Stephen’s grandmother suffered from a mental illness that burdened his family in many ways. Reflecting on her life, though, he can look through the strange things that she did and said to see the gifts she left him.
My grandmother was many things.
She was not a “good” person. She did not “contribute” to society. And was not “useful” to others.
She did whatever she pleased and used people’s resources to do so.
Leetsa had paranoid schizophrenia. They medicated her until she was more paranoid than schizophrenic, which — they told us — was the best we were going to get.
Leetsa claimed that she saw the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin first appeared to her after a labor and delivery had gone bad. The doctor (who later lost his license for malpractice) left her to bleed to death after mangling her uterus with forceps. That’s when Jesus’ mom paid her a visit, notifying her that a better doctor would be with her shortly.
God doesn’t lie. I guess neither does His mom.
She was ever-suspicious of those who were “out to get” her. She accused my mother of being a troublemaker for trying to help clean the kitchen.
She trash-talked people at church for what they wore and the way they did their hair. She mocked women for being overweight as she sat in her car in the Whole Foods parking lot, scarfing down a tortilla chip loaded with organic guac.
She ate all of my Jacques Torres chocolates while I was sleeping, and upon being found out, complained about their mediocrity.
She ate what she wanted, and didn’t care about being what she called “jolly” (obese).
She told my aunt off at New Year’s Day dinner for talking too much. And she criticized her “stupid sister” without respite.
Leetsa claimed that she saw “the man” lurking around in the basement, and leaving the stove lit. She also claimed to be too frail to do the laundry, but seemed to have enough strength to create a blockade with outdoor lounge chairs on the balcony to keep “him” out.
Leetsa did what she wanted. She went on her daily trip to Bloomingdales to “make the returns.” She gloated about putting the manager at the Bloomie’s restaurant “in his place” after he told her she couldn’t take popovers from the salad bar in her to-go box.
We would often go early in the morning to buy muffins at Wegman’s and eat them in the market’s small eating area. After completing the rest of her food shopping, I reminded her that we forgot to tell the cashier about the muffins.
“You keep your mouth shut and you don’t tell no one. You know how much money we spend in this place? And they never give us nothing for it!”
She decided, on a whim, to open up a gift shop, and enlisted my grandfather’s assistance. The shop’s opening and closing hours were contingent upon Leetsa’s mood that day. There was a “gone for lunch, will be back later” sign perpetually taped to the door, as she would often leave for lunch and not come back until she felt like it.
Needless to say, Leetsa’s first and only business venture was short lived.
She loved driving in her Acura because — as she put it, swooshing her hand forward in revelry — it “glides.”
Leetsa one day took a ride to the shore in her beloved Acura and happened upon a new townhome development on a small island. “I loved the water since I was a little girl.” She bought a house on the water that very day, and told my grandfather about it with joy.
“And who will be paying for that?”
“You, of course.”
Leetsa sat on the deck of that new house, observing the island’s wildlife. She taught me to appreciate nature and take pleasure in just watching.
She insisted on walking around the house in her bra and underwear. When her “stupid sister’s” grandson came over and saw her, we told her to put some clothes on.
“Who asked him to look? This is my house. I do what I like. I don’t remember inviting him here.”
Leetsa was also fabulous. She loved her “pink palace,” where every couch, chair, and wall was covered in her favorite color. She selected only the most chic and vibrant of the selection in the plus-sized department. She was photogenic, but scoffed at the prospect of posing as a plus-sized model, which required “too much work.” Just like the prospect of using her luscious singing voice in the church choir — even though she used it to serenade us at home with Greek oldies and Frank Sinatra hits.
Making the returns and eating guac can be quite exhausting, don’t you know?
Leetsa was fiercely maternal. She made a fuss anytime a cute baby crossed her path, and found joy in babysitting me when Mom started working full time. When she wasn’t busy criticizing my mother’s “conniving” ways, she was cooking her dinner and telling her how much she loved her.
Leetsa was generous with her time and (with other people’s) money. Leetsa also babysat friends’ and family members’ kids when they had to go off to work, and did so with joy. After finding out her hairstylist was suffering from a vaginal infection, she gave her $100 and told her to go to the doctor immediately.
Leetsa was a faithful godmother. She brought me to church, and when she wasn’t whispering in my ear about what the woman in the pew in front of us was wearing, taught me to say my prayers, and told me about the miracles born of asking the saints’ intercessions.
She memorized all of the hymns of the liturgy while also dabbling in folk witchcraft. She insisted on reading everyone’s fortune after dinner using the grounds in our coffee cups. Her “stupid sister’s” daughter called the next morning in disbelief, proclaiming that the fortune came true.
“Of course it came true. She thinks I’m a liar?”
When my grandfather’s health started to decline, she would spend minutes at a time staring at an icon of the Virgin and child, obsessively crossing herself over and over again. When he was admitted to the hospital, she would finish all conversations with doctors or nurses by telling them, “God bless you.”
By the standards of a society that measures people by what they can do or contribute, Leetsa’s life was unremarkable.
But Leetsa’s life was exceptional — simply because she existed. And in her own way, she made an offering of her existence to her Creator.
She may have drained the time, money, and patience of others. But her shortcomings, handicaps, and idiosyncrasies didn’t stop God from making good use of her. She was unapologetically herself, and — perhaps without even trying — became a tool with which God reached me. Through her, I learned to love beauty, to love creation, to love leisure, and to love the way I was made.
Leetsa’s offering to God may not be worth much according to society’s standards. Some may say her ways were mysterious, even insane. Jesus himself was no stranger to such criticism. But those who weren’t confined by the logic of this world were able to recognize the truth of that man. Leetsa saw it, too.