Today is my grandma‘s birthday.
She would have turned 95.
I’m still not even close to being okay with the fact that Phoofsy left us so suddenly and unexpectedly. This is simply not how it was supposed to be. She’d been bummed because it was the first year (since she and my grandfather bought the house more than 40 years ago) that she couldn’t be at the lake from May until September; changing schedules meant that it was simply not possible. I was bummed for her because there was no place she’d rather be than Canandaigua, but I was selfishly looking forward to it. She could finally attend the girls’ piano recital! She would come to their Flag Day ceremony, dressed in her red, white, and blue finery just as she’d dressed up for the Halloween parade! Maybe I’d drag her to Field Day! And I’d definitely have made sure she witnessed the last day of school bus ritual in person.
When she came to the girls’ Halloween parade last year, of course she dressed the part.
And she brought her iPad – to take photos of the girls to show her friends.
I knew that I was going to be out of town for Phoofsy’s milestone; there was simply nothing that could be done about it. I also knew that she’d understand, however – she’d have been mad at me if I’d stayed behind for her, actually – so we’d planned to take her out to The Melting Pot to celebrate a couple of days early, with Nick and the girls visiting her on her official birthday.
At least I’m no longer ditching her on her big day!
Shortly after Phoofsy passed away, we were talking with Ella and Annie about where she might be, if she was in heaven, and what they thought that looked like. Their insights were profoundly awesome, but one question had me stumped: “Mama, you know how Great loved music, so you like to think that when you hear songs that were his favorites, maybe he’s sending you a message? Well, since Phoofsy didn’t love music exactly the same way that Great did, how will she send you a message?”
At the Melting Pot with us, celebrating the start of school last fall.
Phoofsy proclaimed that the meal was so good, she could die happy right then.
I had no idea. My grandma was so very many things; she lived life more fully, more wholly, more openly than just about anyone I’ve ever met. But she wasn’t easily pinned into a package, nor did any one thing make her light up more than anything else the way that music did for my grandfather (except maybe playing Bridge, but since I don’t play, I don’t know how she’d communicate with me through cards). The thought that I couldn’t get that warm and fuzzy (and, okay, sometimes a little creepy) feeling from a particular song or a book or a phrase made me much sadder than I’d expected.
Less than two weeks after Phoofsy’s death, I set out back to mow the lawn. As usual, I listened to my Pandora stations on shuffle; it’s a wonderfully weird collection of everything from Lady Gaga to Paul Simon to Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson to Eminem. I’d just gotten the engine roaring when the first song came on.
I smiled because I immediately recognized Louis Armstrong’s voice. Louis has, somewhat inexplicably, always reminded me of my grandpa — the gravel in their voices, their jowls, their booming personalities. Plus, the music that Louis sings is from an era that my grandfather loved, so there’s that connection, too. In fairness, I do have a Louis station on my playlist, but because there are so many other choices, I don’t usually listen to too much of him. Hearing his rich, rough vibrato through the headphones was unexpected and delightful.
Without hesitation, I began humming along; I knew the melody by heart but didn’t give any thought to what the song actually was – I was simply singing by memory. It wasn’t until I absentmindedly started singing the lyrics that I realized what I was singing: “Cheek to Cheek” by the inimitable Irving Berlin.
In case you’re not familiar with this iconic tune (it’s featured on – is actually the title of – Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s recent collaborative album), or if you’ve forgotten the words, allow me to refresh your memory.
Heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek
Heaven, I’m in heaven
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek
There’s more, but you can get the idea with just the beginning.
“Heaven. I’m in heaven.”
This was the first time I’d listened to music since losing Phoofsy. WHAT WERE THE CHANCES that THOSE would be the very first lyrics I heard?? I mean, seriously. SERIOUSLY!!!
And what were the chances that they would be sung by Louis Armstrong, a man who has always reminded me of my grandfather? COME ON, YOU GUYS.
At once, I understood: I didn’t need my grandmother to send me a message in a new and different way because my grandfather, who had always been the louder voice of their relationship, could do it for her – for both of them. And the message was crystal clear: I’m happy. We’re happy. Don’t worry, Em. We’re together and it’s more than okay; it’s bliss.
My grandparents meeting Ella for the first time.
In an instant, I was laughing because it was so ludicrous and beautiful and magical… and then I was crying, overwhelmed with grief and longing and wonder. When another voice joined Louis’s marvelous baritone (Ella Fitzgerald, one of my all-time favorite singers and part of the reason why we decided to name our Ella what we did) and the song became a duet, I could hardly contain myself.
And so I mowed the lawn just like that, literally laughing and crying at the same time, singing along, adding harmony… and profoundly grateful that I’d chosen to start with the back lawn instead of the front so that I didn’t look like a complete lunatic in front of all the neighbors.
There were other songs to which I could maybe have assigned significance, but they would have been a stretch; “Cheek to Cheek” was all I needed. I mowed the rest of the lawn, returned the mower to the shed, and was reaching for my phone to turn off Pandora when one final song came on.
Again, it was sung by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (FOR REAL I am not lying), but this time, it was “Dream a Little Dream of Me” – a song that I’ve loved for more than twenty years when I sung it with my college a cappella group.
Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper, “I love you”
Birds singing in the sycamore tree
Dream a little dream of me
I stood, frozen, listening to Louis and Ella’s rendition, hanging on every word… And then, at the end, when Ella added a few extra words so that she sang, “Promise me – you’ll dream a little dream of me,” I found myself whispering aloud, “I promise, Gram. I promise.”
Obviously, I understand that this could all be coincidence. Heck, it is probably a coincidence – me ascribing meaning to random songs on my Pandora station. But I choose to believe otherwise, because it makes me feel better. It makes me feel less alone, less sad, more connected, more at peace. And those are very good things, my friends.
I choose to believe that my grandma is happy, wherever she is. That she and my grandfather are together again, somehow, and that their cares have melted away into an eternity of star-filled nights and sun-filled days. That I can see them both again – in photos and videos, in memories, in the stories shared by family and friends, in the lessons they taught me, and in my dreams.
That vision wasn’t really what I’d imagined for Phoofsy’s 95th birthday, but now that I think about it, it’s the very best way to celebrate.
Birthday selfie for her 94th.
Damn, she was a great sport.
Happy 95th Birthday, Grandma.
It brings me incredible joy to know in my heart that you’re still kicking ass and living to the fullest, no matter where you are.
I miss you so much, and I wish you were here to celebrate with us (or Nick and the girls, at least — I’d have FaceTimed, though!!)… but, in the meantime, I hope you’re dancing like crazy. xx