My Enduring and Incomparable Grandma Rita

Monday, July 14, 2014 | 2 Comment(s)

I have one remaining grandparent. I say that now facing down the fact that it is a truth about to be erased.  My incomparable Grandma Rita is in the waning moments of her raging river of a life, and while it will be cathartic, in time, to tell tales of her deeds and accomplishments.  I'm gonna take this moment to do it one more time, in life:

Grandma Rita was the only person in my immediate family growing up that smoked.  For those people that grew up in a time where smoking made you look "healthy" and "strong," it was a very gradual transition into stigmatization.  First there were pro-smoking billboards.  Then no smoking ads on TV.  Next, smoking may cause cancer.  It may be related to lung specific cancers.  Later, much later, those became facts.  And then, much later after that, they became facts that were accepted by the population and media as truths.  And like a frog put in a pot of lukewarm water that is slowly brought to a boil, until the bitter end, the stigma was never stronger than the addiction . . . until they were "hopelessly" addicted and had spent multiple decades inside that boiling pot.  Then they got the news it was killing them all along.

My Grandma Rita got the news it was killing her one day about 20 years ago.  All those cigarettes, which to me growing up i associated as part of her identity, had caused some damage to one of her lungs. Eventually, it would require surgery.

So you know what my Thundercat of a Grandma did.  My tough as rawhide Rita just fucking stopped smoking altogether.  That day.  No relapses.

While she was not one to keep her accomplishments hush hush, Gram said nothing about quitting.  Certainly never uttered any cliche "cold turkey" references.  Nonetheless, after 45 years of smoking as a routine, my Grandmother stomped her addiction as quickly and easily as one might smack a glow-in-the-dark Malarial mosquito headed for your forearm.  Splat, and its gone.  It made a much younger me wonder why so many people had come to speak to us in middle school about the difficulty of breaking free from addiction.  I mean, my Grandma did it over a weekend in the Berkshires.

My Gram's sculpture of Grover!
"She nailed it"
There are so many more tales to tell.  Too many to type through tears.  Thankfully, I gave this same challenge of capturing her greatness in writing a go about four years ago.  Enjoy.
- originally posted 8/25/10 -

Sometimes you don't get a dose of a reality check, you get a hammer full.  After my last post RE: my back pain, i received this comment:

I can identify with your mind and body issues. Don't give up
the fight! I' m not. Your 84 year old grandma Rita 

My grandmother, Rita, recently went in for a relatively safe operation, and. long story short, things went terribly awry.  Rita fought for her life the past month and went from "we hope she gets some oxygen in her blood" to "we hope she starts breathing on her own" to "rehabbing her as she walks the halls of the hospital."  This is not one of those "fight for your life" lead-ins to some tv story, this was real, and she soldiered through it.  It was, hope-building, incredibly emotional, and unbelievably inspiring.

For whatever reason (i have long since given up trying to control my first impulses) i thought that the post was a poignant joke from my brother.  Considering that my grandmother isn't really a "blog follower" and is working on regaining her fine motor skills, i don't think it was that unreasonable to think it wasn't actually her typing in to my blog.

I was wrong.  My mother, who has been steadfast at my grandmother's side and amazingly supportive, read the blog post to my grams, who dictated her response.  When i realized this, the enormity of the comment started to sink in.  She is in the middle of doing the seriously difficult walking of the walk in terms of committing to her life, and in deference to my grandma, i'm making a new blog rule.

If you are currently or have just finished fighting for your life, you get a top 5 list about you.  No questions asked.  You have to appreciate the things in life that are real.

Grams--these are for you.  Enjoy.

Top Five Grandma Rita Moments/Traits

1.  When i was a boy, i went to visit my grams in New York City -- where she has lived as long as I have known her.  I'm not sure if it was my first trip to NYC, but it was certainly one of them.  Two highlights of the trip included A) my Gram and her best friend taking me to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.  Not only had i not been on a ton of boats up to that point, but i still remember the sunny day, the smell of the water, and adventure of seeing that enormous lady o liberty.  I remember it as a wonderful day with my grandmother.  Simple and beautiful.  B) And i may be mixing young Matt NYC stories, but we went to a relatives birthday party at a fancy schmancy NYC restaurant that turned out to be kind of a family reunion.  Being little, i remember it as being a lot of older people who knew me, who i didn't know. What i DO remember is that i ended up with a crapload of helium filled balloons.  Like, a lot of them.  And we then proceeded to take a city bus back to my gram's place.  It was an ordeal.  A hilarious ordeal.

2.  Gram.  I know you're going to get to read this.  Please remember that at least one of these had to poke fun at you.   Here it comes.   One Hannukah, again, young Matt and brother, we received presents (as we always did) from grams.  As per tradition, we held off opening said presents until the holiday was in full swing.  Most years, gram went to Macy's and got my dad, my brother, and I all similar but different sweaters.  They were always tasteful and I didn't even need to be forced to wear them :)  This year, however, when my brother and I opened our gifts, what we received could only be described as, well, leather purses.  They were smallish rectangle purses of black leather that were longer than they were wide.  The leather tassels and one long arm strap really ruled out the other interpretations of what these bags might be.  Murses?  We hesitated, my mother's brother also has two kids, both girls, who are approximately the same ages as my brother and i, so we thought it was totally possible that the presents got switched when mailing.  I remember we made my mother call, "Hi mom . . . so what did you get the boys for Hannukah this year (she asking respectfully yet probing).  Handbags.  Ah ha.  All the rage in NYC?  Awesome.  thanks mom.  love you. byebye."

While man purses, murses.  may have been all the rage in NYC, in Western MA in the late 80s, that was still the kinda thing that could get your ass kicked.  But to be honest, the laughter that the whole family got from those purses made them one of the best gifts ever.

3. My grandmother gives it to me straight.  Always.  While this can be a difficult trait for many people, I love it.  When something sucks, she says it sucks.  When she is touched, you always know its genuine.  I feel that people generally present you with their own flavor of the truth, the unfortunate side-effect being that when things (let's say, aging, for example) start to transpire in a less rosy reality--i find myself caught off-guard.  I have never had that problem with my grandmother.  She tells me how it feels and while accepting the reality, she doesn't deny the experience of it.  Much like her comment on my blog, she keeps me grounded, prepared, without feeling sorry for myself.

4.  My grandmother is an incredible sculptor.  Over the past several years she has begun making figurines, about 10 inches tall out of clay.  There are academics, weightlifters, one with a dog, a couple -- she's done it all.  They are organic and they capture the essence of a person.  Her big showing will be at my brother's wedding in two weeks.  She has made all the centerpieces!!!  (i often picture my brother cracking the whip, pushing grandma to churn out more and more centerpieces.)  One of the themes of the wedding revolves around birds, and she has made clay bird centerpieces.  This is, hands down, her most refined and professional work to date.   They are incredible (i can't reveal a pic pre-wedding--no spoilers here).  Additionally, she has made, essentially, clay replicas of my brother and his bride to be that are their spitting images, holding hands.  This is her grand opening.  Her work will be featured prominently, and i know we will be thinking of her a lot.

5.  When i was just starting out living in NYC post college, i was unemployed and looking for a job for a number of months.  Not fun.  My grandma invited me to lunch in midtown and i accepted.   We went to a bar that had a side act that did an "Ol Blue Eyes" show.  The bar was worn, like it had been around, but classy enough that you thought it could be an after hours joint for movie stars.  The bartender comped our meals.  I was Rita Wortman's grandson, and in this bar, that definitely meant something.  And for a moment, i was pulled into my grandmother's world.  At 84 she still works (arranging buses of people wanting to come visit the city) so as not to get bored, and in this world of restaurants and acting -- Rita is a force.  Everyone treated her with the utmost respect and you could tell she had connections to everyone.  I was super proud, out of the misery of the job search, to be treated like a king, cause i was Rita's grandson.

I still am super proud.


  1. I love this post
    My only living Grandparent will be 101 in September
    she's awesome..sounds like you feel the same about yours

    1. She was a complicated woman, but he nice thing about being a grandkid is that you only get all the good stuff. I miss her.