My maternal grandmother died today, at age 99 years and 8 months. There won't be a lot of grieving - she's had Alzheimer's since the late 80's, so all our grieving was done a long time ago. She outlived all of her siblings, who, one by one, all nine of them, succumbed to cancer. She outlived her husband by 30 years, and for the last 20, she didn't even remember him.
Writer Nuala O'Faolin has written that the Irish love a character, and by god, my gran was a character. She was born in Mayo, and her striking looks made her the object of a lot of male attention, which she loved. She was tall and slender, with jet black hair, and a dazzling white smile. She was never clear about when she first came to the U.S., but she was pretty clear that she had a lot of "fellas" as she called them. My sister and I would visit her in her Queens apartment after my grandfather died, and she would hike up her skirt and tell us how the fellas loved her "Betty Grable legs". At the time, she was in her 60's, and her legs were ravaged by varicose veins, which made T and I wonder who this poor Betty Grable was. But in gran's mind, she was always young and strong and beautiful, an object of desire.
She was also peculiarly obsessed with teeth. My suspicion is that healthy teeth in a country like Ireland were an indication of wealth and health, and gran was obsessed with her teeth - she brushed and flossed and never ate any sugar. When she would come visit us in the country, she would inspect each of us as if we were horses she was considering. She would look into our eyes and determine whether they were sufficiently bright and shining. Then we had to bare our teeth for her. For several years, she was very concerned that my incisors, which seemed to be growing in horizontally, would cause me to never marry, but they eventually straightened out on her own.
She always made me march up and down, as well, and then she would turn to my mother and declare that I was a cripple. Yeah, she wasn't always a nice lady.
When she was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she lived for a time with my Aunt Bernadette, and when Aunty B couldn't take it anymore, my mother took gran in. After a couple of years, it was clear that she could no longer be managed at home anymore - she still came across as very coherent to people who didn't know her, but she also did things like shoplift, hide food in her pocketbook, and she would set out on walks and disappear for hours.
So she was placed in a nursing home where my Aunty Mo worked. One evening, Aunty Mo was cleaning out gran's night table, and she opened the bottom drawer to reveal rows of false teeth. Apparently, gran had been sneaking out of bed at night and stealing the other patients false teeth from the glasses where they soaked.