My Initiation Into a Clandestine Sisterhood
Last week my 83-year-old granny came to visit me in Berlin. I knew she was flying to Germany from Arizona to visit some of her friends in the Vaterland, but I wasn’t exactly sure of her itinerary. She was traveling with my uncle, and he was in charge of finalizing all the details. I told them I would gladly meet them wherever they were in Germany, but that it would be really amazing if they came to Berlin to visit me here. Much to my chagrin, they accepted the invitation! My uncle was more than thrilled to get the opportunity to absorb some of my Cosmopolitan city (a stark contrast to the small German town they were staying in days prior). I could feel his excitement over email when he wrote about all the art he would get to consume while here; Ishtar’s Gate, Nefertiti’s Bust, and Renoir, OH MY!
I warned him though, “I live on the top floor, with no lift, do you think that will be OK for Granny?”
He said, “we’ll try it out, if it doesn’t work we can always get a hotel. Though yesterday she was traipsing around a castle just fine. Would you like to talk to your granny?” he asked. “Sure!" I replied without a pause.
If you don’t know my granny then you’ll likely be surprised at the first thing she said to me (if you do know her, however, you won't be at all.)
“Nicole, are there any bars in Berlin we can dance at?” I had to laugh. “Yes, Grandma, I will find us some, don’t worry.”
I’d like to take a moment to explain to you how much my Granny means to me, for I think my love for her surpasses the typical grandkid adoration for their grandparents. In some weird way, I feel deeply connected to this woman, like perhaps we had been best friends in a past life. Though we had entirely different upbringings and life experiences, we share a similar core; one that's tough as nails sometimes, and soft as butter at others.
Like many folks, my parents were 1. very young when they had me, and 2. very divorced. Dad saw me on weekends (if he managed to stay out of trouble) and mom was always working to keep us afloat. Even as a little girl I could feel the immense stress that my both of my parents were constantly under. Now don't get me wrong, I always had a full tummy and lots of love from both parents, but I was also very aware of the fact that we didn’t have a lot of money.
At my grandparent's house, however, I didn’t think about “adult stuff," I could just be a kid. If I was lucky, some of my cousins would be there as well. My grandparents had a huge backyard with a swing set, a metal trapeze bar, and a red wagon — it was the perfect place for us to act like hooligans. Now just because we were the kings of the yard, doesn't mean we didn’t have rules or chores. In fact, we had more chores than I had at home.
We had to make our beds in the morning, pick up mesquite beans from the yard, peel potatoes for dinner, set the table, and clean up after Mokey (the dog.) But I didn’t mind. With my cousins and my sister by my side, these tasks were just another adventure.
After grandpa took his nightly shower, he’d put on his flannel pajamas and leave a big sloppy kiss on our foreheads. Granny would then whisper to my sister and me to “go get your towels.” It was jacuzzi time. We didn’t need swimsuits where we were going. Instead, granny would turn out the interior light of the jacuzzi and we would climb in naked. I remember how exhilarating it was to drop my towel and feel the cool desert night air on my body, right before sinking into a warm tub of bubbling water. Though I was just a little girl, I fully understood that this wasn't just fun and games, it was an initiation into a clandestine sisterhood.
I have many fond memories of my granny taking us to art museums, thrift stores (where all the employees knew her name), and then to lunch at a hip downtown cafe. Even if we were just driving around in her big Lincoln running errands, you felt like some kind of celebrity by her side.
When it was time to go back home to Mama, Granny would always slip a “couple of chuckles” into your hand and tell you not to tell grandpa (since he’d already slipped you a few bucks of his own.) Again, she continued to subtly emphasize this clandestine sisterhood I was now a proud member of.
Grandma had a way of making us feel special, independent, and loved. I never felt coddled or suffocated. Instead, she gave us the parameters to confidently (and safely) make our own choices.
When I was 7 or so, we moved far away from Arizona. Though my visits with my granny became less frequent, the distance intensified the sacredness of our next meeting (one that would surely be greeted with a big hug and a loud witchy cackle.)
When I was 18, I made the choice to go to school at the University of Arizona. It was the only school I applied to, and luckily for me, I got in. I will never regret the decision to go to UA. Not only did it give me a chance to repair my relationship with my father (I got a chance to get to know him as an adult which turned out to be a very special time for me), but I also grew close, very close, to my grandparents. Though they were much older, they were still very sprightly. I would go over to their house (the same house) on the weekends to do laundry. It gave me a chance to take a break from test cramming and beer chugging. I would watch MASH with grandpa or help grandma organize, clean, or just lend her an ear. Granny and I managed to escape the house sometimes (though not for very long, since Grandpa couldn’t manage on his own for longer than a few hours) and frequent the same thrift shops. We would hold sparkly tops up to our bosoms, try on silly hats, and make each other laugh. And we almost always came home with way too many bags.
This was the first time I felt our relationship shift. I could see how much she appreciated me whisking her off on our afternoon adventures. I could see how important it was for her to get away from Grandpa’s cancer. I felt like my role was changing; though I still very much relied on her support and wisdom, I could feel that she was now looking to me for some strength and vitality. It was my turn to nurture her. And so I made it a point to link up with her at least once a week.
Grandma took me to Europe for the first time. She wanted to visit the town she lived in when my grandpa was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. Had I not taken this trip with her, I likely wouldn’t live in Germany today. That trip opened my eyes to a whole new world. I can’t explain it fully, but as soon as my face felt the German air, I felt awakened, like I belonged there somehow (though it would take me a few more years, and a few wrong turns, to get there again)
After Grandpa died, I moved back to Arizona (from LA) so I could help Grandma make the tough transition from caring wife to grieving widow. I drove down from Phoenix once a month to help her put things in order (well that was my intention, but really we just ended up gabbing and thrifting.) I wasn’t happy in my current relationship and these trips gave me a renewed sense of strength, purpose, and meaning. I always felt stronger on the way back up to Phoenix. Here I thought I was helping her move on, but really we were helping each other.
When I decided to move to Berlin, she was the proudest. The 8 hour time change made it difficult to keep in touch, but we managed to send handwritten correspondence every few months (and I always made sure to visit her on my annual trip back to the homeland.)
Flash forward nearly 3 years later, and I was so excited to be picking up my granny at the main train station in Berlin. Not only was she perfectly fine climbing up my apartment stairs ("one step at a time," I told her), she also insisted on riding the U-Bahn instead of taking a taxi and dancing the night away at Oktoberfest (Berlin edition). We laughed our way through those three days; squeezing ourselves into secondhand dirndls, gazing in awe at Nefertiti’s sculpted jawline, and screaming “SWEET CAROLINE” at the top of our lungs on the dance floor.
After chugging down a healthy amount of beer and busting it like nobody’s business on the dance floor, I felt her eyes continue to fall on me. The look she was giving me can be best described as something in between pride, awe, and unconditional love. I can’t tell you how amazing this felt— I just hope that you all get to experience it someday. When someone who means the world to you, (someone who played such a quintessential role in the person you have become), can look deep into your soul, see you exactly as you are, and be so proud of you that they themselves are beaming, that is a magical moment...one I will never forget for as long as I live. I love you grandma!