My grandmother lived the last years of her life alone, in a house on stilts, in the woods of a sleepy island. She played Chopin on her baby grand to relax. She fed the peacocks that came to her deck. The deer wandered without fear up to her door, and at night I'd wake to find iridescent insects in my bed.
A few years before she died, she took me to the epicenter of her heart. I was visiting her alone. I was hiding out, passively avoiding her, because, as everyone in the family knew, she wasn't always easy to be around. She was argumentative and anxious. She burned with the resentment and grief of a woman scorned. An uncle joked he'd be unable to have a bowel movement several days before a visit. An aunt noticed that my grandmother might be heard whistling and chatting to herself in the kitchen, but it would be the morning everyone was leaving.
I was sitting on the balcony floor watching PBS on her portable television when she came up the wood and iron spiral staircase, went to a low shelf, pulled out a cardboard box and said, "These are my journals. You can go through them if you like."
She left me alone. In under a minute, I found her core: A list of men she wished she could have fallen for. She described each one, praising their qualities of kindness and reliability. She gave details about their positions in life and how well each had treated her. She asked, Why can't I ever go for the good guys?
I don't think solitude in the woods is what my grandmother really wanted. I think it's the best she thought she could do. She wasn't the type to back down. In her lifetime, Dr. Leah Camp, my father's mother, established and became chief of the department of anesthesia at Franklin Square Hospital in Maryland. (Her obituary, my prime source, does not include anecdotes about her experience as a female medical student in the '40s. She once, for example, found a disembodied penis wrapped in cloth in her handbag.) She then got a Masters in public health from Johns Hopkins, became the medical director of a senior citizens' center in Baltimore, and later became public health director for southwest Georgia, where she established public health programs for a 16-county area. After she retired and moved to Big Pine Key in the '80s, she helped establish the Big Pine Key Public Library. She also raised dogs and Tennessee walking horses and enjoyed sailing and traveling. Her marriage ended in divorce.
My grandfather told me a story about one of the dogs. As they approached their separation, he came home from work to find the mastiff growling at him. The dog knew my grandmother was suffering and that my grandfather was at least partly to blame.
But she also suffered in ways my grandfather had no access to. For example, she allowed her breast cancer to progress to the stage where the skin was puckering -- I imagine she slept turned away from him -- so that her only option was a radical mastectomy.
Still, I believe they loved each other. They were both strikingly attractive doctors, both pioneers in the medical world. She was a red-headed sweater girl -- in one black and white picture from the '50s, she's a voluptuous movie star in a sequined gown, her eyes gleaming -- and my grandfather, dangerously handsome and Italian, was irresistible. In his 80's he could still attract younger women for flirtations and possibly affairs. He had a magnetism that confused a lot of women, including me. I yearned for his love and approval till the day he died.
"He's a rogue," my step-grandmother, his second (and last) wife, told me. "He's always been a rogue, and he'll always be one."
"He didn't have a pot to piss in when I married him," my grandmother said to me, several times.
I've lived for many years on the jungle island Manhattan. My most serious relationship has been with the city, my sexy companion with her rock star, hardcore heart and endless, revolving distractions. I've hacked my way through her mythic cross-streets, gone deep into the high rise canyons searching for the gold -- a life partner. But honestly, I've been after something else: a lesson; a challenge; a way to satisfy or clarify an irrational impulse; a moment of reciprocal love to show me what a life full of it could feel like.
I've made lists of men, the coulda shoulda woulda guys -- the ones so earnest, they increased my sense of self and beauty just by turning their gaze on me. Some knot embedded in me resists that feeling of beauty. My list appears to come down to these two questions: Why doesn't this one love me? Why don't I love that one? But it's actually these: Why don't I get along with myself? What am I so repulsed by?
But something just changed. I thought I'd never leave Manhattan. But the chatter -- the drone of psychic chatter made of a billion agendas and urges and cross-purposes -- finally got to me. I moved to Brooklyn where, I imagine, I can hear myself think better. And less. My heartbeat, no longer swallowed up by the stunning pulse of Manhattan, has its own voice and rhythm, and it may turn out to be almost tolerable to me. It may even want to synchronize with a good guy. I don't want to live the rest of my life alone on an island.
My grandmother's heart disease, which likely grew out of her anxiety, chain smoking and maybe the Twinkies and Pringles on her kitchen counter, ended in her death at 80. I remember her pointing out the ospreys along the beaches as we drove from the airport to her house. I remember a party full of musicians, artists, sea shell decorations, colorful clothing and conversation. I remember how strange it was to hug her, because whatever had replaced her breasts was hard and dull. I remember her voice when she'd see me for the first time in months. The ringing joy in her voice was full of breath and blooming love. The joy was unaccountable, considering the suffering she'd endured -- including abuses I was told she'd sustained in childhood -- and the sourness that could fill the air in her presence. My grandmother was beautiful, brilliant and tortured. But her first impulse of communion was always tenderness and joy. She had a hungry, stunning smile. It had the power to break through the sadness and anger that contracted inside of her. She'd call out my name as I stood in the doorway. She'd pull me into a strong warm hug. Always, her first impulse of joy, from the real center of her heart, remained pure.