My grandmother passed away Thursday. She was 85 years old but had left us years earlier, if only in her mind. My last memory of her was a visit at the nursing home. She didn’t remember who I was. That’s a rather unsatisfying memory for someone who can remember spending special moments alone with her when I was a young girl.
Searching back a little further, I can remember the last time she came to a family function at my dad’s house. She was frail and confused. Her face lit up with joy as she leaned forward to tell me a secret. “I’ve found this great new thing,” she confided. Looking down, I saw her patting the pocket of her pants. As if telling me about an incredible scientific discovery, she continued, “They call them pockets, and… you can put stuff in them.”
I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. That was a problem we all had there near the end of her cognizant time. We never quite knew if she was truly delusional or if she was playing us.
I can’t say for sure, but I believe that of all the grandchildren, I perhaps had the closest relationship with her. That could just be egocentric on my part, I will admit. I’ve never been very good at being aware of what’s going on in other people’s lives.
Grandma had three children and five grandchildren. Four of the grandchildren through my dad and one through my uncle, who moved across the country when his daughter was still a baby. My aunt, a wonderful woman, a librarian who gave me autographed books for presents, never had children and predeceased her mother a decade ago. I’m fairly certain that none of my brothers ever hung out at her house, just them and her. I did.
There was a wall at one end of the living room/dining room that was mirrored tile. The dining table sat in front of it. Some of my earliest memories at that house involved the extended family, including my uncle, sitting at the table, playing Uno. My dad was very competitive and my uncle liked to chide him. Sometimes we’d strategically play Reverse cards, just so Dad never got a turn.
My dad’s family was always a gaming family. Grandma had some wonderful old games. I loved going to her house to play them. One involved wooden blocks and a wrecking ball of sorts that you used to knock down the blocks. Another was a pumped-up version of hangman. They were stored in a little cabinet near the bathroom.
I can’t remember if I ever spent the night at Grandma’s house. I do remember spending time with just her, sitting at that table, playing games and talking. To hear her tell it, she had not had a particularly happy life prior to meeting my grandfather, a man I never met because he died long before I was born. Her stories of mistreatment were fantastical, enough so that, looking back as an adult, I am uncertain whether to believe them.
How much her husband loved her was always a strong component of the tales. He adored her and treated her like a princess. When he’d return from being out-of-town and the children would clamor for gifts, he always told them that she came first. He would hug and gift her before turning to them. Or so the story goes.
It doesn’t matter to me whether the stories are true. What matters is the memory of sitting there and listening to them. We loved our private time. We would conspiratorially talk about running away together or hiding me in the closet when it was time for dad to come pick me up. We had something special there for a while.
Teenage years change a person and I guess I became too busy for Grandma. Once I had the means to drive myself, I no longer seemed to find the time or desire. Looking back, I think Grandma was in many ways like a child. So perhaps our connection split when I ceased to be one myself. I don’t know.
My husband and I used to go to her house each year when I discovered she wasn’t setting up her Christmas tree. He would setup the tree and then go to sleep in a chair while Grandma and I decorated it and visited. It wasn’t the same as when I was a child, but I think the visits were meaningful to her.
Still, regrets and mistakes are difficult to forget. Sometimes we think we’ve dealt with them. We think we’ve put them away, moved on. We maybe even think we’ve forgiven ourselves. And then something happens that makes us face them again. How many wounds can we hide in ourselves? Hide even from ourselves?
I got married at 18. We went to the courthouse, without telling anyone. My mom found out, so she and my step-dad were there. But almost no one else knew beforehand. That means that in the days to follow, we had to call all of our extended family to tell them. To say it wasn’t easy for me is putting it mildly.
We sat beside each other, often holding hands, and took turns. He would call someone and they would respond warmly and congratulate him. I’d call someone and they would respond with silence or admonition. As the calls went on, I sank lower and lower and lower. I didn’t want to call anyone else. So once I had contacted all the people I was likely to encounter, I stopped. I knew there were two more people I should call, but I couldn’t pick up the phone anymore.
One of those was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, another wonderful woman who I spent time with as a child. The other was my paternal grandmother. I loved both women so much but wanted to avoid more abuse, not that either was likely to give me any. I thought maybe I’d call them later, when I wasn’t so down. I never did.
Grandma found out I was married when she saw a church newsletter that listed my rather unique first name with a new last name as having a birthday. She knew my birthday and she knew my name. And now she knew I was married. And that I hadn’t told her. I can still hear the hurt in her voice. If she had ever wondered whether we still had that special connection, she knew then that we did not.
Regrets. And reminders. We will bury her on Monday, January 7th. My 20th wedding anniversary. Regrets and reminders, what a bittersweet day that will be.