Sunday, January 02, 2000

Just Grandma, plain and true

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My Grandma has never smelled like gingerbread, gotten misty at weddings or reminisced about old times. She's the opposite of sappy — a woman so unsentimental that she hasn't bothered to name her pet birds.

        “I don't think the stupid things would know what their name is,” says Grandma.

        It's a treat to hear the truth delivered so plainly. At 85, Hazel Johnson is the antidote to every New Age pretension. Her knees may wobble and her hands shake, but she enters the year 2000 with her mind marvelously intact.

        When I told her I wanted to write this column, she chuckled. “Don't make it sound too good,” she said.

        Grandma lives in a senior-citizens apartment near Batesville, Ind. My aunt and uncle stop by frequently. My mom and other relatives help when they can.

        We have always listened carefully to Grandma. These days we do so with new anticipation. Old age has given her the license to speak freely, and her insights can be startlingly modern.

        Grandma had cancer a few years back, and one breast was removed. Now she keeps her fake one in a dresser drawer. On women of a certain age and body type, no one can tell the difference, she claims.

        Besides, being one-breasted “is what I am,” Grandma says. “I guess I'm just sort of laid back.”

        She speaks highly of another removable part: Her upper denture. It was made in 1946 and still works just fine, she says. Grandma remembers having her teeth pulled and feeling woozy as the dentist sewed her gums shut. He recommended a shot of whisky.

        “I think he was a good doctor, but he was known to be a drinking doctor,” Grand ma says.

        For decades, she has attended the same church in Bright, Ind. It used to be a tiny place. Now Bright is almost a suburb of Cincinnati, filled with young families seeking the approximation of country life.

        Five hundred people attend services at Grandma's church. The words to hymns are flashed on a big screen that hangs behind the altar. The pastor, always smiling broadly, sometimes stops his sermons to pull out a portable keyboard and sing.

        Seeing this for the first time, I drew on my extensive knowledge of bad '80s rock bands to make an analogy. God meets Air Supply, I thought.

        Grandma's opinion surprised me.

        “That's just progress,” she said.

        Grandpa died of cancer 16 years ago. I was a silly, primping teen-ager back then, and I didn't cry during the funeral. Grandma remarked, not unkindly, that of course I wasn't

        crying — it would ruin my mascara.

        Until last year, she lived alone in the house she had shared with Grandpa. Then, within a few weeks, she found her apartment, sold her house and moved.

        “I said, "Well, I guess it's time I got out of there before I fell and broke my neck,”' Grandma says.

        No looking back. It's not her way.

        Grandma never complains, either. She only wishes getting old weren't so inconvenient. She won't take trips anymore, because she thinks her labored walking slows people down. Of course we welcome the chance to help her, but Grandma won't budge.

        Heading into the new century, she is characteristically calm. She neither dwells on the past nor dreads the future. It is what it is.

        Grandma spent New Year's Eve contentedly alone, in an apartment with two nameless birds and boxes of family photos she may never hang.

        No matter. We know Grandma loves us. She's always saying so, and the words of an honest woman mean a lot.

        Happy New Year, Grandma. We love you, too.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at