April 06, 2005

My grandmother, my mother's mother, meant the world to me growing-up. She was the only one who made time for me; the key that was frequently misplaced and sought only when needed. I was the first of six granddaughters to come and everyone told her that I looked just like her. I was the exact opposite of my darker exotic mother. It took my body changing to that of a woman for any resemblance of my mother to surface. I was a curly-haired, fair skinned, strawberry blond, dimple cheeked, blue-eyed girl contrasted against my mother's olive skin, milk chocolate brown eyes, and dark brown hair. I once asked my mother if I was adopted, the difference between us being so striking even to my young, observant eyes. She snorted, shifted the gear, and said, without even looking my direction, "Why would I adopt a child when I was 20 years old?" Her tone answered the depth of the question far more accurately than her words.

When a package arrived with the familiar scripty, curly writing of Grandmother, I couldn't contain my excitement. Sometimes her thought expressed itself in a card, a money order enclosed along with the admonition to "Buy Whatever I Wanted." It was tangible proof that somewhere, someone had been thinking of me; the glory of being thought enough of to show recognition. She lived in Washington, D.C., a fact I proudly proclaimed anytime the city was mentioned. The nation's capital held the Smithsonian, the presidential memorials, the President of the United States, and my grandmother. I was convinced further of her importance when I learned that she lived where only the most important people in the country did.

Early in my freshman year of high school, my mother's hushed voice talking on the phone drew me to listen under her door. I heard only the words "mother" and "sick" but I knew that something was dreadfully wrong. We found out it was Colon Cancer that had metastasized to other organs, but she wouldn't fight it. She had known a long time that her body was ravaging itself. Only when she couldn't get out of bed to walk did she ask someone for help. My aunt went to care for her, but as they had too many deeply rooted and unresolved issues, it overwhelmed them both. Finally, that same summer, my mother went to D.C. to bring her mother to home to die. I had by then left my mother's house, our tempers having become far too violent. I had grown big enough to strike back, but only in words and provocation. I could never hit my mother, although she lacked the same inhibition.

There have been many things for which I have resented my mother, but when I saw her do this, when I saw her tenderly and patiently care for the withering body of my grandmother, saw her demand that others treat her with respect and dignity, it profoundly touched me. It showed me the capacity that she could somehow muster and it gave me both relief and hope.

I was still a teenager, self-absorbed as any, and so when my birthday had come and passed, and I had received nothing from Grandmother, I asked her about it on one of our few telephone calls. Several days later a note arrived with a twenty dollar bill folded inside. I could hardly read the decrepitly scratched words. I was torn between planning how I could spend the money and the obvious wasting away of my lovely Grandmother.

She would die mid-August, a phone call telling me so. My mother who had never really known me, again, misjudged me and wouldn't allow me to attend to the funeral, withholding the opportunity for me to grieve with others who knew and loved her. It was a lonely and bitter grieving as the only words that I heard were the jejune and general from those who didn't know her from any other old woman.

I found out later, while helping my mother pack to move, that Grandmother was cremated. Behind some LP's that mother directed me to throw to the floor, was an urn. I knew immediately what it was, who it contained. I paused and reached across the shelf. My fingers graced the edge; I couldn't reach it. The irony and my anger overwhelmed me. Mother has never been patient with those she loved and nagged for me to continue. One last effort on my toes, and my hand grasped my Grandmother's remains. I turned and handed it to my mother. She immediately began to justify, "I thought it would weird you out." Like so many times before, my mother demonstrated how much she didn't know me and ,again, had underestimated. "It was Grandmother's wish. She had wanted to have her ashes scattered over the hometown of her youth." I only recalled my mother always wanting to be cremated. It didn't really matter. I found myself, at 18, feeling like a small child who's hand had slipped from her mother's in a crowded market.

It was known, understood among her daughters, that Grandmother was going to die. She had refused treatment and was beyond it anyway. I imagine that when people choose this route- to pretend they aren't desperately ill- that while riding the subway, the bus, or navigating the maze of office cubicles, that someone must hear the body screaming, begging for relief; maybe they just don't know from where it is coming. The same aunt who had gone to care for her told me that she had wanted to die, had always wanted to die. She spent years being depressed. It was a confusing thing to hear. As a diagnosis told a patient in medical terminology: I required more simple definition. I was growing old enough for the women in my family to begin to share with me my Grandmother as a fragile human, tired, disappointed, debaucherous, embarrassing. I couldn't handle it. I wasn't yet ready to pull her from the sweet aspic of my memory.

Mother once tried to tell me about the mother of her childhood but I refused to hear. Later, when she ventured there again, I didn't rebuff. By then I had been a mother three times over and knew the requirements to be a good one were draining. I knew that listening was the key to knowing the ingredients that were the making of my own mother. It was hard. When she finished, tears had salted my mouth and stained my face. I placed my hand on my mother's and told her that I wish I could been her mommy. I would have loved the little brown-eyed girl with her father's smile. I would have worked my ass off to make sure she never doubted the love of her mother. Mother didn't recoil, but neither did she respond. Though it was obvious she wasn't ungrateful, it was awkward for her. Sensing it, I threw out something to make her laugh instead. She rose, assuaged, resolute for a quick withdrawal, and announced it was time to leave for dinner.

It was French and we both had dessert and coffee, and returned home to our books in bed; different women but inhabited by the blood of the same woman who by we were so affected. My light was off before hers, but sleep came to relieve my watch far into the night. I would wonder how my mothering was going to mold my own daughters. Would they walk away from my arms secure in themselves, in knowledge of who I really am, who they really are, and be able to live a life fraught with love and balance? It remains to be seen but, for once in several generations, I believe the odds are in their favor.

Posted by Rae at April 6, 2005 08:21 AM | TrackBack

I've often wondered what kind of mother I would be if I had kids. The fact that I cannot say with certainty that I would be better than my own is one of the biggest reasons I never had children with my first husband.

Posted by: Joan at April 6, 2005 11:56 AM

Oh Rae, that just pains to read. I marvel at the mother you are every time you share one of these deep hurts.

Posted by: Greg Hammond at April 6, 2005 01:03 PM

Rae, Rae, Rae,

That blog made me want to call my mom and tell her how much I love her! I love reading your writing!

Posted by: Hannah at April 6, 2005 03:04 PM

Hannah- hey lady :D Thanks for commenting. And yes, please call your mom; I know it would be such a sweet thing for her to treasure hearing your praise for her.

Awww, thank you, too.

Posted by: Rae at April 6, 2005 05:27 PM

Oh my friend. I have heard this story, and yet it still brings tears to my eyes. And I feel the emphathy that you had for your mother, for you, and wish I could have been your mother and could have provided the nurturing that every child needs to feel from at least one parent. You are an amazing woman. You are like a beautiful phoenix that was reborn out of the ashes of your childhood.

PS... Thanks for your encouragement and support today.

Posted by: Elizabeth at April 6, 2005 09:09 PM
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