I have never known a day in my life without my grandmother, Clara Alice Robinson. Every child who is blessed with a grandparent knows the unique joy that relationship brings. An older, loving figure you can put on a pedestal without any of the fears or anxieties you have with your parents; love and affection without discipline or question. In my life, “Grandma” was always that person.
I have lived in a house with her, or in a house she owned, for most of my life. When I was four, my parents were going through some hard times, and she and her late husband, Jim Robinson, invited me and my siblings to live with them until things got sorted out. One year became two, then four, and so on, until the next thing we knew, we were under their roof for more than twenty years, long enough for my mom and dad to send me and my two sisters and brother to college (and me to law school). And for much of that time, our household also included her mother (my great-grandmother), as well as the family of her other daughter, after they moved here from Wigan.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that she taught me how to read, or to add, or gave me my passion for current events and for American history. I have a lot of teachers to thank for that, as well as my mom and dad. But Grandma was always there to read me a book when I was little, or to help me count to a hundred, or what was the correct pronunciation of “Czechoslovakia” when I was browsing the encyclopedia when I was six. Every night, without fail, she would pour me a bowl of cereal before I went to bed; that went on ‘til I was about 16. To this day, the best reason I’ve ever been able to come up with for having children of my own is to expose them to this great, sweet lady.
She had a sharp wit, and until recently, did not look or act anywhere close to her age, which was 92. She watched "The Price Is Right" and "Young and the Restless" each morning, and any Grand Slam event in pro tennis, but other than that, she was a CNN junkie, and had an opinion about everything. She never got over the fact that the people of her home state elected an Austrian bodybuilder to be their chief executive; she was still amazed than an actor could get elected President.
During WWII, she had worked in a factory on the home front, a genuine Rosie the Riveter. She never tired of telling me the story about how her father, an immigrant from England (by way of Edmonton, Alberta, where she was born), ran afoul of the KKK when they were marching in the mid-1920’s, refusing to doff his hat at the American flag they carried when they paraded by. He had taught her the lessons she would later teach her daughters, and then her grandchildren: that prejudice is a fool’s game, and we should take people as they come, not as we wish them to be.
Her idiosyncrasies were legendary in our family. She never learned to drive a car. She hated being photographed, which was especially odd since she wasn’t a bad-looking woman even at the end. She ate sparingly, and every day would down at least one hefty-sized bourbon and ginger ale; let’s just say she preferred her bourbon dry.
Two years ago, she fell at her house, suffering a cracked knee cap, and I don’t think she was ever the same physically. She began using a walker to go everywhere, and after awhile, a wheelchair, and a lot of the enthusiasm she had for life suffered. She could still perk up when my nephew (now almost four) came by to visit, and she adored her pet dachshund/Chihuahua hybrid, “JR” (named after my granddad), but mostly, she just sat, meditating on her long life, and probably, those loved ones who had passed on before her. Regardless, she always had time for visitors, and her big heart ensured them that they would always have a welcome place in our home.
In mid-April, when I was over at her house, she fell face first in the kitchen. We took her to the local hospital, where they stitched her up, but the toll had weakened her. What we didn’t realize at the time was that she had suffered a stroke. When she continued to seem lethargic and unresponsive after she returned home, we booked her into a hospital bed at Providence-St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, where the doctors’ diagnosis turned out to be our worst fears.
For the last four weeks, she battled, showing a reservoir of physical strength we didn’t imagine she possessed as various tubes and oxygen masks were tried on, in an effort to rehabilitate her strength. Slowly, she came back to us, in spite of what must have seemed to her like a torture right out of the Inquisition. Always, her repeated goal was for us to take her home, and on Sunday, the doctors told us that the chances for her were good; that she would be moved to the rehab unit, and arrangements could be made to bring her home shortly. Even in that false spring, it was clear that her time at the hospital had taken a great deal out of her, and she would never be that same person whose self-deprecating wit and rambunctious laughter brightened the lives of all around her.
Early this morning, she took her leave. Her last hours were spent surrounded by her family, in the comforting bed of her home. When she returned for the last time, her eyes seemed to sparkle, as if she knew she was finally going to get some peace and quiet.
I suppose in the traditional obit, it would mention she was a widow who was survived by two daughters, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren (and another one on the way), as well as numerous other nieces, great-nephews and what-not. But like so many other people whose names never make it into a newspaper at the end of her life, she touched so many other people, too numerous to count.
She will be missed. I know there will be times of joy in my life, to go along with this day of sadness. But it strains me to think about how not having her with me, in the present, will temper any happiness. It won’t be the same without her.
Clara Alice Robinson (1915-2007).