Josephine Pitti Kelsay is my grandmother. Her presence looms larger in my life than any other. She still remains as strong an influence as she ever was, guiding my better judgement in learning, desires, and even dreams. Her memories, her laughter, her offbeat and lucid political commentary, and the cleanest dirty jokes you have ever heard continue to amaze and mystify me daily. She spoke better Spanish than anyone I have ever known. She was my first mentor and, along with my grandfather, Daniel Paul Kelsay, Sr., my primary parental figures and emotional support when I was growing up. What good I contribute to the universe, is a direct result of their influence. While we talked almost every day, and I will always talk to her, chatting, joking, debating, or empathising, she will not be able to quip back like she once did.
Stories and memories flood over me like a mountain river that chills with wonder, power and amazement: The song, La Vie En Rose, walking to school in Illinois and California in her quaint little dress, running through a watermelon patch with her baby brother, Johnny, meeting the janitor as a high school junior who would soon become my Gramps, the black widow spider hiding near the gas pedal on her way to work, the coffee pot “accidentally pouring over Gramps at breakfast,” and even the song title, Goodnight Irene that would become a favoured curse phrase. She was also the best damn publicist and campaign manager that my Gramps could ever wish for as a California county sheriff, remembering names and faces of constituents and colleagues that Gramps could seldom recall over the twenty-four years he held that post. Granny Josefina was and is a rare gift, few will ever take her place.
She was born Josephine, but I made a later habit of calling her Granny Josefina. I was and am her first grandchild. Her presence has been so strong and so influential that she naturally embodied this maternal essence at a very early age, so that, in a very real way, I always felt as close to her as if she were my mother, as though my aunt (even my mother) and two uncles were my older brothers and sister. I still do. We may have our disagreements, but I still love them dearly, and they are my family. The love and respect I have for her was always mixed with a slight dose of fear of ever getting out of line, of ever disappointing, of ever telling her anything that would elicit her disapproval or concern (I never called when I was sick). In retrospect, I never did anything that would cause me to fear her displeasure. Still, her respect and love was very important to me, and I treasured it more than a rare book. When I had my left ear pierced, I unsuccessfully tried to hide it. Granny had eyes everywhere, and she always knew everything. When I came home to work nights over college summers at Hershey’s in Oakdale, CA, she ventured into my room once to check on me and found me covering my ear in a half-asleep stupor. This amused her more than anything, and I feared nothing but her sharp but gentle wit.
But there were some things I never told Granny Josefina for many, many years. It took me decades to finally reveal that she told me there was no such thing as an in-the-flesh Santa Claus. And when Santa dissipated, so did the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Faerie. After one particular Thanksgiving dinner in the fifth grade (I was maybe twelve at this point), we gathered around the empty table with full stomachs to listen to her tell a story. I have always had an overwhelming belief in the powers of the Universe, so the other kids at school who continued to blurt out that there was no Santa were naturally losers and liars.
Granny Josefina was beginning to relate the story of my cousin John, all of eight or less the previous Christmas, as he was helping Auntie Anne to arrange Santa’s gifts and acting the little grownup that he always was. She began with, “It’s okay, Michael, you can stay,” after politely dismissing my younger sisters, “you don’t believe in Santa Claus any more.” It was as simple and devastating as that. But I was not prepared to hear this from my Granny Josefina, my Granny who had never lied to me, my Granny who had never disrespected me before or since (and, along with Gramps, respected me enough to teach me the meaning of the word by example). And so, I was unprepared to call her a liar and run to my room crying like a spoiled child. She simply had never lied to me as other grownups had because she was no ordinary grownup because she grew up, but she didn’t forget. She remembered what it was like to be a child, and she remembered her childhood vividly as I lived vicariously through her many colourful stories. I continue to adore Granny Josefina to this very day, but I didn’t tell her the Santa Claus story for more than twenty or thirty years. She loved to tell her stories, though, and I believe that I may have inherited my love of personal storytelling from her, but mine aren’t quite as colourful.
Granny Josefina could do anything, and I mean anything she set her mind to. She later described it as, “I never did anything that I knew I couldn’t do well.” There was little that she couldn’t do well. She dabbled in poetry her entire life but never decided to submit anything for publication. Until college, I learned most of my English grammar from her. I certainly inherited my love of books, literature, and writing from her. She took on jewellery making, cake baking, painting, and even bread making with a machine that she used twice and confessed to being bored. That was Granny Josefina. She took on projects like socialites change wardrobes with the seasons. When she enrolled in the cake decorating class, our house was inundated with the most elaborately decorated cakes for two weeks until she dropped the class, proving once again that she could do anything and do it well.
Later, when I moved to San Diego to attend San Diego State University, Granny Josefina and Gramps were semi-nomadic retirees spending winters in Mexico, Arizona, and sometimes Las Vegas to visit my Uncle Dan and his wife. San Diego wasn’t that far and I decided to visit for Thanksgiving and stay with my grandparents for the weekend. What I also decided to do, I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted to visit the Grand Canyon and being no genius with road maps, I deduced that the Grand Canyon was only two hours away from Las Vegas. It was five and a half. The morning after Thanksgiving, I was to wake at six, but Granny Josefina let me sleep until seven. She made me a rushed breakfast and asked me where I was headed for the day. I clumsily blurted out something about visiting Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. And so I was off, but I didn’t arrive at the Grand Canyon until after noon and I didn’t leave until 2. When I arrived later for dinner at Uncle Dan’s house, I found out that my retired-sheriff Gramps and Granny Josefina had called everywhere, even the morgue because I was nowhere to be found and I had not called (in the age before pagers or cell phones). I caught all kinds of hell that only Granny Josefina could get away with and found out that I was safer out of Las Vegas, and had they known, they would not have fretted so much.
I made the mistake of not calling only once more when I finally left California in April of 1994. Granny gave me two celebratory send-off pumpkin pies before I caught the Greyhound bus, travelling for three straight days until I arrived in Brunswick, GA to meet up with an old college friend who had moved back and start my life over from scratch on the East Coast. Ideally I wanted to become established with a job and all the rest before I called to give her the good news, but a month passed with no prospects and Mother’s Day was on the horizon. I couldn’t let that pass unnoticed, so I called and received a deserved earful. “Where the hell have you been and why haven’t you called?!” It was all from love, and I deserved it of course. I never again let that much time pass between phone calls. Once I did settle in on the East Coast, I realised that I would never live physically close to my Granny and Gramps ever again because I was never going to return to California except for rare visits. That was a solemn revelation that took a long time to become accustomed to.
So I called, and I called as often as I could. Once I moved to New York City and purchased a cell phone, I called even more. Over the last several years, I called almost every day for conversations ranging from her favourite music, another one of her stories, or those rare occasions when we ventured into politics. We did occasionally disagree, but that was only a part of the nuanced charm of our talks. They made me feel closer to Granny Josefina than actually living in California because I never would have made the time to visit, getting too caught up in the day to day mundane activities of life that are not as important as we would like to think. When she travelled to family for weeks at a time, I called. Much to his annoyance, I even called my uncle’s house whenever she was there, but she never seemed to mind. She was and is my Granny Josefina, my guiding light and, in many ways, my sometimes mentor.
She lived to be almost 96, and she treasured every minute of it, the highs as well as the challenges and the sometimes lows. She struggled like we all do, but this is why I have always aspired to her accomplishments in my own way when I grow up. She did what she wanted, and she did it with class, and when she passed from her shell, she fought the whole way, without fear. If her life and the lessons she taught have given me anything, it is that we should live with no regrets, never letting our memories become greater than our dreams. I aspire to that daily.
For those of you that are curious, a more fuller biography of Granny is available at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/modestobee/obituary.aspx?pid=158597245