In My Grandmother’s Wake

Melissa Hart is the author of a memoir, "The Assault of Laughter" (Windstorm, 2005). She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

My grandmother discovered Oxnard’s Casa Sirena when I was 12. She reserved a room each December to watch the Parade of Lights from her balcony overlooking the Channel Islands Harbor. She’d ride Amtrak first-class from Monterey to vacation far from our neighborhood, which was newly fraught with gunshots and graffiti.

“I hate seeing poor people,” she said. “Come watch the parade from my hotel.”

Long before grandma began her tradition, my mother had bundled my siblings and me in faux-down jackets and stocking caps to watch the parade from Oxnard’s Silverstrand Beach. We huddled on the cement breakwater and waited, shivering, for boats to emerge from the darkness.

In the 1970s, the Parade of Lights was small. A few sailboat owners wrapped lights around their masts and played Christmas carols through eight-tracks. We sat with a handful of neighbors. The adults passed around a flask, and my mother poured hot chocolate for the children.


I yearned for those nights along the breakwater--saltwater lapping, wind stinging my ears--after grandma discovered the pleasure of watching the parade from her heated hotel balcony. I never felt at home at Casa Sirena, and usually entered her room’s foyer to find my grandmother tipsy on boxed Chablis.

“Come in!” she’d cry. “Here’s a boat decorated with Smurfs!” She’d sway in her blue kimono, hair newly dyed red for the occasion.

Oxnard in the 1980s suffered an identity crisis. Gracelessly named and stuck between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the city struggled to shed its farm-town image and remake itself as a tour de force of tourism. The gap between rich and poor grew as mansions crowded the marina and poor children turned to crime.

Wealthy families, wanting a part in the parade, began to charter boats and decorate them with cartoon cutouts. Under ropes of lights, they danced and drank, blasting tunes by Alvin and the Chipmunks. My grandmother cheered. “Listen! They’re playing ‘Jingle Cats,’ ” she cried as a boat blared a song meowed instead of sung.

My mother was less enthusiastic. She regarded the parade’s harbinger--a helicopter toting a brightly lighted Santa Claus figure whose waving red mitten blinked on and off--with suspicion. A computerized recording blared “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in a dreary monotone.This flashy bemittened Santa, blinking a tedious greeting like an exhausted parade princess, left nothing to the imagination. Santa was a bunch of lights and noise. That was all.

But my grandmother loved it. In deference to her age, we forsook the breakwater to congregate on her balcony. Only once did I balk. It was the year she decided to move with my great-grandmother, Grandmary, from Monterey to the Ojai Valley, where I was living. “Grandmary’s 94,” she told me. “I need help taking care of her.” But my great-grandmother would die of heart failure just four days before that year’s Parade of Lights. I rushed over to my grandmother’s new house to find paramedics carrying Grandmary’s body out on a stretcher.

“Pity she’s missing the parade,” my grandmother said.

My mother and I exchanged incredulous looks. “You’re going?”

Grandma raised her eyebrows, penciled red to match her hair, and clucked at my tears. “Our hotel suite is reserved. Why shouldn’t I go?”

My soul longed for black crepe, for mournful family meals. Instead, four nights later, I stumbled into a hotel room, glowering as grandma raised her wineglass. “The first boat had a 20-foot Cat in the Hat!”

I fled into her bedroom and sobbed for the loss of my great-grandmother. Never mind that Grandmary herself had loved a good party; I hated my grandmother for taking pleasure in the parade. Grandmary was dead, and yachts decked out with Scooby Doo offended both eyes and ears with their tiresome renditions of “Winter Wonderland.”

I crept out of the bedroom as grandma walked into the kitchen to refill her glass. She didn’t see me in the shadows, but I recognized the desperation clouding her face. Then she glimpsed me and grinned. “Join the party, honey!”

How could I know that she’d recently discovered blood where there shouldn’t have been blood, that her abdomen writhed with cramps although she’d been postmenopausal for 20 years? How could I know that she understood this parade to be her last?

As a wealthy woman, my grandmother could afford to look on the sunny side of life. The phrase “It’s all good” burst into the pop-culture lexicon after her death. Had it emerged during her lifetime, she would have embraced it. Maybe my resentment grew from the ease in which she lived (thanks to a lavish inheritance) and her ability to block those truths that didn’t serve her.

Last December, I returned to Silverstrand Beach for the 39th Parade of Lights. Crowds carted propane heaters, stereos and six-packs across the sand. The breakwater teemed with spectators. Across the harbor, rectangles of light spilled from Casa Sirena, shadowy silhouettes dancing between their frames. I’d brought a flask, but no amount of the spirit could warm me.

Nostalgia seldom serves us well. The Buddhists sum up life’s impermanence with the phrase, “Not always so.” Caroling cats are replaced with Harry Potter. Children become adults. What once was the mere suggestion of mortality blinks on and off, impossible to ignore. The trick lies in celebrating the present.

These days, I live in Oregon. My dogs and I sometimes visit a beachside hotel in Yachats. During one midnight walk, I glanced at my hotel--15 glass doors overlooking the Pacific. Some were curtained, others illuminated in rows of theatrical tableaux. In a rectangle of light on the second floor, I could see an elderly woman in a blue kimono. She raised a wineglass to her lips. I watched, hoping the stranger’s vague face would sharpen into the ruddy curves of my grandmother, who despite her love of parties never had a wake.

And so, from that Oregon beach, I walked into my room and poured Chablis, then opened my curtains to welcome the stars sparkling above the ocean like a million festive lights.