My grandmother had been ill for so long: weak, nauseous, unable to find a deep breath anywhere in her body, ambushed often by sharp, insistent pain in her chest. The doctor had visited often, sometimes in the middle of the night, to inject her with digitalis and then morphine.
She and I had been roommates, in that houseful of people: my parents in one room, my two brothers in another, and my grandmother and me together, in a yellow bedroom with flowered curtains. Stories had been told under the covers, youthful hurts shared and healed with her soft tattoo of soothing pats, fears allayed, important information transmitted. But how does a strapless dress stay up? But how did you wash your face if the water in the basin was frozen? But how did you curl your hair with just rags? But why do you have to iron the yoke of the shirt first? But why? So kind a woman was she that it has been only recently that I have wondered if, all other things being equal, she might not have preferred not to share her sleeping quarters with an eight-year-old and her doll collection. It never ocurred to me then that it was anything but the delight for her that it was for me.
Now, though, I was moved into my own room, with a new satin bedspread to help me feel grown up. The soft, hurrying footsteps of my mother woke me in the night, every night; I would listen to the whispers, to the doctor coming and going, and go back to sleep. My teacher asked what was wrong; I seemed distracted in school. I was amazed: could people could tell by looking at you that your grandmother was sick? Did such things show?
On that Saturday, a tiny black puppy had arrived at our house in the morning, born of a mother whose milk went bad. She, alone of the whole litter, survived. Not weaned, not weanable, too small to drink from a saucer, Blot required feedings from a doll's baby bottle every three hours. All that day, I haunted the cardboard box in the dining room where she lived, arranging her nest of soft rags, heating her milk just right, testing it on my wrist to be sure, like my mother showed me and feeding it to her. Looking at the clock, eager for the three-hour intervals to pass so I could feed her again. She filled up like a water balloon each time I fed her; I found my grandmother's tape measure and measured Blot before and after feedings. She gained a couple of inches each time she ate, and lost it in between. I wrote the numbers down in my assignment notebook for future reference.
In the night, more hushed footsteps, more whispers. More than usual. I slipped out of bed and into the hallway. No one was there. I went to the door of my grandmother's room. The light was on, but she was not in her bed. The covers were turned back and the light was on, all the bottles of pills still there on the night stand. I went downstairs. My parents sat in the living room.
My grandmother had died, they told me. I went and sat on my father's lap for a while, even though I was a big girl now, and we talked a little more. Then I slid down and went into the dining room. The puppy was beginning to whimper. I heated some milk and fed her. All through the funereal bustle of the next few days, the feedings continued. Other girls came to visit the puppy. We did not talk about my grandmother.
That Sunday, something happened on the television: four young men from England, boys, really, the youngest not much older than I was. Boys with long hair and matching jackets without lapels. My parents were not interested in long-haired boys with guitars; they had other things on their minds. But I was interested. Very. Girls screamed, a sound shrill as a band of whistles. They sat in the audience and wept. Some of them fainted. Later on, my father would be strenuously opposed to my interest in these four boys, but for right now it was good to have me occupied.
We played their 45rpms all that spring. We played them until we wore them out. The puppy sat with us on the floor as we played them and sang along with us; we continued to measure her with the tape measure and to laugh at her cylindrical shape. We each had a favorite Beatle; I chose Ringo, because he was the homeliest, thus inaugurating a lifelong habit of picking strays. The puppy grew and so did we. I thought of my grandmother at night, sometimes; I had moved back into our old room. But I was busy: the puppy. The Beatles. Living and leaving the last moments of childhood, going back and forth between child and woman, putting a toe into dangerous waters, then running back to the safety of being a girl. Creeping cautiously into the culture and then cutting loose, running and jumping, dancing to its music. I need no longer stay at home. There is a whole new world beyond it. And it is mine.
That was forty years ago. Two of the long-haired boys have died. The puppy was hit by a car when I was sixteen; she gave me one wild look of despair and died in my arms.
My season with my grandmother was short. Much more of my life has been lived without her than was lived in her presence. I had the Beatles longer than I had her. A little girl who loved her stood at the edges of her life at its end, believing herself to be at its center, and my grandmother graciously allowed this. Into the wider world, the world in which you are the one who cares for the weak, in which you first love what others love and then find new things to love, people and things all your own. Love and delight, loss and healing, responsiblity, all pushed us into the future. Each of us finds a way to get free of childhood, propelled by these things.
+ Forty years ago, the Beatles arrived in New York for their first visit to America. Also forty years ago today, Anna Marie Berg, nee Ringdahl, died of congestive heart failure at the home of her daughter. She was 74.