The last conversation I had with my grandma Rose was labored. Like listening to someone fluent in a language like Creole or Spanish, I filtered heavily, only catching every fourth or fifth word. She talked in short, slurry bursts. I strained to get her meaning, and somehow managed it.

“Our…family has…always…. helped people,” she said. She gave several examples of do-gooder relatives. She talked about her husband Abe being in the union at the Caterpillar plant in Peoria and then organizing typesetters at a newspaper in Tucson.

Rose and Abe wedding photo

Rose, who outlived Abe by almost 30 years to be 98, also lived this ethos out. In my time knowing her, she was a fervent saver of water, a brilliant teller of stories delivered to neighborhood kids who gathered in her yard, and a persistent volunteer at a local hospice.

Besides being a quintessential good person in my life, she was undeniably a character. I credit her with my love of words, walking and wandering.

I remember playing Scrabble with her a few times. I don’t remember winning even once. The losses stung. Still, they helped me to realize that you don’t need to know every word out there, but it’s a good idea to continually expose yourself to new ones, and to ask about the ones you don’t know. This translated into not only an itch to learn about words and ideas for me, but also a curiosity about other cultures and languages. And those interests landed me in Mexico, Central America and South America. When I got to those places, and long after leaving them, I had developed both the inclination and the capacity to write about them, so I did.

Rose would walk many miles per day in spite of the Tucson heat until her last few years when the mileage on her body began to catch up with her. She made her way to the library, the grocery store, and then home, lugging her groceries, daily. Many people she encountered along the way knew her and would stop to chat.

She was an institution of the best kind – a wealth of compliments and curse-words in Yiddish. A reminder of the 1920s and 30s depression era, and later a time when adobe houses were still the norm on her block, situated on the outskirts of a much smaller Tucson. I used to be embarrassed at restaurants when she would carefully wrap half-eaten biscuits and other food scraps in napkins or stuff them into styrofoam cups to carry them home, determined not to waste. That habit never stopped being exasperating, but it was hard not to admire her survival instincts and determination.

In some ways at least, she had exceptionally good luck. She would enter contests and routinely win cars, televisions and cash prizes. The cash often went into college funds for her grandkids. The last time a stranger broke into her house to steal her television, she told the intruder “I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it.” When she recounted this to me, I asked, “Rose, why did you say that? You don’t have any guns.” “No,” she said. “But they didn’t know that.” It worked. Proud pause. I’m happy to have you on my bargaining team, Rose.

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For most of my life, Rose was my only living grandparent, so she defined that role in large part, though I didn’t see her that often with a few states separating us most of the time.

I have some hazy but deeply impressioned little person memories of her: when she fainted from sunstroke while we were watching the San Francisco gay pride parade roll past, when we would walk the familiar paths of the Sonoran Desert Museum outside of Tucson, the profiles of saguaros rising up on all sides.

My deepest and strongest association is one of her walking behind me, somewhere in Flagstaff, I think around the time that Terry graduated college. Her hips and arms swung out to the sides, creating an almost centrifugal, yet forward-moving momentum akin to a spinning top. “Show me the way to go home,” she belted. Her voice rose, and fell and sparkled and bopped. “I’m tired and I want to go to beeed! I had another drink about an hour ago, and it went right to my head!” The next part in her rendition cracked me up, and since she was somehow my first exposure to this old song, it took me a long time to figure out that the lyric “A bottle of booooooze…” was not a traditionally included one.

Rose liked to joke about many things, but you couldn’t pass a visit with her without the term schnapps surfacing in the conversation. She used the word liberally to include every variety of liquor, I think. Part of what made it funny was that I never knew her to drink even a little schnapps. Besides typifying her strain of wit, the schnapps references did something I think she enjoyed immensely and I came to respect profoundly. In her grandma phase, at least, she was tough sometimes to the point of being stubborn. She loved to bust up stereotypes and expectations about little old ladies. And she did a smashing job of it.

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So, yes, Rose. We will go on helping people in loving memory of you, and Abe and the Terence family. By fighting for better working conditions, health, peace and justice for people, communities and the environment. By treating people like people, hearing them out, going through it with them, and putting ourselves in positions to get new perspectives. By channeling the power of words and good humor. By keeping our minds open and opening the minds of others. By reading, writing, talking, walking, growing and singing our way through this life, however long it lasts.

With so much love and appreciation for you, Rose.

Katie

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