Sunday, July 27, 2014

Grandma Maggie

LIVE from Mongolia has been on the road. My daughter Jade and I have been traveling in the US. We'd planned to go on a road trip, but ended up spending our time in America close to my family's home in Cincinnati, so that we could say goodbye to one extraordinary 90-year-old woman.

CINCINNATI, OH —Up until last week, it had been only once in my nearly-forty years that I thought the world had completely changed after someone's death. That was in 2009, and the world still feels different, somehow not-quite-right after that loss. Last Tuesday, Grandma Maggie died. She was ninety years old, and although dying at ninety isn't a tragedy, it's still a loss. The world feels simply altered after her passing.

Sharing "four puffs" with Grandma Maggie

Unlike most grandmothers, Grandma Maggie wasn't sweet, she didn't sew, and I don't think I ever witnessed her baking anything from scratch, other than a lamb-shaped cake at Easter, which had a black jellybean inserted into its bottom. Grandma Maggie often indignantly declared, "Poppycock!" when she disagreed with what you had to say, and that was frequently. She smoked, she enjoyed a drink, and she gambled. Grandma Maggie loved life, and she celebrated every day as such.

Margaret Sexton grew up during the Depression, the fourth of five children. In fact, as I discovered only after her death, she was actually one of six children; an older brother died a toddler. Grandma Maggie's father was a machinist, and, like most men during that time, fond of an occasional drink. One night, collected from a bar by the cops, he was taken into police custody and beaten to death. A generous account of his murder was that it was something of an accident, brutality gone too far. No one ever made much mention of it, and Grandma Maggie only talked about it once or twice in all the years I knew her. Her mother, for her part, raised five children on her own during both the Depression and the Great Flood of 1937. It was the Great Flood that would result in Grandma Maggie meeting the man she'd marry. She and Grandpa George eloped, and then off he went to war.

Years on, after Grandpa George had returned from fighting in the Philippines, they began building a business of their own. It was a small business, and they staked everything they owned on its success. At first, it wasn't working out, and so they did precisely what you're not supposed to do when you have three kids, a mortgage, and just $200 in the bank: they said, "To hell with it," and took themselves on vacation with the last of their savings. When they returned, somehow, the business took off.

At this point, and over the years, they grew a little bit wealthy. There were trips to Russia, Greece, and a short time living in an apartment in Paris. Grandma Maggie became a docent at the Cincinnati Art Musem. Grandpa George smoked cigars and bought fresh fish.

If this had been where her story, their story, had ended, it would have been interesting enough for those who knew them. But then grandchildren came into their lives, and that's where Grandma Maggie's unforgettable impact was made on me. What follows is the eulogy I wrote for her funeral, which unfortunately was unable to be read at the service. (I suspect Grandma Maggie had a hand in preventing me from reading the following about her!)


“Let the cat die down!” was something Grandma Maggie used to say to me when I was a little girl, swinging in her backyard on Larry Avenue in Cincinnati. She would always repeat this particular advice many times over, with all the authority of every commandment she issued. “Trishy, let the cat die down!” she’d say again one last time, as the swing came to a final stop.

I never asked Grandma Maggie what that actually meant, “Let the cat die down;” it only now occurs to me as something I probably should have asked, because, unlike everything else Grandma Maggie taught me, that phrase about the cat never made much sense.

"Oh, poppycock!" with my brother Tim.

And Grandma Maggie taught me a lot. She taught me how to eat my soup like a proper lady, pushing my spoon away from me, instead of pulling it toward me. She introduced me to freshly cracked peppercorns, salmon steaks, and The Maisonette, Ohio's finest restaurant, and one of the finest in the country. Grandma Maggie let me stay overnight and in the morning she toasted waffles and put fresh blueberries on top. When I was nine, she gave me my first cup of coffee, sweet and milky in a fine-bone china teacup, and I’ve been drinking it and thinking of her for thirty years since.

In 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, Grandma called me at home in New York. “My baby needs me to come visit,” she’d said, characteristically not actually asking, but informing. Grandma had already bought her ticket, and would arrive in a few days. In New York, while I went to work during the day, Grandma took herself to a funeral at the famous St Patrick’s cathedral held by Mayor Giuliani for firefighter victims of the attack on the Twin Towers. At night, we went out to dinner and argued, feisty grandmother sparring with her protégé, fifty years younger. To this day, I still remember what that argument was about, although Grandma would certainly roll over in her grave if I put it here in print. When she left New York to return home to Ohio, I discovered a half-empty bottle of brandy in my cupboard. When I asked her about it, she told me she’d brought it for me to help me deal with 9/11. But it’s half empty, I’d protested. “No it isn’t!” she insisted, and never admitted to anything other than evaporation for the disappearance of that brandy.

A few years later, Grandma returned to New York, this time on happier terms than a post-9/11 visit. This time she just wanted to spend time with me and to meet my friends. At dinner one night at the cozy Il Cantinori Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, Grandma and I met with half dozen or so of my closest girlfriends. As the wine arrived, they began firing questions at her: What was it like growing up during the Depression? Did you really fall in love and elope? Tell us about traveling the world!

“Stop talking now, all of you!” Grandma interrupted the girls. “I want to hear about you,” she said. And she listened intently as each of my friends told her own story. When everyone was finished, Grandma asked if we’d heard of the “Balls Club.” They hadn’t; I hadn’t either. “For women with balls!” Grandma explained, as if we should’ve known all along. She thereby inducted each of us into the “Junior Balls Club,” so named for the younger generation of the “Senior Balls Club” she’d begun with friends of her own. Before dessert arrived, Grandma stepped outside the restaurant with one of my friends to have a cigarette. When she’d finished smoking, and she may have been a little tipsy, Grandma flirted with a passing fireman, declaring in damsel-in-distress fashion that she couldn’t walk herself back into the restaurant. The fireman carried Grandma in, and placed her at her seat at the table. When he left and the onlookers had stopped staring, Grandma gave everyone of us girls a knowing, maybe educational, look that said, “And ladies, that’s how it’s done.” 

Of course, if she were here, she’d probably deny that too.

Not long ago, I introduced Grandma to my now-husband. She seemed to like him, like him enough anyway to include him in the mandatory Christmas caroling and the Post-It-note jobs on the fridge. I loved that about her: no matter who you were, no matter how new you were to the Sexton family, you had a place in her house. And you had a job.

It wasn’t long after Christmas that Jesse and I had tried to phone her. I can’t remember the reason we’d tried to call, but we’d tried unsuccessfully for a few days, and then we began to worry. Just as we were about to contact other family members to ask why her line was busy, it finally rang, and she picked up. “Grandma, are you okay?” I asked, with Jesse listening in. “What the hell do you mean?” she’d said, a little defensively. “I was playing online blackjack!”

Undoubtedly for me, Grandma Maggie’s greatest gift was simply the way she lived. She lived life to its fullest, whether she was setting her baby brother's diapers on fire during the Depression, gushing about briefly living in Paris, playing Upwords with her latest victim, or just visiting with her grandchildren. About a year ago, Grandma was on her patio at the retirement home where she lived, sipping an afternoon wine and smoking her “four puffs.” The chair she was sitting on broke, and she fell through the seat. She was stuck, and she was sure this was the way she’d die. “Well,” Grandma told me, days later, after she’d been rescued by a nurse, “I’ve had a good life. It wouldn’t have been a bad way to go.”

Maybe the reason I never quite understood “Let the cat die down” was that it seemed to encourage winding down, rather than stopping. And Grandma Maggie didn’t seem like someone who would ever really wind down, or stop, for that matter. But although she has done just that, what she taught me, and all of us here, will live on and on.   

Epilogue: Just as I was beginning to pen this blog about Grandma Maggie, I received a text from my mom, who is helping to clean out Grandma Maggie's apartment at the retirement home. Inside her curio cabinet, my mom found her First Communion book. For all you Catholics and ex-Catholics out there, you know that this book is supposed to be a holy keepsake, a reminder of the day when you received one of the blessed sacraments. Tucked inside Grandma Maggie's First Communion book was a debit card for one of the casinos she frequented. Grandma Maggie, wherever you are, the world has forever changed without you. 

As always, celebrating. 

Dedicated to Margaret Mary Sexton, September 18, 1923 to July 21, 2014.

"LIVE from Mongolia" is the true story of one woman's journey to pursue her passion. The book has been a bestseller on Amazon. Author Patricia Sexton left behind a Wall Street career to anchor the Mongolian news. She now features dream-followers on her blog and previously on the TV show, WE Talk. (Published by Beaufort Books, Oct. 2013)