By Courtesy of Jem K. WIlliams

Good Grief

Some people honor their deceased loved ones with beautiful poetry, speeches of somber remembrance, or quiet moments of reflection. I honored my grandmother with a three minute stand up set.
By Jem K. Williams

Some people honor their deceased loved ones with beautiful poetry, speeches of somber remembrance, or quiet moments of reflection. I honored my grandmother with a three minute stand up set.

I packed those three minutes with jokes on her bitter tendencies — such as when, on her deathbed, she told me to eat a salad.

Under the bright lights of the Lowell Screening Room stage, I took memories of tears and my grandmother’s consistent tactlessness, and I transformed them into laughter. For a while, I wondered if it was proper to remember her comedically. Isn’t grief somber?

But it was easier to joke than to think about that quiet night this past December when she slipped away, finally emerging from the pain she endured after the onset of her lung cancer. I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life that I got to spend those last few days with her, trying to crack jokes to make her smile at her bedside and watching her roll her eyes.

Since then I’ve been searching for the words to describe her. She was, above all else, a woman who loved me, and who made sure to tell me in the last words she ever said to me. But she was also someone I argued with. Someone I traded jabs with. And, without a doubt, the woman who taught me how to hold a grudge.

For the first half of my life, my grandmother helped my mother raise me in her home in North Carolina. My memories were colored by the shades of the walls — photos of four generations of my family hung above belligerent crayon-marked childhood mistakes. There was almost always a spaghetti noodle stuck to the ceiling. (My grandmother must have regretted teaching us that method of testing whether it was ready.) Despite our leaving a permanent mark of messes on her home, I can’t remember a single time my grandmother complained about the presence of her grandchildren.

As long as I could remember, my grandmother had looked after me. She worked in a hospital kitchen and loved “Grey’s Anatomy” and the color purple. I wouldn’t know it until years later, but she kept every misshapen sewing project I ever made for her. She had my mother at 19 and hadn’t waned one bit in her maternal love as a grandmother.

The first shift in my relationship with my grandmother came around my ninth birthday. Four days prior, my mom married my stepdad, and in a blur of blue, silver, and an obscene amount of white chocolate (I should know. I consumed most of it), their wedding day passed and they were long gone for their honeymoon before my birthday came.

This was the first year that I wouldn’t have my mom there to celebrate with me, and I was planning on washing the day away in a silent string of tears. But my grandmother and brother weren’t going to let that happen. My brother, for his part, crafted me one of the most beautiful cakes I’ve ever seen — a tiered masterpiece of sliced strawberries and goldfish crackers. And my grandmother, a loyal city bus rider who knew the routes almost by heart, mapped out and led the way to the restaurant of my newly-9-year-old dreams — an Applebee’s.

And you know what? I was probably the happiest little girl to ever sit in an Applebee’s, stuffing my face with mac-n-cheese in a corner booth and blushing as my brother and grandmother unabashedly intertwined their voices to that familiar birthday melody.

When my mom returned from her honeymoon, we said our final goodbyes to living in my grandmother’s house and moved into a new home as the idyllic mom-dad-daughter-son nuclear family that I’d only ever seen in movies. I held more than just that idyllic dream back then. I also grasped onto the certainty that distance couldn’t change family.

And at first, it didn’t. My parents kept our address listed as my grandmother’s house at school so we could stay in the same school district. I was a latchkey kid and rode the bus to my grandmother’s house after school every day. Her house was still a haven that felt like my favorite blankets, sounded like Disney channel re-runs, and smelled of banana marshmallow moonpies. It was easy to believe her house would always feel like home.

But the distance would grow even larger. After the fifth grade, my parents whisked my brother and I away to South Carolina. I, the ever-eager-11-year-old, immersed myself into the new world of palmetto trees and middle school hallways. Running headfirst into the new, I forgot to look back.

Talking to my grandmother became something I rarely did outside of holidays, birthdays, and any other day my parents commanded me. I couldn’t tell you what she did for fun, whether she kept up with the new season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” or even the year she retired. The prospect of holding a phone call became a burden, but one I’d gladly carry if I had the option today.

And then suddenly I was standing next to her hospital bed. Like all the years that had gone by were merely an inch of sand slipping through the neck of an hourglass. Then I was there, supporting my mom with tissues and carrying my grandmother’s flowers while they transferred her from one hospital room to another. My dry eyes felt like a curse, as I leaned over and promised I would call her more when I went back to school. I prayed to a God I don’t believe in that I could make good on that promise, so I wouldn’t have to say I forfeited the chance to know one of the most important people in my life.

Maybe then I wouldn’t look back in hindsight and wonder where she got her persistent skepticism or her love of cooking. I wouldn’t still be piecing her together like a million part puzzle as I struggle to reconcile how, after years of suffering my egocentric-teenage-mannerisms, she could still love me unconditionally.

I don’t want to romanticize my grandmother. She was more than just something to be captured like a photo in a frame, removed of any blemish and placed on display. I refuse to mourn this perfect image and pretend we had a perfect relationship.

She was the definition of both an unstoppable force and an immovable object. She did so much in her life, but one thing she never did was let anyone win a fight. She was stubborn and spiteful, and that’s not speaking ill of her. It’s speaking of her the way I remember her.

When I remember her, I want to laugh. I want to laugh at the way she used to stick her tongue out at me. I want to laugh at the mocking way she called me “Missy Prissy.” And I want to laugh at the time she accidentally used salt on her lasagna instead of parmesan cheese and ate the whole thing because she refused to waste the plate she had made.

So when I got up on stage to perform my set, I didn’t tell them about the saintly woman the preacher conjured up at her funeral. I told them about the woman who made her entire hospital room laugh by asking the doctor, without the slightest farcical tinge to her voice, to give my mother a sedative so she would calm down. The woman who turned my gray days blue, not always through endless sunshine, but sometimes through a hard-won, jaded attitude.

But I couldn’t capture all of that in a poem, at least not one appropriate for a funeral.

— Associate Magazine Editor Jem K. Williams can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jemkwilliams.

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