My grandmother died last weekend. She was 87 and her health had been deteriorating for a while. Her death didn’t catch me off guard– not the way my dad’s did– but it’s still sad.
Fortunately, I had the chance to get to know my grandmother better than most kids do. We lived in the same city and my dad always remained tight with his parents, so we saw them a lot. But, I always knew my grandmother as Grammy, a name bestowed upon her by one of my cousins. I’m the fourth of her seven grandchildren, so her identity as Grammy was already established by the time I popped into this world.
Grammy may have been born and raised in Los Angeles, but she was a straight-up, old school Armenian grandma. It didn’t matter how little notice we gave her, if we stopped by her house, there was a full spread of food on the table. If I didn’t have seconds, or thirds, she would say, “Lizzie-jan, you hardly ate. Is something wrong?” She added the suffix -jan a lot. It’s something of a term of endearment in Armenian.
She didn’t speak in Armenian often. She threw in words here and there, mostly if she didn’t want anyone around us to know what she was saying. One time, she took me shopping and asked if I needed new “vardigs.” I had to remind her that inside a Macy’s in Pasadena, everyone knew she was asking me about underwear.
But, there was another side to Grammy, one I’ll only know in bits in pieces.
When I was in high school, my grandma caught wind of the fact that I bought most of my clothes at thrift stores. Everyone in my family thought this was odd. Why on earth would you buy someone’s castoffs when you could afford to shop at Bullock’s? I was constantly explaining that I didn’t want to look like everyone else and, besides, the dresses from the ’50s and ’60s didn’t fall apart in six months. After that, Grammy decided that she would enable my quest to look like an extra in a Fellini film. Every time she came across an old outfit of hers, she would let me know. She even gave me her black, Don Loper cocktail suit.
Grammy owned a Don Loper suit. I couldn’t help but think that Lucy Ricardo would be jealous. And now that amazing vintage suit was part of my club wardrobe.
With time, I had a few more glimpses into my grandmother’s world. I would go to concerts in venues that were former movie palaces. She had been to them all. I went to nightclubs that are now considered historic. She knew all of those places too.
The revelation that my grandparents were cool was a bombshell. My grandmother never failed to call me after one of Fox 11’s “Look What Your Weirdo Kids Are Doing Now” reports. I still remember the time she asked me if I knew about this new dance called “freaking.”
“You don’t do that, do you?”
I cracked a joke that she pretended to ignore. After the awkward pause, I laughed and added, “Grammy, you know, they blow things out of proportion. And I work at goth clubs, we don’t like physical contact on the dance floor.”
But my grandmother, for all her concern and occasional shock over what us kids were doing, was young once too. And when she was young, she and my grandfather partied at places that get mentioned in Old Hollywood stories. That, to me, is endlessly fascinating.
There’s always the tendency to only see what’s in front of you. Grandparents, like parents, are always the adults. When we’re children, they tell us to be quiet and to stop running around the house before someone gets hurt. And, no matter how old we are, we’re always the kids, the ones who dress and talk in ways they never quite understand. They’re baffled by us, we’re baffled by them. We run in circles trying to explain ourselves to each other. Too often, we fail. I’m just glad that I had the chance to find out that Grammy was more than just an old school Armenian grandma while she was alive.