Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

A Love Affair With My Gama

I was the best-loved grandson in the history of all mankind!

My birthday is January 7th, 1960. Gama was “born” about a year later–I couldn’t get my one year old tongue around the word “grandma” and it came out “Gama”. Now, the White family is really big on precedent, and since grandchild number 1 called Mom’s mother Gama, Gama it was for everybody. Subsequent grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends, neighbors, heck a few Romans who lent an ear for all I know called Jane Knopf “Gama”. (This precedent thing turned out to be not so good in the next generation when my nephew, grandchild number three, called my parents “Bam” and “Grump” and it wasn’t allowed to stick, but that’s another story.)

As the first grandchild in my Mom’s family I had the perfect set-up, and the fact that I was the first male in a generation didn’t hurt one bit. My brother was born 17 months after I was, and with the two of us so close together it was apparently a burden for my folks. Turned out to be quite a break for me, though, because my brother was born in May, and at the end of June I was shipped out to stay with Gama and Gramp at the Jersey Shore, the first of countless solo visits with my grandparents. Thus began a most privileged relationship with my maternal grandparents, especially with my beloved Gama.

It’s hard to describe, especially in these days of ultra mobility where extended families live apart, how critical it was to be loved by a family member without condition. Accepted and supported with no strings attached. Time spent with Gama was time spent in a guilt-free bubble. You behaved because it just felt so good to be in that bubble, and if you misbehaved forgiveness came in waves a very brief instant after any punishment. I visited my grandparents for weeks at a time, especially in the summer. My aunt Barbie, 16 years my senior, made it OK for the rugrat to be around even though I was clearly messing up her “only child” status in the house. Those were good times. I had a very special and unique relationship with Gama and Gramp. If I close my eyes and it’s very quiet I can still hear them…”Dar”.

Apparently everyone in my family saw what a special relationship I had with them and sought to preserve and protect it. It does no good to share any dark family secrets, but it seems that all was not as warm, loving, and tranquil as it appeared to me. It never is, eh? In fact, I was the last to discover any of the family’s darker secrets, long after my siblings, long after the cousins 10 and 12 years my junior. I was 30 when my aunts visited us in New York at the end of my residency years when I became aware of how much I’d been “protected” from over the years, protection so effective that any present day revelations cannot dim or diminish the memories of my life with Gama.

We lost Gramp when I was around 17. when he succumbed to his nth heart attack. That whole time is really just a blur, from the phone call I took in Rhode Island with the news from my uncle to the memorial service in Miami where I stood next to Barbie as she tried to read her farewells. What I remember–indeed all I really remember clearly–is Gama saying over and over, “I didn’t get to say ‘goodbye’.” I didn’t get to say ‘goodbye’ either. Maybe that’s why I can still hear Gramp every now and again…”Dar.”

Gama stayed in Florida at King’s Creek for a couple more years, living in the same apartment I’d visited so many times before. I even made one last solo visit when I brought my new college buddy “Kid” for a week of spring break fun during freshman year. Every family seems to have one adult who’s cool, don’t they? Yours does. Admit it. There’s a parent or an uncle or a grandmother who’s just cooler than all of the other adults, right? Well, in our family it was Gama. My Gama was cool! As the years went by as more and more of our friends got to know her it seemed she just got cooler, but it turns our that Gama was ALWAYS cool. She entered college as a pre-med student in the days when women did not become doctors. Almost got away with it, too, until her mother found out and transferred her into education. She dated the gay boys when she was younger because they took her to the best clubs and they were the best dancers (and she didn’t have to worry about getting pawed on the train home from New York).  Yup, Gama was cool.

After a few solo years in Miami Gama moved in with my folks in Rhode Island, spending several months each year with my aunts and their kids in Florida. She never really called us just by name, it was alway “MY Dar”, my Ran, my Tracey, my Kerstin. My Jenny, Rick, Mike or Ed. All eight grandchildren now clearly had a unique and special relationship with Gama as she was now living with all of us. She was still my biggest fan, my brother Randy’s defender (Ran was the “black sheep” by choice when we were younger), Tracey’s cheerleader and Kerstin’s confidant. Even though I can’t describe them as well I know that each of my Florida cousins had some version of the same specialness.

Some time ago, I was in my early thirties, Gama fell and broke her hip. Word came from the hospital that she was failing–a broken hip is often the end for older women. Beth called me on the way to the OR, on my way to do cataract surgeries. Numb, stunned, I couldn’t think. I did what we have always done in my family, I went to work. It was Beth who knew better, who cancelled my patients and put me on a plane to Miami, Continental through Greensborogh, North Carolina. Beth who let everyone know that I was on the way, alerting everyone in Florida when I was delayed in Greensborogh so that Barbie knew where to to leave the message. I sat sobbing in the airport after the  gate attendant told me Gama had died. I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.

My Mom and I spoke at the memorial service representing the children and grandchildren, Mom all icy control, me crashing and burning and choking my way through. I told one of my favorite stories, the one about the little girl who was standing in front of her grandfather’s casket, stomping her feet, clearly angry. “He can’t be dead. I wasn’t done with him yet!” That’s very much how I felt when Gramp died, and I think if we’d had the chance to ask Gramp he would have told us that he wasn’t really all that done with US when he died, either. I definitely wasn’t done with Gama, either, but Gama was done with us. She was ready to go, so long after Gramp left, so long living alone among all of her special kids. I said then, and I still wish today, that she just hadn’t been in so much of a hurry. I never got a chance to say goodbye.

Maybe that’s why even now, when it’s very quiet, if I close my eyes, I can still hear her…”Dar.”

5 Responses to “A Love Affair With My Gama”

  1. October 7th, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Jessica Pelasky says:

    SUCH a touching story…it made me think of my Grandpa who passed away almost 14 years ago. I miss him every day and know what you’re going through! 🙂

  2. October 7th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Apolloswabbie says:

    Thanks D.

    I’ve been in that bubble. Thanks for sharing. It feels good remembering. Paul

  3. October 7th, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Maureen says:

    Touching and poignant. I remember many long talks with Gama spread out through LHS days and college. She was just the best and yes quite cool and contemporary thinking. Ca-ching on AB’s icy funeral demeanor. I’ve experienced exactly that on this side of the fence!

  4. October 8th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    Miss her every day, Mo. Every day…

  5. July 7th, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Grandparents Visitation Rights says:

    Great post!

Leave a Reply