THE DEAD GRANDMOTHER COLLECTION
As a college professor, I naturally collected dead grandmothers. In September I imagined all of these women were healthy, attending Jazzercise, Red Hat Lady outings to nearby museums, and bingo nights hosted by the Ladies Auxiliary. I pictured their dance cards still being full in early October—exhibitions attended, Sunday family dinners prepared—but by mid-October, right around the time my students’ first major projects were due, these grandmothers would drop like flies.
This past semester Rex Phillips’ Grammy had a coronary embolism while waiting in line for her Salisbury steak at the local Ponderosa. Angelina Santino’s Nona perished under the oversized hair dryer at the The Mane Event, her perm not yet set when medics had to be phoned to cart away her body. Emily Rosbach’s Mema fell down a flight of stairs and twisted her neck. Twice. She first died on October 19th and, later, she died again on December 11th.
Unasked, Emily emailed me a program from her Mema’s second viewing. “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Ava Maria” were performed and Emily was listed as the reader of the second gospel. The program’s cover looked like an Easter egg, blue and pink pastels to symbolize sea and sky, an eagle taking flight in the upper-right corner, seemingly fleeing the page. Immediately I was skeptical as her Mema’s time of birth and death were written directly across the cover’s center: Naomi Rosbach. October 10, 1940-December 11, 2013. No qualified graphic designer would center type like that, but then again no qualified graphic designer would work for a funeral home. The real kicker, however, was that it was only 2012, a typo perhaps, but I’d heard rumors of an operation being run out of a dorm room on the fifth floor of Winston Hall and decided to investigate.
There was a dining hall in the basement of Winston and even though I could easily pass for an underclassmen, students often shocked when I started distributing the syllabi on the first day of class, I decided it would be best if I also dressed the part. I propped up my legs on the chair beside me to prominently display the Ugg boots I’d purchased the night before, my Yankee’s pajama bottoms tucked into their tops, textbooks scattered everywhere, while manning a table near its entrance. Once the dining hall started to fill up and there were no more empty tables, students sat at mine.
“You look a little stressed, girl,” the first guy to talk to me said, motioning to my stack of books.
“Yes, I am. There’s no way I’m going to finish all three of these papers by week’s end. I procrastinated and now I’m screwed. I need to find that guy—the one who makes fake funeral programs. Any idea how to get in touch with him?”
The guy shrugged, then picked up his tray and moved to another table. I couldn’t tell if he was as disgusted as I’d been by the idea of faking a family member’s death to get out of doing work or if he was on to me and thought I was trying to shut down the operation. I feared the latter. I’d talked too formally. I’d taken responsibility for my laziness instead of blaming my teachers for actually expecting me to do the work that they assigned. I’d asked the key question too soon, kind of like on To Catch a Predator when the girl who the police were using as bait to lure disgusting pedophiles offered iced tea and the men took off running, knowing they’d been trapped. I had to play it cooler.
“Nice Uggs,” a girl says, taking the seat beside mine. Was she mocking me? “I have the same pair.” She raised her feet in the air and, sure enough. her pair was identical. “Where’d you get yours?
“Marshalls. On clearance,” I said.
“Lucky,” she said, before extending her hand. “I paid full prince. I’m Brittany, by the way. Who are you? I haven’t seen you around.”
“Um—Brittany, too,” I blurted. I had been so concentrated on mastering the undergraduate look that I forgot all about something as simple as a fake name. There were at least four Brittanys on any given roster at this college, so I figured it was believable enough.
“We have the same shoes and the same name!” she exclaimed. “Sounds like we need to be shopping buddies.”
“I wish I could shop,” I said. I knew I needed to turn the course of this conversation fast, otherwise I’d find myself at the Cherry Hill Mall trying on leopard print skinny jeans while this girl nodded in approval. “I have to write three papers by the end of this week and I haven’t even started. Fuck the professors here. They suck, piling work on us like this.”
“Tell me about it,” Brittany said.
“I usually can handle it, but I had a tough breakup this past week and, well, now I’m on the verge of faking someone’s death or something just to get some extensions on this shit.”
“Call Nate,” Brittany said. “Duh. He’ll hook you up.”
“Nate?” And with that she pulled a business card from her wallet, then slid it towards me.
I read the card out loud: “Nate Pinkus. 513 Winston. Putting the “fun” back in funeral.” All of the print on the card was centered. I’d found my man.
“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of him!” Brittany said.
“I’m a transfer.”
“Well, he’ll create fake funeral programs, obituaries, death certificates, whatever your teacher asks for. He’ll only fake a grandmother’s death, though. No aunts. No uncles. Definitely no grandfathers. He says teachers are more likely to be sympathetic when picturing cute old ladies, as opposed to grumpy and smelly old men. I think he’s right.”
“And people really use him?” I asked.
“Sure,” Brittany said. “He used to make fake IDs, but got bored. I guess only having to change the year someone was born is a lot less creative than imagining someone’s cause of death, the songs he or she would like to have played at the funeral, and a cast of survivors. Besides, no one needs fake IDs in Glassberg, anyway. Liquor’s so easy to come by. Pretty much any junior or senior boy will hook me up. Excuses to get out of doing work without being held accountable are a lot more difficult to come by. Well, at least excuses that will also keep you on good terms with your professors. It’s like another sort of fake ID, I guess. One that tells people you’re more responsible than you are.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking the card. “You saved my life.”
I headed towards the fifth floor and, when I reached Nate’s door, I could barely see the room number because bumper stickers nearly covered the entire surface. Don’t Drink and Drive: You Might Spill Your Drink. Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican. I’m the Kid Who Beat Up Your Honors Student. I knocked once and, before I had the opportunity to knock again, someone opened the door. The smell of dirty sneakers and Chinese takeout wafted into the hallway. “Can I help you?”
“I think so,” I said. “Are you Nate?” He nodded. “I need my grandmother to die. Quick.”
With my suspicions affirmed, a brand new funeral program for my Mom Mom who had actually died a decade before tucked into the top drawer of my desk, I decided to adopt a different approach to the grandma problem for the spring semester. On the first day of classes, I distributed index cards and asked each student to write the names and email addresses of all of their living grandmothers. Some objected. Kyle Kozlowski insisted his Babcia didn’t have an email account and might not even know how to turn on her computer.
“It is your homework between now and our next class to set up an email account for her, then,” I said. “I want to ensure I’m kept in the loop about her health throughout the semester. God forbid she or any of your grandmothers should fall ill, I will know and I will be able to send sympathy cards to them, as well as to your extended families.”
“What if I don’t have time to get in touch with my grandmother between now and our next class?” Miriam Schiffman asked. “I’m too busy with more important stuff.”
“Find the time. This is your homework. I want an email sent from each of your grandmothers within the next 48 hours introducing themselves and, if both of your grandmothers are dead, I expect an email from you telling me such.”
I distributed the syllabus and pointed to what I called the Grandparent Email Clause to drive home my point, a section that was boldfaced at the top, above the plagiarism section and attendance polices, above the numbers to call in the case of a snow emergency. It was that important.
After the first week, I’d made contact with all of the living grandmothers. Most simply said hello, their messages no more than two sentences. Their grandchildren all attended class. All four of my sections had perfect attendance. I thought that would be the end of the grandmother problem and our communication, that first flurry of emails I received from the women serving as confirmation that they were both living and in good health. I finally figured out how to pull one over on my students for a change. A handful of grandmothers kept sending emails that weren’t required, however, mainly messages with inspirational quotes from people like Vince Lombardi or Jesus.
It wasn’t until week three of the semester that I started to hear a lot more from these women. Genevieve Kipling’s grandmother wrote, “It’s so good to see a teacher who takes an active interest in her students’ extended families. When I heard about this policy, I knew my Vievi was in the right place, a part of a community that cared. She had such a hard time growing up—buck toothed, overweight, bad acne. Her only friends were her cousins and, even then, Vievi’s Aunt Sheila paid them to be nice to her.”
Genevieve Kipling always sat in the back row. Even when I arranged the desks in a semi-circle, she’d manage to pull her desk slightly behind everyone else’s. I was pretty sure she spent most of class texting as I couldn’t come up with any other solid explanation for the girl constantly looking down at her own lap and laughing. Her hair was too blonde and her tank tops were too low cut, especially on days when the weather forecasters called for wintery mixes. She laughed at every joke any guy made in the class, even the time Jacob Weiss said it would be too dangerous for Sarah Palin to be president because members of Congress would be too distracted by her legs to listen to anything she said. Wanting to please her, these Senators would agree to every bill she proposed and pretty soon there would be moose hunting in the streets of New York City. Genevieve’s acne had faded, her teeth looked straight. Whenever I brought French crullers or everything bagels for the class to share, she declined, stressing the importance of keeping to a strict and what sounded like a joyless diet. Ordinarily I’d dismiss students like Genevieve, students who were too boy crazy to get their money’s worth out of college.
But that was Genevieve. I felt sorry for Vievi, the girl I came to know through her grandmother’s emails. I found myself writing C’s on the tops of her drafts for her personal essay about her Senior Prom when they should have been D’s. I found myself over-explaining in the margins what I’d hoped to see from her, points I’d already made clear in the assignment sheet itself, points I’d illustrated over and over during class. Still, I hoped that she’d arrive at the type of reflection in her writing that would lead her to find the right types of friends and boyfriends—smart, driven—not just be thankful for having friends or boyfriends at all, people like Jacob Weiss or her boyfriend, Taylor, who got so drunk in the limo going to their prom that he puked in the ice bucket while she held back his hair.
Henry Schulman’s Yaya was regularly emailing me by Valentine’s Day. She wrote, “I’ve never been online before this requirement you gave my grandson. Since, I’ve set up an Ok Cupid account and a Facebook, too. My children always ask me what it’s like to be the last person living among my friends and I joke, pointing out that it’s nice to have no peer pressure so I can do whatever the hell I want, but the truth is it gets lonely. I’m finally doing something about that. I have a date with a retired banker tonight.”
Her grandson, Henry, was unremarkable in every way. He played intramural sports because he wasn’t good enough to make varsity teams. He majored in math because he wasn’t accepted into the engineering program. During classroom breaks he talked mainly about Jackie Chan and pop punk. When I called on him during class, he’d often miss the mark. According to Henry, the target audience for every piece of writing was the general public and authors never had goals in mind when writing aside from wanting to objectively inform every citizen in every corner of the globe about their topic. Sticking with Henry’s theory, he assumed everyone in the world wanted to read his personal essay about his first semester living in his college dormitory and how, through his learning to tolerate his roommate’s constantly banishing him from their shared room so he could make out with different girls on their floor, forcing Henry to find computer labs to complete his work on time, he’d realized the importance of not waiting until the last minute to tackle his homework. “Next semester,” he wrote, “I will complete my assignments when they are given so maybe I too can have the opportunity to make out with girls on these nights, the ones who are friends with my roommate’s love interests. I’ve never kissed a girl before.”
Despite his missing the point of college, I found myself giving him extensions on projects. “I know your annotated bibliography is due tomorrow, but your Yaya has a date tonight,” I said, pulling him aside after class.
“My Yaya lives all of the way in Trenton,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m giving you extra time. You need to drop her off and pick her up since she’s not allowed to drive anymore.” Knowing his Yaya arranged her date online, I couldn’t help but think she was meeting a fake Nigerian prince at the Olive Garden. She only knew this man was a former banker and the government was constantly bailing out banks. How reputable could this man be? “Turn in your assignment next week.”
Miriam Schiffman’s Safta emailed me just before Passover: “I will miss Miriam more than anything at our Seder. She wants to separate herself from her religion, so much so she had a nose job last August. Miriam told people she broke her nose doing a cheerleading stunt, but she’s not even a cheerleader and she can’t even do a cartwheel. Everyone in the family knows she had a pact with her best friend. They planned to break each other’s noses just before they went away to college. They were tired of people always asking them ‘what country are you from’ because they looked so foreign, even though they are both from Brick, New Jersey.” After reading that email, I couldn’t help but notice Miriam’s nose each time she spoke—so small, upturned. I deeply missed her old nose even though I’d never seen it and I asked her Safta to send me a photograph. She did. Then, I missed Miriam’s old nose even more. I felt sorry for her Safta, but I felt sorrier for Miriam, a girl who seemed absorbed with reinventing herself when she was fine to start. I found myself reading into her drafts. A’s would become B’s because she needed the potential of a better grade as motivation to revise. If she just wrote one more draft, perhaps she’d arrive at the reflection I needed to hear. I didn’t care that she’d made her high school debate team, overcoming a lisp. I wanted her to write that her old nose was the better nose, that she was going to celebrate Passover, that she loved her Safta but, more importantly, that she loved herself.
By Spring Break, I was in constant contact with all of the grandmothers. I knew Henry’s Yaya’s dating schedule, a fairly packed calendar as she was seeing three men at once. She said they each gave her something different. The banker spent a lot of money on her, taking her to Applebee’s and sending her a steady stream of carnations. The retired journalist wrote her love poetry. She explained how his line breaks were embarrassing and how he liked to make words rythme that definitely did not like “carrot” and “pirate.” Still, she loved each verse, mainly because her beauty was always the subject. The ex-army officer was a wild man and he often took her for spins on his Harley. Sometimes, they didn’t even wear helmets. She’d married her husband when she was just nineteen and he’d died fours years ago. She’d never dated before or after him.
I learned Miriam went to her Safta’s Passover dinner. She even started wearing a necklace with the Star of David at its end. I told her Safta this and it was almost like I could see her smiling through the computer screen. “She’s come back,” she wrote.
After Spring Break, Genevieve started wearing sweaters. Not just any sweaters, but turtlenecks. When a boy in the class remarked on her fashion switch, she explained that she wanted people to look at her face when she was speaking, not her breasts. It was around this time that she added an addendum to her personal essay about the Senior Prom. Her boyfriend had cheated on her during Spring Break with a girl who was blonder than her and wore even more make-up. Genevieve wrote, “A guy can always exchange one pretty girl for another, but personality is unique and far more difficult to replace. I’m going to let my next boyfriend see my personality more and I’m going to make sure I dump any future boyfriend the first time he disrespects me by doing something like vomiting on my prom dress.” It wasn’t Faulkner, but it was a lot better than the Genevieve I met on the first day of class.
Henry, inspired by his Yaya’s dating, decided it was time he found his first
girlfriend. The girls he talked to on World of Warcraft didn’t count to him anymore, or at least that’s what he said in his writing journal. He also said he wanted to scrap his personal essay and start over. He’d filed with his RA to change roommates because he couldn’t stand the way his current one disrespected girls. There had been a Chlamydia outbreak on their floor and all signs pointed to the man he’d once admired. Henry stopped playing intramural sports, too, and took up photography, something he had always been interested in but suppressed because the guys in his neighborhood made fun of him for liking art. His Yaya gave him all of his Pop-Pop’s old cameras. He had been an amateur photographer and received a great deal of local recognition for the photographs he snapped during the Korean War. Henry hadn’t known the man had a life beyond his roles as his grandfather and his mother’s father, but as he drove his Yaya to and from her dates he learned they both had rich interior lives he’d never considered.
By May 1st, Genevieve stopped texting during class and instead was holding Henry’s hand underneath their desks.
It was a week before finals and, still, all of my students had perfect attendance. Then, one of them went missing. I opened my email on the day of her second absence and one subject line in particular caught my eye: “Missed Classes—Funeral.” I clicked on the email and the message was sprawling. The sentences weren’t run-ons, but I was reading them like they were, skipping whole chunks of text to get to the information I needed. The number of classes she’d missed, the extensions she’d need to complete her projects, none of that mattered. What mattered was that Miriam Schiffman’s Safta was dead.
I thought of the last email her Safta sent, how she’d written about Miriam asking her to box up some charoset after their Seder so she could take it back with her to college. It was a dish the girl hadn’t admitted to liking since middle school when a classmate came to dinner at her house and refused to eat it, insisting they order Dominoes instead. Thinking back, reading that email felt like one of the best days of my teaching life. Of course at the time I hadn’t noticed. It was like any other sort of happiness. It went undetected until it was gone.
Miriam explained that, though the funeral wasn’t until Thursday, she had been helping around the house with her younger siblings because her mother had been sitting Shiva. She wrote, “I’m Jewish, you see. You might not have known that about me but, well, it’s a big part of my life.” Miriam had arrived at the reflection I’d wanted her to all along, but now I didn’t want that reflection. I would have been happier with an oblivious Miriam, so long as her Safta was still alive. She insisted that I didn’t send her family flowers like the course policy promised I would, because Jewish people didn’t do that. Instead, she said a card would suffice. A card seemed too little, though, too insignificant. A card felt like nothing.
I looked at the stack of essays I had to grade. I glanced at my planner, each little square filled with conferences or appointments I had to keep. I looked at the novel I’d started the night before, its page dog-eared where I’d stopped reading. I was too distraught to attend to any of it. I pulled open the blinds and noticed the buds were in full bloom on the dogwoods just outside my window. Pink. Delicate. I couldn’t appreciate what I saw. I wondered what kind of a society we lived in when we couldn’t give people the proper time or space to grieve, the whole world continuing to move and grow when all some people needed was to just stand still.
I could hear someone’s heels clacking down the hallway towards my office. They probably belonged to a student who needed help with her research or MLA citations, a student who was still listing Mr. Et Al as an actual author and EBSCO HOST as an e-book. Maybe it was Miriam, though she always was an above-average student. Maybe it was Miriam’s Safta coming to tell me this all had been a cruel joke, the work of Nate Pinkus perhaps, Miriam so overcome with stress from her Honor’s coursework as the semester drew to a close that she felt like she had no other options. I couldn’t help but think of all of the times I waited for my parents to return from work or one of my past boyfriends to return from a night out on the town, the sound of each car door slamming or each patter on the yellow-leaved sidewalk out front sending a glimmer of hope even though I knew the sounds of their cars and their footsteps perfectly and knew the sounds I heard weren’t even close.
LINDSAY CHUDZIK received her MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her one-act plays have appeared in a number of festivals and her creative and critical work has appeared in Noir, All Things Girl, and Texts of Consequence, among others. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at Rowan University and serves as Senior Editor of Glassworks Magazine. She lives in Philadelphia where she teaches workshops to kids at Mighty Writers and dabbles with stand-up comedy, hoping to better hone her chops as a storyteller and comedienne.