Elsie Scott Rich - February 3,1923- February 23, 2013
Most of my friends have never met any of my family. That’s just the way it is when you live in a different state than everyone else. They can, however, tell how I feel about different family members from the stories I tell and, likely, how I tell them. They know for instance, that I admire my father and that he is to blame for my penchant for terrible jokes. They know I respect my cousin Mark, particularly when we start talking about law-enforcement and this pinko commie liberal doesn’t shy away from sticking up for cops when they deserve it.
I was messaging one of my friends about my grandmother dying, and her response was to ask, “What was she like? She was your favorite, wasn’t she?”
It was in having to formulate an answer to that question that, for the first time since getting the news of Grandma’s passing, I really started to cry. I mean, really. I spent about 30 minutes sobbing in the shower, writing this eulogy in my head, afraid to climb out lest I not have the strength to commit it to paper.
Because, yes, Grandma was my favorite.
My family moved to California when I was in first-grade. Before that we were in Michigan, where my mother’s people hailed from, but circumstances were such that we ended up moving across country to live near my father’s family. Up until then, Grandma Rich had been someone I had only seen a couple of times on holidays, but whom I already knew as the grandmother who made her own candy, who had a collie and had chickens and would fill me up with treats I had never had anywhere else. If you ever had her homemade chocolate covered cherries, you can never really like the kind that comes out of the box.
Our first real home in California was only a couple of streets away from the house where she and Grandpa lived. I was over there a lot all through elementary school. I’d sneak over whenever I was free. I remember once showing up in the middle of the day, coming in through the back past the barn, and accidentally catching her in her underwear when I went in through the patio door into her bedroom. I’m not sure which one of us was more shocked.
Truth was, I was a sad and angry child. Most people probably didn’t know it, and you probably wouldn’t believe it if you saw pictures of me back then. The kid with bright blonde hair and messed-up teeth who always looked like he was up to some mischief. And I probably was. But I was also developing a lifelong hobby of compartmentalizing the turmoil, of boxing up and hiding the dark clouds in my brain. I isolated myself and spent a lot of time in the hills in Agoura making up stories. I still have the same hobby, only now I put them between two covers and call them a “book.”
If I wasn’t out on my own, you’d probably find me at Grandma’s. The door was always open, and there was always something to do. If she knew I was sad and angry, she never let on. Maybe she did. Maybe that was her trick, providing me with the safe haven I so desperately needed. She’d let me help her cook, or we’d work together in the backyard. I followed her around while she fed her chickens. I also helped her when she slaughtered them for supper. When I was in 4th grade, she gave me my own chickens and let me take over her egg business. Every week, I’d go into the beauty parlor where she got her hair done and sell my dozens to the other old ladies getting their hair fixed.
Ironically, I think the only time the door turned out to be locked was the time I got chased down the street by someone’s goat. It caught me in the front yard. It was like a scene out of a horror movie, me fiddling with the door handle, finding it wouldn’t budge, while the mean ol’ billy kept ramming me. I don’t remember how I finally got away. Lucky for the goat Grandma wasn’t there, or he might have ended up meeting her axe.
Whenever they’d let me, I’d spend the night at her house. Usually I slept in the kitchen where the dog slept. They’d put up a baby gate up so the dog wouldn’t roam the house, and the collie and I would crawl in a sleeping bag and sleep on the tile floor.
Eventually, things changed. We moved away from Agoura. This just so happened to correspond with the onset of my adolescence. Like most adolescents, my own thing became more important to me. I didn’t call, I didn’t write, there was no sneaking through the hills and knocking on her back door. This didn’t necessarily change as the years went on. I became a comic book writer in Portland, Oregon, a job and a place that makes it too easy for adolescence to never end.
Yet, whenever I did make my way back to see my grandmother, it was like no time had passed for her. Even as the sad and angry child became the sad and angry teen and didn’t change all that much when he became a man--remaining, also, the clown-- Grandma was always happy to see me, always ready to welcome me back and pick up the conversation. When she took up painting, we’d spend my visits with her showing me her new work, telling me the techniques she had discovered, picking my brain about art. On every visit, I’d brace myself for the dreaded question, the one she’d ask every time. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I couldn’t quite convince her that when I said no, and I didn’t really want one, I meant it. (So, don’t get any funny ideas, ladies.) (You neither, fellas.)
Actually, funny about that. Grandma always sent her grandkids money on their birthdays and Christmas. It was always understood that this would end when we became adults or got married. When I was like 20 or so, she told me that she was making an exception for me and she would keep sending me money even though I was too old. I was Grandma’s boy. I think this went on through most of my 20s. Maybe she realized I was gaming the system, or maybe the youngest of her ten grandsons finally tied the knot and enough was enough. Perhaps that was my problem, I’d always be Grandma’s boy.
To close, I’ll tell you something I don’t think I ever got around to telling her. A couple of years ago, I wrote a comic book called You Have Killed Me. It was a private detective story set in the 1930s, my version of my favorite film noir and pulp fiction. I wrote a sequel, one we haven’t gotten around to having drawn, and in that second book, the hero gets a secretary. Because every private detective needs a good secretary to run his office. In tribute, I named her Elsie in tribute to my gradmother. Both because it’s a good, old-fashioned name, and because it’s the name of a woman you know you can always count on, who will always be there, and will keep being there no matter what.