“What on earth are you doing?” I hear my grandmother Leonora ask me from wherever it is that she resides now. I like to think, and also don’t like to think, that sometimes she is watching me, observing my life from afar. Is she proud of what I am doing, what I have done? Does she understand my choices perhaps more than I do myself? Does she want me to have children? Does she think that I am living a life of sin with my boyfriend, sleeping in the same bed, and still unmarried?
Some people wear bracelets inscribed with “WWJD?” Sometimes I wear an imagined talisman that asks, What Would Leonora Do? Obviously she had a life much different from my own; times were different then. I know that she went to school and became a nurse, a noble profession, yet she did not practice for very long. She met my grandfather, fell in love, settled down, and bore eight children. This kind of life is also noble, in its way. What could be more profound than giving life, what could be more hopeful than engendering a new generation that could perhaps change the world?
Though my grandmother was a housewife, she breathed creativity. Before she had children, she wrote stories. I know that she, even after they were born, created sculptures, knitted afghans. She was a voracious reader; I like to think that my love of the written word began with her. She encouraged her children to pursue artistic endeavors. At one time, nearly all of my mother’s siblings played an instrument; some of them still do. This legacy lives on. One of my uncles is an actor. Another uncle, a kindergarten teacher, used to perform in a band with the fantastic name of The Leopard Set, and still plays guitar and makes up songs for his students. Another uncle is an actor as well, and teaches at a university in Massachusetts. Yet another uncle draws funny, intricate portraits. My aunt is a librarian at an elite high school in Los Angeles. My mother paints, sculpts, sews, and makes jewelry. Nearly everyone in my family likes to sing; my grandfather sang in the church choir every week and one of my uncles does the same.
On the other side of the coin, my grandparents were strict Catholics. All of their children attended the Catholic school a few blocks away from their house in Torrance. The freedom of artistic expression was always tempered by Catholic, old-school beliefs. My mother was not allowed to take a Black man to her prom. My aunt and uncle were, to put it lightly, misunderstood when they came out of the closet. My grandmother’s children definitely gave her a run for her money. Not only is one of my uncles gay, but he is married to a younger Jewish man. Not only is my aunt a lesbian, but she is married to an electrician. Not only did my mother have two children out of wedlock, but with a Black man. Perhaps my grandmother regretted instilling the free, creative life in her children; I’ll never know.
So, on the one hand, I believe that my grandmother is proud of me: I finally went to college and received a Bachelor’s degree in English, one of her favorite subjects. I am an observer, like she was. But on the other hand, I think my grandmother must be a little overwhelmed and befuddled over some of my actions. I am twenty-eight and still not married, I have no children. I have lived a fast, wild life. I have committed quite a few sins. I have been seduced by the elusive allure of alcohol and cigarettes, the latter of which I am sure she highly disapproves of. Though I was baptized Catholic, I have not been inside of a Catholic church since her funeral.
I wonder if my grandmother respects or understands that though I do not adhere to Catholic beliefs, I do believe in a power higher than myself. I wonder if she is dismayed or buoyed when I occasionally attend service at The Center for Spiritual Living, where the sermon is given by a gay reverend and the accompanying music is performed via bongo drums, guitar, and sung by people wearing flowy, sparkly outfits. I wonder if she laughs, shaking her head, or smiles, happy that I am inside of a church, no matter what kind. I wonder what she is thinking when I meditate or do yoga in my living room.
Though my grandmother was stubborn and set in her ways, which I definitely get from her, she was also a world-traveler. She and my grandfather bicycled around the country for their honeymoon, camping and fishing. They went to Europe, to Hawaii, to countless other places I do not know. I love the image of my conservative grandmother drinking out of a coconut, talking to the locals, wearing a lei. She probably thinks that I should travel more, she probably wishes I would see some of the things that she has seen. I wish that I could tell her that there is nothing I want to do more than just that.
She was a woman of many facets, a woman who had a secret life that I will unfortunately never know anything about. I wonder if she internally agreed with everything that she outwardly believed. This was a woman who attended church every Sunday but who also read steamy Harlequin romance novels at a breakneck pace, her legs crossed as she sat in her favorite chair, right foot swinging wildly as she read.
I wonder if she approves of my choice of the man whom, after countless years of being off and on, I’ve decided to settle down with. I like to think that the smile that radiated from her when she met him the one time at the nursing home, her face opening like a flower, was a signal of her approval. He is, in many ways, like my grandfather. Though he did not go to college like my grandfather, a chemical engineer, he builds things with his hands. He is, in many ways, an old soul. He takes pride in his work, places his family first, lives by a code of honor. He is a good person. He probably wishes I was more like my grandmother: making dinner every night, doing the washing, tidying up the mess. But I know that he fell in love with me because I am a free, creative spirit, an aspect of myself that sprang from my grandmother’s subtle touch.
Would my grandmother have lived the same life she led if she was born in another time, a time closer to the present day? I can picture her in Africa or India, a nurse as she was then, administering medicine to children with bellies swollen from malnourishment. I can imagine her dancing in a street in the Caribbean to the sound of steel drums, face tilted upward toward the sky. I can see her lying down for the night in a tent, reading a book by the light of her lantern, bed swathed in mosquito netting. Who knows?
“What on earth are you doing?” she says from another realm. Is she saying it warmly, chuckling to herself? Is she saying it in a concerned tone, eyes wide? Does she know where my path will lead, where I am headed? Is she content, seeing my future and what it holds for me? Does she want me to live with abandon, or, most likely, does she want me to rein it in a bit?
I am young, perhaps six years old, and I am staying home from school. I am sick, truly ill and not faking it, as I sometimes did just so I could stay with her. We are watching an old movie on TV, another of her favorite endeavors that has been passed down to me, and I am wrapped up in the multi-colored afghan she knitted. She has made me a milkshake, and I sip it slowly, savoring the sweetness as it slides down my throat. Though I feel terrible, I feel wonderful, comfortable and safe, tucked into our own private little world. I don’t ever want to leave, don’t want the spell to be broken.
I wish you a wild, free life.