I had decided to allow my grandmother to take me shopping. Her campaign to go shopping with me had been unrelenting since I was two, around the time I announced I was finished going in my pants and wanted to learn about what happened in the toilet. Her desire to march me around department stores was so strong that she ended most phone calls with a reminder that I was a teenager with a body like a clothes hanger and that it was cruel and unusual not to let her, a short busty woman with a love of fashion and a waistline like a soda can, dress me.
I rarely let her take me shopping for two reasons. One: if I did, I had to take the train from New York to the suburbs of Philadelphia so I could spend the weekend browsing at a department store called Boscov’s, which sounded more like a type of chocolate-milk syrup than a store, and sold things made out of synthetic materials that looked like clothes for a suicidal-depression-themed Barbie. The other, much more important reason, was that she always managed to turn these shopping sessions into weekend-long summits on my hair, my relationships, my grammar and my future life prospects. Even if I did go, it was never just the shopping. Entreaties would be made: I needed to stay longer so she could take me to see the sculpture garden, the symphony orchestra. It would be expensive, but it would be worth it to teach her nail-biting heathen of a granddaughter something about life.
Planning my life was one of her life’s great joys. For a period she thought I should be a lawyer, like her husband, my Pop-Pop, but then sometimes she would get annoyed with him, and by extension the entire legal profession, and so she would decide I was too good to be a lawyer. Whenever that happened she remembered that everyone in her mother’s family had been a doctor, except her mother who was forced to be a nurse because of sexism, so I should be a doctor to right the wrongs against my great-grandma. The evidence was incontrovertible. I was in AP Biology. I was becoming a doctor. Then one day when I was in tenth grade she saw a science ethicist with fantastic hair on one of the cable morning TV shows. Of course, science ethics was my calling because it married the two passions she’d decided I had, law and biology.
Oh! Sweetheart! You’ve got to see this woman. She was so ELEGANT! she said after I finally picked up the landline at my parents’ house.
My brother and I usually screened her with caller ID because we knew that if we answered and it was Grandmom we’d never be able to do even a third of our homework before dinner. She mandated at least forty-five minutes on the phone, not as an official rule, just in practice. If you had to hang up she would say just hold on a minute in a way that was something between a command and a plea and so completely disarming that it never failed to get you across the forty-five-minute mark.
Once I actually answered, it was easy for me to spend hours talking to her on the phone, and clearly other people felt this way; her conversation was in high demand. Every once in a while she’d say hold on, don’t go away and put you on hold to tell Lorna or Edith or whoever had called her for some entertainment or advice that she was on the phone with her granddaughter and absolutely not to be disturbed. I’d hear the click of the phone line switching back to me and she’d say something like, anyway, her mother wasn’t as dumb as everyone thought she was. And boy was she built. But she had a horrible death. She was decapitated in a car accident. I can’t believe I can’t remember her name. This was always much better than my homework.
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