Illustration by Olaf Hajek
Once class begins, Grandma scolds a woman sitting behind us who believes she is whispering, but whose busted hearing aid has made it impossible for her to gauge what a whisper is. "We have a speaker!" Grandma barks. Everyone applauds. The man at the lectern, who is well into his tenth decade of life, continues part two of his three-part series on the collapse of the economy: "It's hard for young people today," he says, "to earn a decent wage." Grandma bumps my shoulder with hers. I'm unsure whether the contact is commentary on my occupational status or evidence of a balance issue.
Before dinner, as she does every night, Grandma occupies a table just outside the dining room. "I hold court," she says, and almost as soon as she says it, people begin to congregate around her. Every seat is saved for the regular cast—all standers, no sitters. When a woman who isn't part of the group tries to claim a chair, just for a minute so she can tie her shoe, Grandma tells her she'd better move on, and swiftly; the seat is spoken for. "Everyone's happy where they are," Grandma says. "If you try to take anybody's seat, they'll kill you."
At dinner I'm quick to say hi to the latest addition at the table, the woman most recently voted in. Her magenta sweater set perfectly matches the detail work on her cane, which marks her as a potential player. The other ladies quickly jump into a conversation about what they should name their Wii bowling team; one suggests the Cougars. Then they try to peer-pressure the new girl into ditching her cane for a walker. Essentially, it's the same conversation younger women have about losing their virginity: all about what other people will think, how it will change you, and how to manipulate a new apparatus without getting hurt. "You'll get used to it," they tell the new girl. "It's only hard at first."
I keep waiting for Grandma to speak up, but she's surprisingly above the fray, working very hard at cutting up a friend's food. "Macular degeneration," Grandma tells me. The queen bee precisely tracks everybody's ailments. Grandma turns the woman's plate into a diagram for manageable eating, separating the tuna salad from the wax beans from the roasted potatoes, grouping each thing into a perfectly formed triangle. If she's newly emboldened to boss around people outside the family, it seems she's also found genuine strength in being needed, in rediscovering the moxie it takes to give.
When the meal is over, Grandma ambles to the corner of the room to retrieve a friend's walker. Grandma shouldn't be getting around without her own walker, but I think she finds it useful here to demonstrate that she still can. On her way back, she stops to speak with a woman whose face looked normal yesterday but today resembles a mask of rotten plums. She has fallen and bruised herself severely. Grandma did this once, too. I'm watching, actually fearing that my new alpha grandma is about to administer some tough love. I'm ready to see tears. But as Grandma walks back toward me, I notice that the woman, so brutally and freshly injured, is somehow...smiling. I ask Grandma what she could possibly have said. "I've learned compassion here," she tells me, simply. She knows I'm stunned. "I smile at everyone now. I'm finally at peace. You should come to choir practice tomorrow. I want you to hear me sing."
Howie Kahn is a writer living in New York.
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