“Don’t mind me, I’ve just got the gout again,” Grandma Lu Lu said as she limped toward the back bedroom of her suburban Chicago condo. She lived across from the High School where NBA star Dwayne Wade played. He built them a new gymnasium, and invited Kanye West to christen it. My grandmother wasn’t there. She was probably at the library, or more likely, on the couch smoking cigarettes. There is no one that can smoke cigarettes like my grandma. She’s been sucking down Pall Mall unfiltered smokes since she was thirteen, though she may have moved on to filtered or cheaper ones now. There must be some weird loophole in the smokers’ contract that says if you smoke enough of them, and they don’t actually kill you, cigarettes will make you stronger. At this point, I think they are keeping her alive. Hey, whatever works. Fending off “the gout” might be a different story.
“The gout, eh?” I responded, looking over at my future brother in law for a reaction. She had actually said “the gout.” It was fucking classic. You can’t write dialogue like Grandma Lu Lu is known to spout, and boy can she sure spout it. She’s a gossip queen who is also a master of the art of complaining. We can talk on the phone for an hour and I’ll say ten words tops. But I like it that way. I can listen to her go on for days. She’s opinionated, she’s stubborn, and she can be funny as hell whether she’s trying to be or not. She also apparently has “the gout.” “Where are you going?” I asked.
“There’s some candlestick holders that I wanted to give you…unless you don’t want them,” she said before taking a final drag from her smoke and stubbing it out in one of the many ashtrays scattered around her place. “I know other people want them, so you do what you want,” she continued as she wrapped the two silver plated candlestick holders in plastic Jewel-Osco grocery bags. The scent of a thousand cigarettes wafted out of the bags as she shook them open and placed the holders inside. I tried to figure out why I was chosen to receive the candlestick holders while trying on one of the wigs that she had on a shelf in the back of the room. My brother in law tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh, and I hurried to replace the wig before Grandma looked up.
If other people want the candlestick holders, I’ll take them, I thought. Though, I was suspicious of their actual value, and knew I would never have a use for them. Grandma Lucy has been offering up her belongings for the past twenty years in preparation for “her time,” but within the past few months she has actually been giving the items away. Today she was trying to talk me into taking a white Christmas plate and the candlestick holders. I had my eye on a few other things in the condo instead, but I was trying to get out of there before the emphysema kicked in.
“Why wouldn’t you want this Christmas plate?” she asked me, as if I was trying to turn down solid gold bars, “Do what you want, I don’t care.”
Not wanting to argue with my little old grandmother on Christmas, I smiled and told her I’d love to take it. She hobbled into the kitchen for another bag as I pretended to toss the plate like a frisbee at my brother in law. He remained silent aside from a slight giggle. “What’s coming with us Gram?” I asked while piling the smoke scented presents into both of our arms. Most of them tagged for her newest great-grandchild.
“Don’t be in such a hurry. You’re acting like your father,” she said as she returned from the kitchen with a bag for the plate and a few more for the presents. She took the presents out of my arms and put them back down on the table. She looked me over and asked me what was wrong. “Are you mad at me or something?”
“Not at all Gram, I’m just hot,” I replied, “What do you have the heat cranked up to? Ninety?”
“You’re just like your Uncle John,” she countered, “He was crabbing about the heat last night too. You guys should all just stay home if you hate it here so much.”
I knew better than to complain about the smoke as well as the heat, so I unzipped my coat, walked out of the room, and hit up the ever present candy dish on the coffee table in the next room, hoping for something other than gum drops, circus peanuts, or any of the other various inedible candies that only my grandma seems to find. I tried to take a deep breath but it was like breathing in a tobacco sweater. I was about to pass out. The combination of my winter attire, the heat, and the dense, smokey air was enough to do me in. I needed to get out of there quick. I passed up the candy dish, grabbed two handfuls of bags, asked my brother in law for the keys to my sister’s jeep, and sprinted down the stairs and out the front door into the cold, crisp, Chicago Christmas air. I tossed the bags into the car, remembering my grandma’s advice to be careful with the presents that were inside one of them about a second too late. I took a couple of deep breaths, cherishing every molecule of the precious fresh air before heading back inside, and bounding up the steps to grab what I hoped was the last of the bags.
Picking up Grandma Lu Lu on Christmas has been something I’ve done since I learned to drive. I’m usually joined by a sibling or cousin, but it’s always me, it always ends up taking a lot longer than it should, and I always come back smelling like Joe fucking Camel. It’s tradition. A tradition that I have grown to love, despite the second hand lung cancer. A tradition that will probably come to an end before my son will get to accompany me on the task. But there will be other traditions. Traditions that I look forward to starting with my new family, and older traditions that I look forward to continuing. I am a big fan of traditions, and I want my son to be as well.
My generation and those younger seem to care less and less about history and traditions. That’s why I care more. I’ve had hour long phone conversations with Grandma Lu Lu where I’ve asked her question after question, trying to learn about our unique family story. She always wonders why I want to know these things, and she’s not always easy to interrogate. She was the rebel in her family. She smoked, she danced, and she refused to speak to her mother and father in the language of their homeland. As a second generation Armenian-American, my Grandmother Lucine Chakmakjian tried to get as far away from her family history as possible. She married a non-Armenian in a sparsely attended ceremony and became Lucy Miller. She was a free-wheeling, independent, American working woman. She cared more about the present than the past, which isn’t a bad thing, unless you’re trying to learn about that past. She’s not the best source of the family story, but I have thankfully been able to still get plenty of them from her.
Someday I will tell my son the stories of his crazy great grandmother’s life and the stories of our family. Stories about escaping genocide, marrying the poor one, and living in apartments over-stuffed with family. I will relay tales of Chicago Armenian neighborhoods, big bands, birthday cards, and blizzards. Pass along what I know of the print shops, steel factories, sandwich shops, and high school football games that have played parts in our past. He’ll learn about what it was like for her to have a husband in World War II, and a son in Vietnam. I will share with him her recipes and her records, her pictures and her letters. I will tell him how much she cherished everyone around her, including him, and how much everyone cherished her. I want to keep the roots alive and strong.
I will also pass along the stories of his Great Grandma Dorothy. My Grandmother the nurse, the waitress, the working mom. The artist; the boss of the family; the one who made him laugh hysterically every time he saw her; the one who I also grilled for family knowledge as recently as last week. I can’t wait to relate the stories of romantic elevator meetings, streetcars, and concert halls; stockyards, casinos, and golf courses. I will delight him with great tales of Welch coal mines, murders, and unwed mothers; orphanages, adoptions, and his great-grandfather’s ties to the Menomenee tribe. I will wow him while recounting his great-great-great-grandmother’s voyage on the Lusitania, his great-great-grandfather being sold to a farmer before his eventual violent rescue, and his great-great-grandmother’s hitchhiking trip to Florida. I will tell him about all of this and so much more.
I wonder if he’ll even know his Great Grandma Lu Lu? I wonder if he’ll be old enough to remember his Great Grandma Dorothy? They are both amazing women whose lives I have admired for years, and whose quirks I have grown to love. I know I was lucky to be old enough to have had some great memories of at least one of my great-grandmothers and even better ones of his great-grandparents. But, I also know that as I am welcoming this wonderful child into my life, I will have to start saying goodbye to some very special people that he may or may not ever even know or remember. It makes me sad, but I am ready to bear the torch of tradition for my family. Their stories and traditions will keep them alive for my son, and hopefully his. I can’t wait to tell him those stories; stories about those that came before him; stories about where he comes from; passing along to him more than just DNA and silver plated candlestick holders.