I recorded my grandmother Saralee today on my phone. It's become a bit of a habit. I am around her and all I want to do is to write it all down, all of the things she says. There's a specific cadence to the way she talks, the words she uses, especially when she's talking about music. We were listening to the classical radio station ("can you believe there's only one radio station devoted to classical music in all of Los Angeles!?"--the travesty) and she was lying on the couch, nursing a bad stomachache. You reach a certain age, she said, and everything hurts. And then the string section took flight and she sat up, her eyes open. Oh, Julia, she said. A thousand sighs in the way she says that word--Oh. Oh, Julia, the cellos in this are just exquisite.
Last night I drove 350 miles and arrived here late, crept into the downstairs bedroom, where she keeps her biographies of great composers. Her house is full of stories--drawings that my late grandfather did of her, seated at the piano, photographs of her with her 9 siblings, newspaper clippings and New Yorker cartoons and miniature pianos hiding out on bookshelves. I have been wanting to see her for months, and had been waiting for the right time to make the drive. At some point I realized that there would be no "right moment."
Amah is 91. She is an incredibly important person to me. The kind of quiet I feel in her house is a quiet I feel nowhere else. Music is always softly playing. This afternoon I took a nap on her front porch, though my legs were far too long for her old swing. In my adult life I have done this a number of times--chosen a weekend with no particular agenda except to be in this house with my grandmother. Sometimes we sit in the living room and I make her tea and she talks about growing up in Cleveland in the 1920s. Other times we sit in the drawing room and she smokes a cigarette and does crossword puzzles out of a book. Sometimes I'll go on a walk, as I did today, down to the Pacific Palisades, where every third person is a skinny woman in yoga pants, and the view of the ocean is stunning, and when I come back she'll be sitting, as she often does, by the big bay window, reading.
I am getting married soon. Amah wants very much to be there, and I want very much for her to be there, though more than that I want her to be well. My other remaining grandparent, my grandfather Fred, is in a similar state, though he won't have so far to travel. It is strange watching the people you love age. I want to freeze-frame my grandmother as she talks about music--to hear her say, Schubert wrote 600 sonatas before he was 30! And the things they will do to your heart. Oh, Julia.
That's why I drove 350 miles last night, and why, today, I propped my phone up close to her chin and said, "Do you mind if I tape your voice?" She nodded and laughed, and then I pressed record.