The air was hot and traffic was heavy the evening that Grandma got out of the car on a New York Interstate. She had had enough of her son David making phone calls from the driver’s seat and decided to take him up on his suggestion to “just get out then.” From the black pavement of I-87, she considered her options. Returning to her son and two grandchildren in the idling car was not one of them.
Her granddaughter, my cousin, watched the scene unfold from the backseat of the car. She and her brother were crying hysterically, and the next thing they knew Grandma was lying at the bottom of a ditch.
When questioned about the incident, Grandma recalled seeing a light coming from the trees several hundred yards away from the road and deciding to set off in that direction. What she didn’t see was the sharp dropoff just beyond the shoulder of the highway.
A gaggle of cops and medics arrived on the scene. Against their best advice, Grandma refused an ambulance ride to the nearest hospital. Instead, she ordered the dismayed emergency responders to help her back into the car and instructed her son to continue towards New York City for their weekend getaway. The remainder of the car ride was notable for its lack of phone calls.
“She was not a risk-averse person at all,” Grandma’s oldest son, my father, Robert, told me. “She was all in.” Just one glance at Grandma proved this fact. Central to her look were leopard and cheetah prints, gaudy accessories, plastic sunglasses and red fingernail polish. On special occasions, such as the entire month of December, she could be seen wearing a feather boa to match her Christmas tree, which was all white and speckled with massive silver bulbs and fluffy, snow-colored feathers.
While a good student in high school, Grandma never had the opportunity to go to college. That was until her forties, when she enrolled in a women’s sexuality course at Wichita State University. Shortly thereafter, she ended up as a freshman on the varsity tennis team.
In addition to her brief stint as a forty-year-old collegiate athlete, Grandma entertained a series of entrepreneurial endeavors over the course of her life. She once drove to get a few wooden railroad ties for a landscaping project in her backyard and returned with the rights to several miles of metal railroad tracks that were still in the ground. She hired a crew to dig out the railroad ties and spent three years selling them to landscaping companies.
Grandma bought land in Arkansas on Lake of the Ozarks. Her dreams of developing it into a lakeside getaway never quite came to fruition. For several years, she was the proud owner of Apple Annie’s, a second-hand store that sold mostly old furniture and knick-knacks. Apple Annie’s hours of operation were only ever clear to her. And following the dissolution of her first and only marriage, Grandma came into sole possession of a small trailer park, which she operated diligently. When a tenant was late on his rent, Grandma showed up to the drive-thru restaurant where he was working with a gun. When the man leaned out the window to give her her order she flashed it at him. “It wasn’t loaded but he didn’t know that,” Grandma told me with a cheeky grin on her face. He paid his rent the next day.
Perhaps the most notable business venture was Grandma’s move to the former poor house in Marion County. To no one’s surprise, she convinced the property owner to let her live there for free. In exchange, she promised to convert the 100-year-old stone building in the middle-of-nowhere-Kansas into a “fat farm” to host health-focused retreats for overweight women. According to my dad, she pitched it in a very positive way.
Despite all her forward-looking projects, Grandma lived for the moment. It made sense that one of Grandma’s great loves was playing cards. When she was pregnant with my father, her water broke at the poker table. She spent many nights in smoky, crowded bingo halls where she’d play with her mother and assorted relatives until dawn. She was a mean bridge player, competing in and winning tournaments around the Midwest throughout her life. Consequently, all four of her boys were socialized around the card table.
What Grandma lacked in monetary wealth, she made up for in personal connections. She was a poor woman who reveled in the riches afforded to her by family and friends. But the gambling was a strong draw. There are so many things about it—the fun, the excitement, the random payoffs—that mirrored Grandma’s entire life. The same traits that made her such a beloved Grandmother and mother lent themselves to gambling and made what began as an innocent habit into a sinister condition that dictated the majority of her adult life.
On the night of my Uncle Steve’s fiftieth birthday, and the eve of my tenth, my family sat around a table at a steakhouse in downtown Kansas City. The seat reserved for Grandma remained empty the entire evening. The allure of the metallic slot machine had overpowered her desire to celebrate her son and granddaughter.
My dad didn’t learn the real reason why Grandma relocated to the fat farm until many years after she left. As it turns out, she didn’t have a house at the time. The home Grandma lived in previously had been repossessed by the bank after she failed to make several payments. Grandma has the ability to appear very transparent and positive while also hiding more serious parts of herself. “That’s the paradox of mom,” my dad told me.
In January 2022 I visited Grandma at an assisted living facility. She was sitting in a wheelchair in her bedroom. She looked weak, vulnerable. A shell of the woman who survived a fall into a ditch, or beat countless bridge opponents with her cleverness. In four months she would pass away. In spite of all this, a pair of white sunglasses perched on the crown of her head and the neon pink polka dotted blazer she wore assured me that her essence remained intact.
During my visit I asked Grandma several questions about her life, recording her answers on my phone. Early on in the conversation I asked about her most valuable possession. “Isn’t that strange,” she wondered aloud. “I can’t think of anything.” I thought to myself that Grandma’s answer actually didn’t seem very strange at all. Later I asked her if she had any big regrets. “No,” she said decisively. And I believed her. We talked for a while longer about her life, my phone still recording our conversation. Near the end of my visit she told me, “I just wonder, you know, where I would be had I done it differently.” I believed this too.