Taking a Vacation from My Vacation

cruiseship stamp fotolia

The past week was supposed to bring rest and rejuvenation, but, you know, best laid plans. The goal for today, therefore, is as simple as it is ambitious: shake off the past week, and return to business as usual. And so, I blog. This post won’t be especially elegant, nor will it prove especially inspiring. Honestly, this post isn’t for you. It’s for me.

Last week, I flew to South Florida to meet up with my mother and brother, with whom I was taking a four-day-long cruise to Mexico. This was our Christmas present, and—in my case—an early Spring Break. Seeing my family is always wonderful, and we were very excited for our vacation, but we also had a lot on our minds. There were many shoes in the air, so to speak, and waiting for them to drop cast something of a pall on the skies over the Liberty of the Seas.

Those shoes did indeed drop. And how.

On day three of the cruise—the day we docked in Cozumel—we came home from a wonderful day of sun, shopping, and dolphin encounters, only to find out that my paternal grandmother had died. She was ninety-seven, and had entered hospice earlier that week, so we were all prepared—indeed, anxious—for her passing. But, of course, being on a ship at the time of her death, we had almost no internet access, and no cell phone service. We couldn’t plan her memorial, we couldn’t notify relatives… we couldn’t do much of anything.

My Nana and I on my birthday, three years ago. She'd been in frighteningly good health--like, travelling cross-country alone and tap-dancing good health--until a fall at age 94. This picture was taken shortly after that fall, when my mother, my brother and I flew to Florida to surprise her at the rehab center.

My Nana and I on my birthday, three years ago. She’d been in frighteningly good health–like, travelling cross-country alone and tap-dancing good health–until a fall at age 94. This picture was taken shortly after that fall, when my mother, my brother and I flew to Florida to surprise her at the rehab center.

To be clear: I am glad my grandmother is gone. The past three years of her life have been challenging; this past year, well, it’s been simply awful. Her death is a blessing and a relief. While I’m not grieving my grandmother, it was difficult to be so utterly disconnected from the reality of her passing. So we sat there, in the casino, playing the slots and sipping on virgin piña coladas, because what the hell else were we going to do? It was a strange feeling, to put it mildly.

Our cruise ended yesterday. We disembarked in the morning and drove three hours back to our home, making calls to the nursing home, the hospice facility, etc. on the way. Things were getting back to normal. We picked up three ecstatic dogs—and one very grumpy cat—from the kennel. And then, when we got home, all hell broke loose.

Sadie was bleeding.

We used to always joke that Sadie acted more like a reindeer than a dog. In 2012, we made it official with a pair of ears. We thought it would freak her out, but she took to them immediately.

We used to always joke that Sadie acted more like a reindeer than a dog. In 2012, we made it official with a pair of ears. We thought it would freak her out, but she took to them immediately.

Sadie had cancer that, while not impacting her appetite or her sunny disposition, had badly disfigured her. She had a tumor (at least) the size of a softball on her leg, and another baseball-sized tumor on her stomach. We all considered it a miracle that she’d survived to celebrate Christmas with us again; it seemed like the only one who wasn’t holding their breath was Sadie. It’s a strange thing to see a dog who looks so sick dancing for her dinner, wiggling her stump, and running to the sliding-glass door to bark at passersby. We were always worried that we might let her go too long, that we’d miss a warning sign, that she’d be in pain and we’d inadvertently allow that pain to continue. We took her to the vet over and over again, only to hear the same thing over and over again: not yet.

When my mother and brother dropped her off last week, the tumor on her leg was oozing slightly, but all seemed well. She was still a happy dog. She was a happy dog when we picked her up. But by the time we got home with her yesterday, all was definitely not well. In the span of about thirty minutes, everything changed.

When she got out of the car, blood started spurting out of her tumor. Our garage was covered in droplets of blood. We looked at her leg, and realized the skin had finally ripped open. We tried to bandage her, but the shape of the tumor being what it was, the bandage came off within minutes. There was nothing we could do. Sadie didn’t seem terribly distressed by her condition, but we knew that it would only get worse. And so, within twenty minutes of arriving home with our menagerie, my mother and I packed Sadie into the car and returned to the vet. As my mom put it to me, it felt like we were playing a dirty trick on her, taking her back like that. Timing’s a bitch.

When we arrived at the vet’s office, we were met by a staff that seemed almost as devastated as we were. As one nurse put it to us “We knew this day was coming, but we’d all hoped she had a little while longer, because she’s such a special dog.” Dogs are tremendously empathetic, so it’s possible she was responding to the emotions flooding the room, but Sadie’s attitude gradually changed. Her usual vet-visit jitters seemed to melt away, replaced by resignation. After a lot of kisses and tears, Sadie laid herself down in-between my mother and I, and quietly, peacefully, passed away.

Sadie and her sister, Maya. We rescued them, and when we realized that adopting them out would mean splitting them up, we decided to keep them. Maya passed away a couple years ago. I can only imagine the fun they're having together right now.

Sadie and her sister, Maya. We rescued them back in 2004. When we realized that adopting them out would mean splitting them up, we decided to keep them. Maya passed away a couple years ago. I can only imagine the fun the girls are having together right now.

To summarize: I took a four day long vacation. In that time, I lost both my grandmother and my dog.

I would say that I was still numb, but I’m not numb at all. I wish I was numb. If I could get right back on that ship and sail away from this situation, I would. As every co-worker you’ve ever had has said at least once: I need a vacation from my vacation. The idea of getting back to my academic work—to steeping myself in other people’s loss—seems impossible. And yet, I desperately need to get back to my routine.

I shouldn’t feel bad about my lack of grief at my Nana’s passing, but—now that Sadie’s gone—I do feel bad about it. I’m struggling with the knowledge that I’ve cried, repeatedly, over Sadie, and not once for my grandmother. It actually makes a lot of sense that I feel that way. Sadie was happy and dancing on the day she died; if it weren’t for the giant bleeding tumor on her leg, she’d have had at least a few happy months ahead of her. My grandmother, on the other hand, was gone months before she died.

Feeling guilty about grief is as stupid as it is inevitable (in my case, anyway). The only way to make those feelings fade is to acknowledge them… to let them stretch out a little, announce themselves, and enjoy their moment.

That’s why I wrote this post. It’s for me, not for you. The guilt and sorrow I’m carrying right now is heavy, so I’m offloading it onto the Internet. Those feelings can run free all over my blog, but their time in my head has come to an end.

 

 “The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The SMDS “Suggested Reading” List

I have to apologize to those of you who’ve joined the SMDS RSS feed over the past week or so, because your (much-appreciated) interest in my blog happens to coincide with my needing to step away. A dissertation deadline beckons, so I need to hoard all of my creative juices, gremlin style, until Tuesday, October 23.

Until then, dear reader, I thought I would pass along a “Suggested Reading” list for those of you who are new to the website. These are some of my favorite posts so far, and hopefully offer a little insight into what The Six Million Dollar Scholar is all about.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I wrote this post on what would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday. It’s my favorite post because it’s about one of my favorite people; you’ll enjoy it because it’s a reminder that sometimes we don’t need to look very far to find a hero. In my case, I realized I grew up with a brilliant, hardcore feminist in my basement, a woman whose improbable life deserves to be the stuff of books.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

What I’m Learning from A Giant Stack of Obituaries

I came home from my most recent research trip with literally hundreds of obituaries, and no immediate use for them. I’ve since discovered that they may indeed have a home in my dissertation. Even if that turns out not to be the case, they were worth the money I spent printing them, because they taught me a lot about myself, about the research process, and about the fiction that is the personal/professional binary.

Dear Diary

This post has a special place in my heart, because it’s probably the single most effective life hack I’ve implemented since starting The Six Million Dollar Scholar. At the time I wrote the post, I’d only been journaling for six days, but today I can report that, for the first time in my life, I have a daily journaling practice. it’s now been almost two months, and I’m still going strong. It’s incredibly rewarding, and—for an historian, anyway—a great reminder that not all archives are brick and mortar.

Taken yesterday.

The Human Thundershirt

Quite possibly the strangest proof-of-concept blog post ever, I demonstrate that my newfound ability to calm the world’s most disturbed canine is a sign that the world needs more blogs like mine. Plus, there’s an abundance of pictures of a sweet baby puppy dog face girl.

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course ended up being cancelled, a highly improbable scenario realized by a perfect storm of utter lameitude. When I wrote this post, I thought I’d done a pretty great job polishing a gnarly turd of a moment in my teaching career. In hindsight though, it’s nothing short of amazing how everything worked out. After all, while I didn’t anticipate being out of a teaching job, I neither did I anticipate running into medical problems this summer that would have made teaching a damned-near Herculean task. Maybe, just maybe, the universe was looking out for me?

That oughta keep you busy! See y’all again soon!

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Dear Diary

One of the key takeaways from my most recent research trip—a non-unique one, I’ll admit—was realizing how important it is to keep personal records.

In the course of two days I read approximately six years’ worth of film scholar and AIDS activist Vito Russo’s life. How much of it do I anticipate will make it into my dissertation? Frankly, not all that much.

Vito Russo

The ten-ish hours I spent pouring through Russo’s journals were nevertheless some of the most valuable that I’ve logged in my career thus far. Historians use primary and secondary sources in their work, but we also use intuition, emotion, and other intangibles we can’t fully account for in our footnotes (whether we like it or not). Russo’s journals steeped me in the ethos of the AIDS crisis in a unique way, and it’s left an imprint on both my mind and my heart that I know will follow me throughout the research process.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read somebody’s personal remembrances in an archival setting—every single time I do, though, I find myself sitting there wondering why there aren’t more historians in the world. It’s just so cool. The “intimate connections” that happen in the archive are a huge part of the reason I’m motivated to do this kind of work, and every time I encounter another life on paper, I start thinking about journaling, and the fact that I suck at it.

I am notorious for buying—nay, collecting—fancy notebooks in which I intend to write my life story, only to decide that writing in them would be a desecration. If I actually do write in them, I immediately re-read the content I’ve created and criticize everything from my handwriting to my sentence structure. In so doing, I determine that I’m the biggest jerk on the planet and who the hell would want to read about my life anyway so why don’t I just not and say I did? It’s intense.

At least, it was. I’ve been on the journaling wagon for a whopping six days now, and am happy to say that I think it’s going quite well.

There are two reasons I think I might be able to turn journaling into a habit this time around:

  1. I’m writing with a different goal in mind.
  2. I’ve changed the process by which I write a journal entry.

The former is largely a result of engaging with Vito Russo’s personal writing. I’m eventually going to devote an entire post to his journals, but for now I’ll just say this: while Russo a heroic figure in both LGBT and HIV advocacy, his journals reveal all of his deepest flaws. Every once in a while he’d write something that stopped me in my tracks, because it was so self-centered, or whiny, or arrogant, or etc. etc. etc. That was awesome. The stars, they’re just like us!

I used to imagine my great great grandchildren reading my journals and telling all their friends about what a great woman I was. After reading through Russo’s journals, though, I now imagine them gathering together to talk about the myriad ways in which I was kind of a jerk. We love the people we love not just despite their flaws, but because of them. This realization has helped me to stop worrying about the quality of what I put on the page.

My new technique for journal writing has helped me in this quest to uncensor myself, but there’s still the issue of carving out time to write yet another thing. Taking a cue from Greg McKeown, who advises that you should always write less than you’d like to, I decided that I would only allow myself to write for ten minutes. Can I plumb the depths of my soul in ten minutes? No. Can I give a basic account of my day and how I felt about it? Yeah. I certainly can’t claim that my journal has a wonderful voice, as it’s comprised of lots of super abbreviated sentences, but who cares? Writing is both my hobby and my job. If my great great grandchildren swing a dead cat and somehow don’t find my blog posts, articles, and (fingers crossed) dissertation, they just need a bigger dead cat.

Do you journal? Any suggestions for getting started/sticking with it?

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Human Thundershirt

It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m awake. I got up around 3:30 to use the restroom, only to realize that there was a gnarly thunderstorm going on outside. “This is my time to shine” I thought to myself, and raced into my mother’s bedroom—privacy isn’t really a thing in my house—to attend to Maggie.

Maggie playing with her Christmas present. It almost survived the day!

Maggie playing with her Christmas present. It almost survived the day!

Maggie is a 5-ish year old rescue dog. She was about to be put down (in Kentucky, of all places), when my mom—who at the time was volunteering as a foster mom for rescue dogs—got the call: would we save Maggie’s life?

Duh. The person on the other end of the phone knew exactly what he or she was doing, because the fact is, we’re terrible foster parents. No dog that we’ve taken in has ever been adopted. Each one has been absorbed into our menagerie, so like those who came before her, Maggie went straight from the doggy version of the green mile into her forever home.

This photo of my little brother communing with Maggie is a few year old, but I love it.

This photo of my little brother communing with Maggie is a few year old, but I love it.

Whatever happened to her before we did… it left a mark. While never hostile, this is a dog that approaches people with trepidation. You have to know the right and the wrong way to engage her (in fact, to this day certain kinds of human contact will cause her to lash out in fear). When we first got Maggie she was completely silent, a first for us, as we’ve always had “guard dogs” that protected us by alerting entire neighborhoods to the presence of squirrels, human puppies on tricycles, etc. It was pretty exciting to have a dog with no bark, until we realized that she did indeed have a voice, a voice that fear and abuse had long stifled. Within a week or two in our house she’d assimilated beautifully, and now she barks with a reckless abandon that is as endearing as it is annoying. She throws back her head with such relish whenever she barks… it’s truly a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, in learning how to bark, she’s also learned how to cry. We’re exceedingly good to Maggie, and she knows it. So great is her fear of losing her forever family that coming home—be it after six months in California, or, you know, six minutes at the grocery store—elicits the kinds of yelps and doggie tears normally reserved for YouTube clips of returned servicemen and their pets. No matter what we do, this is a dog that believes we will abandon her.

Sad as her aforementioned separation anxiety is, it’s not unusual in rescue dogs. But don’t be fooled: Maggie is special. She is quite possibly the most neurotic dog in the world.

Another oldie but goody. Both Maggie and Dibbles (the geriatric chihuahua, who will one day have her own post) really brought their A game.

Another oldie but goody. Both Maggie and Dibbles (the geriatric chihuahua, who will one day have her own post) really brought their A game.

This is a creature who recently picked up the habit of hiding in my brother’s room whenever my mother picks up or answers a phone. Why? Because one time, while on an important business call, my mom yelled at her to stop barking. Now her tail goes between her legs every time a member of her family tries to contact the outside world.

Dinner? No way… you can’t eat that without adult supervision. Even with a human sentry standing guard, you need to stare at the kibble for at least a half hour (or four) to make sure it’s not, in fact, a threat.

At the tender age of five, Maggie takes evening walks measured in feet, not miles. After all, who knows what’s behind that stop sign? Trying to get her to expand her boundaries in the slightest throws her into a panic, as if you’ve suddenly decided she’s not allowed to come home. (This is a trait she shares with another of our three pups, Sadie. It’s hard not to feel like a bad pet owner when walking all of your dogs separately only takes about ten to fifteen minutes.)

And then there’s thunder. Many dogs are afraid of thunder; three out of four members of our animal family (three dogs and one cat) have storm-related anxiety. But Maggie dials it up to eleven.

At even the hint of a storm, Maggie begins trembling… not shaking, trembling. She drools, and her tail goes between her legs. Sometimes she’ll content herself with hiding in the bathtub or behind the toilet, but more often than not she responds to thunder by going into a blind panic. She runs from room to room, family member to family member, too frightened to be soothed by any of us. “Get a thundershirt” you say? Hah! Been there, done that. Despite numerous efforts, it’s become clear that no amount of tightly-wrapped fabric will soothe the likes of Maggie.

Then I came home for a month.

When mom went out of town for a conference last week, I became Maggie’s surrogate person. This is what I woke up to each morning.

My mom was the first one to notice it. Around the time I started this blog, Maggie started spending more time with me generally, and starting sitting in my lap for extended periods of time when thunder threatened. “You must be in a good place mentally,” my mom suggested, “because Maggie doesn’t normally sit still this long during a storm. You make her feel better in a way the rest of us can’t.”

My family is currently living in South Florida, so storms are an almost daily occurrence. That meant I had time to test the theory. And test I did. Taking a cue from thundershirt technology, I started grabbing Maggie whenever the thunderstorms began. I held her so tightly I worried that I was going to scare and/or hurt her, but after a couple of seconds of struggling, she’d lay down. Even after I released her from my grasp, she rode out the rest of the storm on my lap, trembling and drooling, but calmer than we’d ever seen her.

It worked day after day after day. I am, as it turns out, a human thundershirt.

So at 3:30 AM or so, when I realized that Maggie was in distress, I jumped into action. I am not this dog’s primary person—my mother is—so she doesn’t automatically come to me for relief; I have to go to her. I tried bringing her into my bedroom, but she didn’t want to leave the rest of the group. So the two of us crawled into my mother’s bed (permission neither requested nor attained) and assumed the position: me curled up on my side, her laying in my arms. It took almost a solid hour, but Maggie finally stopped shaking. And I decided to go blog about it, because who needs sleep?

Taken yesterday.

Taken yesterday.

As a kid I was terrified of thunderstorms. To be honest, they still scare me a bit. I don’t let it show anymore, though, because somebody’s counting on me for protection. In fact, part of me actually looks forward to thunderstorms these days. The light and noise offer me an opportunity to bond with my crazy dog, to—through nothing but love and a decent gripget her through her terror. I’m not here foreverin fact, I’m heading back to California tomorrowbut for the time being, I get to be Maggie’s hero.

Being a canine thundershirt also validates all the Six Million Dollar Scholar-style work I’ve been doing these past couple months. The more I do to get right with myself, to be the best version of myself I can be, the more I radiate peace. The more I radiate peace, the easier it is to bring peace to others. As of 4:30 this morning, I have a new mantra to deploy in the moments of self-doubt, the moments where I start to wonder if this blog—if all of the self-improvement crap—is motivated by narcissism:

I AM A HUMAN THUNDERSHIRT.

And now… this thundershirt is going back to bed.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Forced Fun is Still Fun

I’ve been scheduling fun since my freshman year of college, because I’m neurotic and thrive on work-related stress. I guess in some ways I respect deadlines more than I respect myself? I don’t know. The fact of the matter is, I have two natural speeds: two miles an hour, and 200 miles an hour. At both speeds, I’m pretty much incapable of enjoying myself. Accordingly, I put a lot of time and effort into finding balance. Those effort have taken different forms over the years, with varying results. This blog post is about a technique I’ve used over the past year that’s actually worked: forced fun.

My adoptive niece!

My adoptive niece!

This past year, a dear friend of mine had her first child. At the time, I was teaching my first course on my own (146H: Sex in U.S. History) and hadn’t found a good work rhythm. In practical terms, I doubt I was working more than the average instructor, but I was worrying about the class constantly. I was basically leading my students on a guided tour of my wheelhouse, but I found myself in a state of constant doubt. Instead of doing my own research, I kept, for example, reading books that I might, one day, assign to future students. “Applied imposter syndrome” was taking up all of my time, and the psychic stress it caused was seriously harshing the mellow that is summer in sunny Southern California.

Lucky for me, babies are magic. My friend called: did I want to meet her daughter? She’d delivered less than twelve hours previous. I walked into the hospital with a gift bag full of stuff, and—after a couple hours spent getting to know this amazing miniature person—walked out with a new perspective on things.

Instead of trying to find ways in which my syllabus was deficient, I started thinking about how I could schedule myself to see her more often. I started to believe that my best had to be good enough, because life is too short, and I never wanted my adoptive niece to forget what I looked like. I wanted to be an amazing teacher, but I also wanted to have a life defined first and foremost by love.

And I wanted to knit.

It had been years since I last picked up a set of needles. My beloved grandmother (who I wrote about extensively in a previous post) taught me how to knit in my teen years. Thing is, we were really casual about my “lessons,” and I was easily discouraged. I got to the point where I could do a basic knit stitch in my sleep, but the purl stitch (essentially the next level up) gave me fits. It was enough to make me throw my needles down in frustration. I was content with knitting 101 for the time being. Then my grandmother unexpectedly passed away.

When Granny died, I stopped knitting. Of course, that’s the opposite of what she would have wanted, but it somehow felt wrong to me to go on learning without my teacher. Every once in a while I’d knit a scarf or something—something that neither challenged me nor enhanced my skill set—but by and large my grandmother’s old knitting bag sat unused in my closet.

Thing is, babies don’t appreciate imaginary blankies.

My niece wearing the onesie I brought to the hospital on the day she was born. She grew into it devastatingly fast. Luckily, my pile of knitted squares has been growing right along with her.

My niece wearing the onesie I brought to the hospital on the day she was born. She grew into it devastatingly fast. Luckily, my pile of knitted squares has been growing right along with her.

I picked up knitting again, and discovered that (now that it was really important) I actually did know how to purl. I could do it… well enough, in fact, that I should be able to make something really lovely.

I wanted this blanket to be high quality—no experiments here—so, while it’s not terribly creative, I decided to replicate the same square over and over again. It would provide me the kind of practice I needed to get back in the game, and, realistically, the tiny baby wouldn’t know the difference.

I told myself that I would have a big baby quilt done by my adoptive niece’s first birthday. That deadline meant I was going to have to start knitting on the regular. And knit I have. I’m finishing the quilt this week, and sending it off to be put together (I’m not ready to attempt crochet yet). The next time I see the little angel, she’ll be both one AND the proud owner of a baby blanket.

Months later, the two of us blew off a Superbowl party to take a selfie in the kitchen and debate the merits of naptime.

Months later, the two of us blew off a Superbowl party to take a selfie in the kitchen and debate the merits of nap time.

Knitting is both relaxing and enjoyable for me. As a PhD student, I rarely come home at the end of the day with something concrete to show for the time and effort I’m putting in, so being able to sit down with some yarn and quietly create something is incredibly rewarding. Up until now, however, it’s also always been the first thing to go when I get busy.

Setting the first birthday deadline was not unlike scheduling fun. I made a promise to my friend and her infant daughter, and I keep my promises. I essentially forced myself to have a lot of fun this year, even when it didn’t feel like I had the time for it. The result? Not only have I finished my first truly major knitting project—a feat I’ve attempted several times since high school—I’ve gotten over the mental block that told me I could never improve without my grandmother here to teach me. I’ve made time in my life for personal enrichment, and learned how to use my neuroticism for good.

This picture happened almost a full two months ago now, which makes me sad, because the last time I saw her, she didn't have teeth! Another good reason to get back to California.

This picture happened almost a full two months ago now, which makes me sad, because the last time I saw her, she didn’t have teeth! Another good reason to get back to California.

What’s next? I’m going to teach myself a new stitch, and immediately set to work on a new blanket. I found a group that will assemble and donate what I send them. If there’s better motivation than knowing that somewhere out there a baby is cold, I don’t think I want to know about it.

So there you have it. I’m using my fear of letting people down to force myself into activities that I enjoy and wouldn’t otherwise make a priority. Because babies are magic.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I’m back in Florida with my family, decompressing after an incredibly productive and fun—but exceedingly stressful—week of archival work. Unlike previous trips, I am actually excited to keep researching. The one major impediment to continuing research is my present location, which is approximately 3,000 miles away from both my home and the majority of my archives. Thing is, I’m really happy here, and reluctant to leave. I’ve found that happy medium between work and family, and am loathe to give it up. That feeling is even stronger today, because today would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday.

The last photo I have of myself and Granny.

The last photo I have of myself and my grandmother.

My grandmother—I always called her “Granny,” which drove my mother up a wall—died seven years ago. She died in her sleep, the death she’d always wanted, at the age of 73. I was in college 800 miles away, attending Bryn Mawr. It was a matter of personal pride for her, because, despite growing up mere miles from the campus, she always told me she never would have gotten in, on account of being an Irish Catholic.

By the time she passed away she’d been living with my family for over a decade, and was equal parts my third parent and my responsibility. I drove her to her doctor’s appointments, she taught me how to knit. I brought her food when her foot got run over by a Buick (that actually happened… she broke six bones and developed a serious case of “Frankenfoot” as a result), and she laid in bed calmly agreeing with me whenever I needed to rant about something parent or high school related. I took her to the craft store, and she did my laundry. She told me I would “start an argument with a brick wall,” and I mocked her relentlessly. She was a fixture in my life, and—as is the case with most fixtures—I took her for granted. And then suddenly she was gone, and for the first time in my life I found myself besieged by grief.

I was besieged, but my grandmother had long ago been broken. Granny moved in with us shortly after the death of one of her three daughters, and was never the same. By that time she was also dealing with the early stages of dementia and other medical problems that limited her in ways I am only now able to understand. She had an incredibly difficult life, and given my age, I couldn’t really appreciate the gravity of her physical and psychological challenges.

In fairness—both to myself and to my grandmother’s memory—she was also totally cuckoo bananas. She was quite possibly the world’s worst driver: from a hit and run at the public library to the time she ran into our local Wachovia, every trip with her was a hair-raising adventure. She was a truly heinous cook who gave herself E. coli at least once. She got jelly on the newspaper every single morning. She had a cat named “Cooter.” She routinely told my brother and I to “bugger off, dear,” and taught me turns of phrase that to this day make me sound like I come from another era. I always described her to my friends as the eccentric old lady who lived in my basement, and to this day I stand by that description. What I didn’t fully appreciate then, and wish I could tell her now, is that she was so much more than that.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

My grandmother being nutty, as she was wont to do.

My grandmother was basically the coolest person ever. This is a blog post, and Granny deserves a book, so to those of you who knew her, please excuse my brevity. For the rest of you, strap in. I’m about to list all the reasons that my granny was cooler than your granny:

  • Both of my grandmother’s parents were artists, and she used to talk to me about coming home from school—in the 1930’s and 1940’s—to nude models posing in the living room. Growing up with a bunch of artists, she never tried to compete in that arena, but as she got older she started to indulge her creative side. By the time she lived with me, she was remarkably crafty. Knitting, needlepoint, drawing, painting… you name it, she probably did it, and made sure to expose me to it. She made beautiful things, and by the end of her life was especially into quilting; I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that she occasionally sewed pieces of fabric to her pants legs. Nobody’s perfect.
  • Granny dedicated herself to her studies and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English. She remains one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met, the type who’d re-read War and Peace over the course of two or three days, just because. She studied Elizabethan England and the Civil War in her free time, and introduced me to many of the best books I’ve ever read.
  • While in college, my Granny—an Irish Catholic girl from a suburb of Philadelphia—fell in love with an Indian man. My great grandparents told her they would never approve of a mixed marriage, but that they wouldn’t actively prevent the wedding from happening if she went to India and lived with his family for several months… their logic being that she’d never be able to stand living in such a dirty and barbarous country. Long story short, my grandfather had to drag her back to the United States, as she would have gladly spent the rest of her life in India if given the choice. She married my (brown) grandfather in Pennsylvania in the 1950’s, and she did it in a sari. Because she was a total badass.
    My grandmother and grandfather posing for a highly improbable wedding photo.

    My grandmother and grandfather posing for a highly improbable wedding photo.

    My granny, getting married her way.

    My granny, getting married her way.

  • Approximately a decade later, Granny ran off to Mexico to divorce my grandfather. She returned to the US a newly single woman determined to raise her three small (and half brown) children on her own. Imagine for a moment the kind of courage it would have taken to become a single mother of three biracial children in the early 1960’s. Granny had some serious ovaries.

    My grandmother and grandfather with the first of their three daughters.

    My grandmother and grandfather with the first of their three daughters.

  • During the “Mad Men” era, my grandmother started working in corporate/commercial real estate. She bought properties that companies used as tax shelters, which… doesn’t happen anymore. She was very good at her job, but as is so often the case, found herself making a lot of money for other people. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of a very complex industry, and managed to stay alive through decades of swimming with the sharks. Just as she rose to the top of the totem pole, tax shelters were eliminated and the industry in which she made her name disappeared.
  • In the days when she did have cash, my grandmother made good use of it. She and her best friend—also a successful, single business woman—took trips to faraway places like China, unaccompanied by men. Because why not? She was utterly unafraid of the unknown, because she’d kicked the unknown’s ass so many times already.
  • When my aunt became ill with a very rare disease, my grandmother became her caretaker. My aunt—who will have a blog post of her own someday soon, as she was a pretty cool lady too—had a fierce advocate in my grandmother. When my aunt was in chemotherapy so bad that it was almost worse than the disease she was battling, my grandmother did what it took to get her hands on some marijuana. She’d bake up pot brownies, and bring them to the hospital. Because she was amazing.
Granny with one of my cousins. Which one, I haven't the foggiest.

Granny with one of my cousins. Which one, I haven’t the foggiest.

So yeah, basically, Granny was the world’s coolest grandmother. She only spent seventy three years in this life, but what a life she had. Hell, she even died the way she wanted to… if that isn’t a mic drop I don’t know what is. The last conversation we had was about a summer internship I’d received; she told me she was proud of me. I’m proud of her too, and I really hope she knows it. Happy Birthday Granny.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.