Well, We Remember It Now, Grandma

My shrill, birdlike, eccentric and utterly splendid in every way paternal grandmother, Mary Lou Emerine, was a liberal’s liberal.

Not in the sense of being owned by a liberal, as the apostrophe would indicate, although she was devoted to my dear grandfather, about whom I’ve written elsewhere, who was as leftist in his politics as it was possible without actually being a socialist. Which pretty much was what everyone to the right of him called him anyway, and which bothered him not a which, once he pointed out that the Trotskys were intellectually inept, whereas true progressives generally were pretty smart.

But Grandma was a quintessentially liberal, FDR-minded, sharp as hell nurse who traveled around the west with Papa, co-publishing the newspapers he owned and helping him pack up the old Remington and reporter’s notebooks when he got fired by the ones he didn’t. She came from a family of osteopathic physicians and firebrand, anti-papist evangelists who were instrumental in the founding of the Disciples of Christ denomination in the Midwest, but by the time I was born, she had adopted the faith that I consider the religion of my family during my youth — progressivism, liberalism, and Jesus as The Ideal, True Democrat.

I am now aware, but wasn’t ’til I was 19, that that’s an anemic, ultimately human-cast view of Christ, and I reject it entirely in favor of the Christ of the Bible — whom I nonetheless believe was “liberal” in his day and whose message is best embodied, however imperfectly, by the Left. But that flawed, lacking view of Jesus did result in a social ethic that my preaching great- and great-great grandparents, including Louisa Spiller Bowles, a physician and evangelist, likely would’ve demonstrated in their lives, and it was one that certainly made its way into the heart of a woman who was in every way central to my heart, my mind, my conscience, and my awareness of toothpaste as a wonder treatment for acne, burns, and jewelry cleaning.

From the time I was about two, Grandma and Papa lived in Tucson, and when I was ten they moved two blocks away. Their apartment was cluttered with newspapers, printing apparatus, typewriters, ghastly art from her ancestors’ days in med school — the photos of Louisa peering at a body during autopsy and the graphic diagram of a human hand during reconstructive surgery were carefully hung over the dining table — and a plethora of campaign memorabilia from Teddy Roosevelt on. Even when she broke her hip and moved into her assisted-living apartment, years after Alzheimer’s claimed the rock and jewel of her life, she decorated with pictures of what we used to irreverently call “The Trinity”: JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She had every picture ever taken, I’m thinking, of Cesar Chavez, and her ever-present “medicinal” jug of red wine was never the Gallo we boycotted, just as the dinner salad she ate every night, slathered with Imo Dressing, was never lettuce grown by farmers whose pickers were not represented by the United Farmworkers Union. She smoked like a longshoreman, kept not a single opinion to herself, was devoted to the St. Louis Cardinals and, in fact, any sports team with a player from St. Louis, was steadfast in her belief that bowel regularity was the key to health, and once bought me a purse that, she explained loudly at my 13th birthday party, had a zipper pocket for my feminine hygiene products.

I never said she was always appropriate.

But every December 7, she lectured us about how damned little the average American — this poor guy or gal, the “average American,” was the target of most of her ire — knew about Pearl Harbor. Steadfast in her opposition to the Japanese interment camps, she nonetheless experienced a surge of patriotism, even nationalism, whenever she held forth about the Day of Infamy. We all assured her, just to move on to how the Cards’ pitching staff looked for the spring opener, that we would solemnly remember Pearl Harbor Day in a manner most befitting children of liberals, growing up in the desert.

My father called me early one morning about fifteen years ago and told me that this vital, active, 90-year-old woman had died a few hours before. I had just talked to her two days before; she was cheerful, utterly engaged, and feisty as ever. But according to him, that night she had had her two glasses of red, smoked her cigarettes, and cheered her team on to victory via the always-blaring-TV, but when she stood up to go to bed, she vomited. She called Dad, he came over and cleaned things up, put her to bed, kissed her and told her he loved her, and woke up the next morning to a call from Casa Esperanza, whose staff had checked on her when she missed breakfast and found her still warm, but gone.

It was December 7, 1997. So, Grandma, you gave me innumerable gifts of inestimable value . . . and you made damned sure, bless your heart, that I’ll never forget this Day of Infamy.

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