My grandmother firmly believed that loose lips sank ships. I’m not sure if that attitude suited her for Navy work or if the Navy work instilled that into her, but either way it was deeply ingrained. Ironically, she loved celebrity gossip and even subscribed to the National Enquirer; she could dish with any stranger in a check-out line. But anything involving real people, real circumstances, real issues in our own lives was met with her circumspect silence. Why discuss?
Loose lips sank ships – my grandmother must have heard that often on the Naval Base where she worked for decades. She retired from her clerical work there at the age of 81, a year later than she promised us she would. My grandmother would have been called a career gal in her day – only she herself was married, with two children, estranged from her hard-drinking husband and also caring for an aging mother at home, and she had been at work for quite a while already.
Her living room in Newport was littered with distinguished service awards – a certificate alongside a medallion framed with a picture of her shaking the hand of some top brass in a Naval uniform. Whenever I tried to commend her on the latest award, she would wave me aside and say, “Oh, they have to give those to me. Because I’m so old! Every year, another one,” she added, suggesting that it was really more trouble than it was worth, for everyone, all around.
My grandmother came out of a long-standing Irish tradition of steely matriarchs, so her strength was simultaneously understated and undeniable. As one of my graduate-school professors was fond of saying, she was Celtic-retentive. My grandmother battled cancer, buried her youngest daughter, institutionalized my grandfather when he lost his faculties, and then showed up to work on the next Monday, uncomplaining.
It feels almost patronizing to call her a good soldier but it’s hard to imagine a better one. In her 70s, on her way out to get the newspaper one wintry morning, she slipped on the sidewalk and broke her leg. So what does my fallen grandmother do? Does she call for help? No. She starts a commando crawl through the snow back into the house, dragging her broken leg behind her and up the stairs, and then inside, begins dialing and redialing my aunt to arrange a quiet ride to the hospital. She dials for hours. It does not occur to my grandmother to call an ambulance, because that would be unseemly and upsetting for the neighbors and ultimately, beneath her dignity.
My grandmother dressed for every occasion, usually in matching polyester pantsuits, but never without this invisible mantle of dignity draped all around her. She could be cooing to her cats and still exude a regal quality, because essentially, my grandmother was a warrior queen. I loved and admired her with a fierceness befitting that fact.
A few years before she died, my grandmother showed me a yellowed photo she’d clipped from the local paper of her on the beach, many years prior. In it, she was wearing a bikini, bold lipstick, and a shiny sash that said Miss Newport 1938, her arms akimbo, her smile luminous. “Here,” she said, pointing. “I just wanted you to know that I did not always look this way.”
“But you’re beautiful,” I told her, “then and now.” Although I spoke the truth, she still was not convinced.
As her health began to fail, my grandmother needed extended stays in the Newport hospital on a couple of occasions. She always wanted someone to bring in her best wigs along with her favorite lipsticks from home. These were the tools she required to arrange her brave face, which was lovely and altogether convincing. Near the end, though, when I brought those into her, she refused them. She had suddenly lost her desire for those things. She had also lost her speech. My grandmother indicated that instead, she wanted me to clip her nails. After I had done that, delicately, gingerly, she took the speech card beside her hospital bed and pointed to the blocks reading: Thank. You. I knew then that she was dying, that she had had enough, and I understood perfectly.
My grandmother died just after end of my twenty-sixth birthday, in the early morning hours, only a brief time after my brother had left his nighttime vigil by her bedside. I have no doubt that through sheer force of will, she timed it that way, so as not to ruin my birthday, and not to distress my brother. She was determined to not burden or pain any of us and we were never able to shake her determination. Ever.
Today, my grandmother is buried beside my grandfather in a Catholic cemetery overlooking the Bay. He was given burial befitting a foreign-war veteran, with a 21-gun salute. A fluttering flag marks his grave as tribute to his military service. Her grave is unadorned, but anyone who knew my grandmother understood that she had been a veteran of a few wars of her own and that with each tour of duty, she had discharged herself honorably.
At her wake (which of course was open-casket, or what are the Irish good for?), a friend of my grandmother’s took my hand and told me how pretty she was in her casket, how pretty she had stayed, and how – embalmed though she was – she looked just as good in the Memorial home as she had that day on the beach when she was named Miss Newport, back in 1938. He was really asking me to stretch my imagination, but it did stretch, and I could see it.
So why talk of troubles? My grandmother was generally disinclined to do that at any length. She’d rather everyone recall the dances and parties and celebrations and good times, like the jubilation of V-J day in 1945, and her happiness when I was born decades later. Otherwise, her lips were sealed. My grandmother lived by her code and she died by her code – dying less than a year, by the way, after the day she retired from the Navy. My grandmother wanted to die in her boots, with her lipstick on, and God love her, when all was said and done, she succeeded.