When you are a little girl, you really know very little about the adults in your life. Sure, you’ve got the basic information, the fun stories, the logistics of where and how they grew up. But there is so much that we keep from our children. Add to that veil of secrecy one more generation and sadly, most of us don’t really come to know and appreciate our grandparents until they are leaving us.
This is how I remember my maternal grandmother…
Laughing (often at something inappropriate), with family, enjoying life. She loved to bake and made my brother and I milk pies with dough scraps. She always had miniature dixie cups and semi-sweet morsels in her house, and frequently filled the former with the latter, sending us happily on our way with our treasure. She got angry when she played cards, usually with my grandfather and uncle. She was in love with Kenny Rogers and had he shown up on her farm she would have gladly left with him. She rarely sat down. She seemed to storm around making things appear from thin air like neatly hemmed pants, elaborate meals, or summer picnics. She once took a look at my torn penny loafers and swiftly produced a giant leather needle, somehow jamming it through two layers of leather and sewing the shoes back together like she was sewing a button on a shirt. They never came apart again.
I knew that she worked in a clothing factory, but here were the facts surrounding her job as I knew them: she worked with my friends’ grandmothers so I had to be careful what I told her because it would circulate through the factory, she occasionally worked on Oscar de la Renta because she recognized the label on my Barbie’s fanciest dresses, and she took cassette tapes of me playing the piano for all of the ladies to listen to while they worked. That is all that I knew of the world where she spent most of her time.
It wasn’t until both of my grandparents were gone and we were going through their house that I found this in her things:
And it wasn’t until much later that I learned through my mother from the women in town that my grandmother continued to work even as she was losing her sight to diabetes, the other women in the line removing and fixing any stitches that needed attention rather than get her in trouble. She had a miserable work life yet stayed there until the very end when diabetes made it impossible for her to survive on her own, let alone work.
I began to really get to know my grandmother after she began having strokes when I was in college and family began sharing stories. When I was pregnant with my daughter and terribly ill, my grandfather shared that they lost a child at five months gestation and with tears in his eyes he told me he was scared he was going to lose his wife that night. I understood why he hugged me so hard, my sick body frail and tired. And I understood why he was unhappy when I became pregnant and sick again.
I also heard more stories about my grandmother’s childhood, the oldest of five, left to care for the younger siblings while her mom rested for days with “headaches,” her father passing away at a far too young age. My grandfather told me about the day her youngest brother, Jimmy, was killed when the horse pulling the hay cart he was on jerked forward, throwing him off the back and onto the rocky soil. My grandmother was only seventeen and in a moment the baby she had cared for for nine years was instantly gone.
I watch the women around me, many of us mothers, most of us working in some capacity or another beyond parenting, and I see the stress on our faces. I feel the anxiety, the sense of being overwhelmed rising to the point of panic, paralyzing many of us some evenings as we try to sleep.
Then I picture my grandmother and she is laughing, sneaking candy from my grandfather’s gum drop jar, asking me to rub lotion on her cracked elbows. Yes, she is tired. But she is content. When the weekend comes she will load up the van and she’ll be off to a campsite to enjoy the cool relief of summer nights in the Pennsylvania mountains. When a friend stops by unexpectedly she will invite them in and within ten minutes have food on the table in front of them.
How is this memory of my grandmother possible with all that I know now?
Because here is what she did not do, not for even a second:
She never once compared herself to the women around her. She lived her life, not theirs.
She raised healthy and happy kids, not children with social calendars and shelves for the trophies she spent her weekends chasing.
She didn’t check email or post a cleaning schedule she found online or fret about incomplete scrapbook pages or wonder if she should be doing more to save the trees, the animals, the world. She was busy saving herself and all of the people around her and that was good enough.
The grandmother that I remember has been gone completely since I was in graduate school, and even though she lived to be there for my wedding and the birth of my children, she was not really present for those milestones. But I can still hear her laughter and feel her strong presence when she entered – no stormed into – a room.