's not many 54-year-olds who can make that boast.
Nana has been widowed for over eight years now. My grandparents were married for nearly 68 years when he passed in a Turlock nursing facility. She misses him, of course, but something keeps her going. She is certain where my grandfather is and that comforts her.
Some people never get the privilege of knowing their grandparents. I also knew my dad's mother. She was married to my dad's dad, who died in 1946 when my dad was just six. Chester Benziger was 37 years old when he was "jumped" in a mental hospital and died of ruptured bowels, sort of the way Houdini died.
His widow, Opal Benziger, was my grandmother. She was born in 1920 as Opal Louise Hamilton, a native of southwest Colorado. She married my grandfather in 1938. Their marriage only lasted about eight years but produced three sons, including my dad, and contributed to me.
After burying Chester in 1946 in Turlock, Opal married George F. Duck, a military veteran who worked at a Delhi service station. I knew her as my Grandma Opal Duck. It was a peculiar name, for sure. I always felt like it would make a better name for an elegant glass figurine than for a person because of the reaction to it. You get it, right? Quack, quack, quack?
I remember going to visit them in their home on El Capitan Way in Delhi. To give you an idea when this was, I remember seeing a "Little House on the Prairie" TV production truck rolling in the opposite lanes of Highway 99 on one trip to see them.
Her name wasn't the only peculiar thing about her. You'd always expect that she would be wearing white "wife beaters" and a beer can was a fixture in her hand. With the odor of beer on her breath as she stooped over to kiss us grandsons, I noticed her head and hands trembled. The osteoporosis was so bad that she was always hunched over. As long as I knew her, she was not the picture of health.
There were times we'd pop in on them and George - I never once called him Grandpa - and she would be sitting in the darkened living room illuminated only by the bluish glow of a TV screen striking the thick rolling cloud of cigarette smoke streaming from their one-after-the-other cigarettes. I remember leaving there reeking of smoke in my clothing.
Something seemed amiss in our relationship. She was hard to know and I didn't feel close to her as I do my Nana.
Later they moved into Turlock. To this day, I think of her every time I see the giant grain silo towering over the old Highway 99 at the south end of Turlock for she lived right behind it on Minaret Avenue. George died in 1983, leaving her on her own for good. Not long afterward she moved into a 12-foot by 60-foot mobile home in a park on McHenry Avenue in north Modesto. Married then, I'd visit her as much as I could, giving her a chance to take a break from marathon TV watching and visit. Her life had downsized to virtually nothing.
In our altogether too short visits, she'd amble off down the narrow hall, running her hands along the wall to brace herself, to an empty bedroom to fetch a box of toys for my children to play with. One of those toys was an old metal war cannon with hardened rubber wheels that once belonged to my Dad.
Her refrigerator never had much in it but I took note of all the prune juice and cough syrup. And plenty of Coors. She chose not to eat healthy.
For sure, she was an alcoholic, but a mellow one. For what she was self-medicating herself was beyond my understanding.
I was always interested in learning more about my grandfather but she didn't like to talk about him. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe too many years had passed. But she did share an item of his that ignited a lifelong passion of mine. She pulled out a 1933 letter from the White House to my grandfather that was signed by FDR's assistant, Louis McH. Howe. I was in awe knowing this letter originated near the Oval Office where FDR himself was sitting. Probably more in awe of the fact that this same piece of paper was handled by the grandfather I never knew. That letter drove me to become an autograph collector (who has since snagged multiple signatures of FDR himself.)
Years of sedentary life sitting on a couch, booze and heavy smoking took their toll. She had that smoker's face; the cigarettes etched deep wrinkles and creases in her skin. She lost her teeth and she was thin and gaunt. Let's just say that a friend saw a picture of me and her together and asked who the little old man was. She did look like an old man, I told my friend who was apologizing profusely.
She may have been 73 but you'd sweat she was 93.
Predictably, lung cancer came and took her fast.
I remember sitting on her hospital bed, initiating an uncomfortable conversation about getting right with God with someone who knew she was on her way out. She listened to what I had to say about Jesus and nodded that she would make it to heaven. Never before had she wanted to listen. But as they say, there are no atheists in a fox hole.
She died Dec. 1, 1992. She wanted no service and no service was given.
For years I'd gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge and think of her for her ashes were supposed to be spread over the iconic structure. No such thing happened. The man hired to spread ashes by plane took the ashes and the money but left them when hundreds of others on his property. He was arrested and charged with fraud and my step-uncle had them scattered elsewhere in the Sierras.
I don't need to know where her ashes ultimately went. What's important is keeping her alive in my mind.
Death seals lots of things, including broken relationships that will never see restoration. Things seem unresolved with my Grandma Duck. That's where it stays. I wish I could revisit her with the maturity of a 54-year-old. I'd tell her I love her more than I ever did as a 31-year-old. I don't think she loved herself. I'd assure her that she was more important than the way that caused her to drink.
Years later the smell of beer on anyone's breath would instantly take me back to memories of my Grandma Duck and tears would well up in my eyes.
At 75, my father is older than my Grandma Duck lived to be but he is a testament to staying busy and active and engaged with life.
Nana defies the odds. She lives on at age 96. She's outlived everyone in her family except three of her children and most of her grandchildren. I can't say she always ate healthiest for I remember countless times she was frying chicken and rabbit in Crisco. But she has a strong and steady faith in the Almighty.
I love both my grandmothers and things feel tender in my heart as I think of both. Both had a different quality of life. They were cut from different cloths. The difference in my two grandmothers was indeed stark. One seemed to quietly deal with her demons; the other was putting her trust in God in good times and bad.
Nana didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't cuss and didn't want anyone of us doing any of those things in front of her. Church was a large part of her life. So was reading the Bible, which helped her get through difficult times like watching a son self-destruct after he'd been shot by a sniper in Vietnam, or bury a sweetheart of a granddaughter claimed by leukemia at age 10. Her staticky radio was always on in her house and she'd often belt out the soulful strains to gospel songs.
At a recent small group study, Psalm 1 is mentioned and I think of Nana. "Blessed is the one .... whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither - whatever they do prospers."
If life is mostly about our choices and our reaction to what life randomly throws our way, I'd say she mostly did things right.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org