My elementary school nurse was Mrs. Oliver. She had short gray hair and glasses, and she always wore sweaters and just-past-the-knee-length skirts. And ugly shoes. Really ugly shoes. In a school of what had to be about seven or eight hundred kids, she knew me by name. Because I was in her office every day.
I find this sort of funny now, because as a germophobic mother I tell my own children they must never, ever go to the nurse unless they are actually very sick. It's germ central! But nothing could have kept me from Mrs. Oliver's office when I was a kid. I knew all the tricks: Eyes half open. Droopy shoulders. Let your hair fall in your face a little. Furrow your eyebrows. And most importantly, never smile. Any sign of happiness will send you right back to class.
Sometimes Mrs. Oliver would get me crackers and juice from the cafeteria to help me "perk up." Sometimes she'd just let me lay there with a bucket we both knew I didn't need. But mostly, she gave in and called my grandma. And my grandma always--always--came and got me.
"One of these days," Mrs. Oliver said once as my grandmother collected me, "I'm coming to Grandma's with you. I need to see for myself why you seem to love going there so often!"
I hadn't been at all embarrassed (I rarely realized I should be). Instead I'd looked up into my grandmother's green, green eyes to find her smiling down at me. "Any time, Mrs. Oliver!" she'd said cheerfully. "You're welcome any time at all." Then she helped me with my coat, put an arm around me, and guided me out of school and down the front walk to where her big old Lincoln sat waiting.
My grandmother never drove the speed limit. Her fat car cruised along slowly to her turquoise split-level house in Lackawanna. I'd yank my backpack out of the car with me and as we walked up to the front door, we could already hear the loud, urgent barks of her pit bull, Shiner. Shiner was the fattest dog I've ever known, and was all white with a big black spot around his eye. He seemed to believe he was a purse-sized dog, and when we'd enter he'd hop and jump all over us gleefully. Grandma always had to shove at him with her hip so he wouldn't knock me down, all the while shouting, "DOWN, Shiner! Come ON, Shine! Get outta here!" The sound of his cord-like tail would be thwop-thwopping, and Grandma would guide me into the house and up the short staircase to her living room. It smelled like fruit and vegetables and whatever she'd cooked that morning. It smelled like Grandma herself.
She'd go upstairs and get me a pillow from her bed and set me up cozily on her satiny black and gold couch, easily the ugliest piece of furniture I've ever seen. My grandparents to this day insist that Shiner would curl up beside me for the duration of my stay, never leaving my side and growling at anyone who came near me. I don't really remember that. What I remember is leaning back against my grandmother's pillow, her covering me with a blanket, me closing my eyes, and knowing that no matter what had been bothering me at school that day, right now I was okay. Everything would be okay.
She served me fruit salad and sandwiches for lunch. Once, she made me a shrimp cocktail. We would pretend her house was a restaurant and she'd use a little notepad to "take my order." She liked to periodically press her hand on my forehead to check my temperature, something I think we both knew was just plain silly, and she would tell me stories about when my mom was a little girl. And I would listen, imagining getting to live with my grandma all the time, eating as much fruit salad as I ever wanted and never having to go to school because she clearly wouldn't ever make me go.
When my mom would come and pick me up later, dread would creep up into my chest. Not only did I have to go home, home to a brother and a sister and not being the center of attention anymore, but I was sure to get a good lecture on the downfalls of people who pretend to be sick to get out of school. I would sit on the couch silently while my mother tiraded on, until my grandmother would emerge from the kitchen and look at me fondly, saying, "Oh, Judy, she didn't feel good. She just needed a little day off. Right, Mary Pat?"
It wasn't just when I was sick that I got to spend time with my grandma, either. She was a very young grandmother compared to what my friends had. My memory tells me she was fifty-five the entire time I was in grammar school, which doesn't really make sense, but I know she was the only grandma who still had black hair and wore makeup, and definitely the only grandmother who ran (and won) marathons. Being so young, she took my brother, sister, and I everywhere, and stayed with us when our parents took their yearly honeymoon for a week. She bought us exactly what we wanted at Christmas, no matter how ridiculous, and she took us wherever we asked to go: Show Biz (which was around the corner from our house and pretty much a Chuck E. Cheese), Burger King, picnics at the Botanical Gardens. She drove so slowly but we laughed the entire time, because my brother was always teasing her and telling jokes. She once let my brother and sister roll down the windows of her car so they could climb in and out of it like they did in The Dukes of Hazzard. I wanted to so bad, but I was just too short to make the climb. My father would never have let us do something like that (he was big on taking care of his cars and we had a lot of strict rules, including never climb in and out of the windows). And of course, to add to the hilarity of all, my grandmother always did something ridiculous, like lock her keys in the car, or forget her entire wallet (she once asked a horse and carriage driver, "Do you take checks?"), or, to our greatest amusement, get really, really angry with one of us and yell at us the whole way to wherever we were going. When I think of every big moment of my childhood, the birthdays, the holidays, the Communions, even the proms and things like that when I was older, every one of those memories will show my grandmother in the background, always simply a part of the scene.
I've been thinking of these things a lot lately, these things and of how lucky I am that my own children have gotten to know and spend time with her. The first time I took Joey and Noah to Florida, Noah spent pretty much the whole trip in Grandma's lap, just chatting away, and those memories of my sick days at her house came flooding back. It wasn't ever anything particular that we did together, it was that whatever I said, she listened and responded to me like I was a real, interesting person. I love that Noah appreciates that in her, too. It creates an ache in my heart, though, because these days Grandma is having her own sick time, and I know she isn't faking just so she can get out of school or have a visit with her favorite person in the world. I also know that she's one of the strongest people I'll ever know...I mean, she doesn't run marathons anymore (she stopped just a couple of years ago; she's eighty-three now), but she does go to the gym every day and work out. Jeepers. If ever there was an eighty-three year old woman who was going to kick illness, it's my grandmother. Any time I start to doubt that, I'm going to picture the time she was shouting at her hundred-fifty pound pit bull, "Come ON, Shine! SHINER! Get outta here!" and whacking him over the back with her giant, gilt-paged Bible. (Don't worry; he barely felt it.)
Grandma, I love you so.