Monday, September 8, 2014

A Grandmother's Tale

Over this past weekend, Sam and I wandered our way to Flagstaff, Arizona. Sam was participating in a mountain bike race, and there will be a report coming on that, but spending a few days in Arizona reminded me of some things that prompted a need to get some other thoughts out of my system. So, while this post is not in regard to bicycles, it was sparked by them in a manner of speaking, and I hope to find some relief or maybe comfort by getting it out of my mind and into a more tangible state. I never cease to be amazed by the small details which can bring about the most interesting of memories.

The last time I was in Arizona I was fourteen years old and visiting my aging grandparents in their respite-from-the-cold-Pennsylvania-winter home, located between Tempe and Mesa. It's incredible that despite the fact that both my grandparents passed away well over two decades ago, there are just certain memories that have stuck with me.
My grandmother pictured in a newspaper, illustrating how she made a "cookie tree."
My recollections of Arizona center mostly on the aforementioned region, including frequent trips into Phoenix to see the "big city" that wasn't all that large at the time.

I laugh when I think about my grandfather driving my younger brother and I into the city.  As he'd drive, his turn signal would click rhythmically through the entire trip, as he could never seem to remember it was on. He always drove at 35 mph, regardless of the sort of road he was traveling, which incensed drivers nearly as much as it does today.  He was always unfazed by what surrounded him on the roads, and I'm honestly not even certain he heard all of the honking and commotion around him on our drives. The car was a bubble of sorts, and he spoke to my younger brother and I as though we were sitting casually in the living room. He would ask us about our futures, how school was going and our grades, and he'd tell us stories of the farm back in Pennsylvania. We'd try to tell him that other people were honking, but he'd always respond with a "What?" or a "Hmm?" To this day, I don't know if he just had the greatest powers to ignore, or if he had no idea what was taking place all around him.

Their home, nestled in the southwestern part of the U.S., was my grandmothers' domain. Time spent with her was full of playing board or tile games and watching Wheel of Fortune. At the time, it was a somewhat newer game show on television, but it was one of my grandmother's favorites. She was so great at solving the puzzles long before the contestants were able to begin to form a possible answer. To this day, I cannot watch the show without thinking of her.

I remember the peach and turquoise southwestern prints that hung on the walls of their home. It was decorated so differently than their "real" home. Back in Pennsylvania, their farm house was decorated with turn-of-the-century pieces and items they'd picked up during their many travels abroad. My grandmother spoke four languages, not including English, and this skill had served them well on their many adventures overseas.

I recall the absence of the super-green, lush foliage I'd grown up with on the coast of California, and an abundance of rocks and desert/cactus plants in hers and the surrounding yards in Arizona.

I also have memories of her rising at 4am to start cooking meals for the day. A hot pot of oatmeal was inevitably sitting on the stove waiting for me when I woke, regardless of the home we were visiting. Mrs. Fields had nothing on my grandmother, and I'm convinced she was, without a doubt, the greatest cookie-maker ever to grace this earth.

She also taught me to crochet, despite my desperate attempts to escape such a task. She always told me that it was a good activity to learn for any young lady; It would keep my hands busy and my mind active.

I sent her letters regularly when we couldn't see each other. My entire youth I wrote to her at least a couple of times each month. Without fail, in the weeks that followed, I'd receive my letters back in the mail with her spelling and grammar corrections in red ink. I took offense to this for a long time, believing that she didn't appreciate that I wanted her to have something of me, something hand-written and from the heart. I often believed her "corrections" were her way of telling me I wasn't good enough. As years went by, I came to understand that this was simply her way of interacting with me and trying to help me learn something from her years of experience as an English teacher.
A portion of one of the very few letters I have left from my grandmother.
She wrote me letters too, even though I sometimes forget that part. She enjoyed updating me on all that was happening in her life, and I loved reading about the things that brought her joy or amusement.

My grandparents were quite old even when I was young. They were in their mid-40s when they had my father, and my parents were in their 30s when they had me, so the generation gap was palpable. Most grandparents are "old," but mine were of the age that I was never sure how long I'd have them around. Even without it being said, I knew they wouldn't be grandparents I'd have into adulthood, or that would be alive to see my children (if I'd had them). I tried to soak up every moment I was with them because I didn't see them as often as one would hope. Living most of the year almost 3,000 miles apart didn't allow for the kind of frequent visits kids enjoy with grandparents who live in the same region.

It didn't matter to me though. They were my grandparents and I loved being with them, particularly in my very young years.

Both grandparents were on the quiet side, my grandfather more so, or at least when it came to conversing with me. Generally, when he spoke to me it was a criticism of something I had done, was about to do, or was contemplating doing.

Neither understood my clothing choices or the fact that I had pierced ears (which was a huge issue to my grandfather in particular). How could they possibly have identified with anything I was doing or wearing or saying? God only knows how they'd react today after seeing my many tattoos.

They had lived through the Great Depression (with 4 children - my father wouldn't come along until later) and were accustomed to subdued, reasonable, and practical choices. They reused everything in a time long before recycling/reusing was part of anyone's vocabulary. It was just what they did, not something that was special, or "in," or "hip."

I was a coming-up-teenager who was struggling to have her own voice and identity recognized, and much as my parents attempted to convince me to "tone it down" around my grandparents, I was a quietly rebellious youth and chose to behave and wear what I would any other time. Some things don't change, I suppose.

Each of my grandparents had stories that fascinated me as a child, and that I hold on to dearly to this day. Most of the stories I recall though came from my grandmother. She was a fabulous story teller, weaving together thoughts that seemed incongruous, but that made her tales so much more memorable.

Despite her introverted demeanor, she would speak at various events, narrating allegories that she'd likely told more times than she could count. I still have newspaper clippings from some of her speeches, as she'd often make local news for her ability to provide motivation through her words. Long before the days of TED talks, motivational speakers, or other speaker's bureaus, grandma was the lady to hear. She was entertaining to young and old alike, and she could morph her tales to a specific audience like no other.

As I grew into more of a teenager and was nearing the end of high school, my grandfather passed away. He had been arguing with my father about financial matters (that seem so insignificant now) when we received news that he passed in his sleep during a hospital stay.

At the time, we couldn't afford to have our entire family travel to the funeral, so my father went alone. I was saddened by the news, and hoped that my grandmother would be able to make it on her own. Soon, we heard that she was moving in with one of her daughters, who also happens to be my favorite aunt. She lived just across the street from their home in Pennsylvania, so it would make for a fairly easy transition.

A few months later, my parents thought it wise for me to pay my grandmother a visit. She was not getting any younger and they wanted me to a spend a bit of time with her. I was reluctant to go as I was in my last year of high school and had so many activities taking place that seemed far more pressing. I had a job and didn't want to ask for time off either.

Begrudgingly, I made the trip back east. When I arrived, I found my grandmother to be physically in a similar state to the last time I'd seen her, but I could tell something was different. She was having difficulty moving around due to a broken hip, but my aunt was always gracious in doing whatever she could to help get her mother healed. My aunt would enter the room, smile on her face and words of encouragement dripping from her lips. I always appreciated that she was such a positive person.

As I sat with my grandmother one afternoon, she started to cry. She had never been particularly emotional, and I always thought of her as quite a tough individual, so to see her well up with emotion was odd. I, however, have never done well with crying people in that I am extremely sensitive to others emotions. Even in my selfish, teenage state, when her tears started to fall, my heart broke. She started to reminisce about the times she'd had with my grandfather and would trail off as she'd just get into a story. I wondered if she was losing her capacity to form sentences, or if she just didn't want to share times that had been so special between her and the person she'd loved for so many decades.

The last story she would ever share with me was not like the ones she'd told me in my younger years. This one was completely non-fiction, and as I sat wanting to be anywhere but where I was, she began her saga.

"I have never told anyone what I am about to tell you," she began. I'm sure I stared a bit in response, expecting that there was some sort of comical line impending. "I am serious," she reiterated.

She would start her story by telling me about the birth of her first daughter and how happy she was to have her. Soon thereafter she had two more children and they had their happy family of five. As the Great Depression was well underway, she found out that she was pregnant with child number four.

Knowing that they were struggling financially without the burden of an extra mouth, she was unsure she wanted to tell my grandfather about this new child that would be coming to their family soon. As she continued, she repeated that she didn't want to tell my grandfather that she was "with child." She feared that he wouldn't be able to handle the stress of such things, so she decided she was going to do everything in her power to lose the pregnancy.

At this point, she started to cry again. She relived to me all of the things she attempted to do to lose this child that she knew they couldn't afford. She would run up and down stairs as fast and hard as she could, she would punch herself in the stomach, hoping that it would cause a miscarriage, and, in short, she shared many things she had done that today would likely result in her being committed, jailed, or at bare minimum that would receive wide eyes and gasps from anyone hearing what she'd done.

I have to admit, I was in shock hearing such a story. This woman, who I believed to be one of the greatest people on earth, was telling me that she had tried to kill my aunt before she was even born.

I tried to fathom what life would've been like without my favorite aunt. She had always been the fun one at otherwise often boring family functions or reunions. She was one of the very few relatives of the 90-some-odd on my father's side of the family who would actually come to visit us. She was spunky and full of life.

My grandmother continued to speak with tears streaming down her cheeks. "I... I don't know how I could've done it." It was a statement, not a question. "I tried everything in my power to not have her come into this world, and now, as I sit here nearing the end of my own life, she is the one taking care of me. The one child I could not imagine having is the one here for me now. She is the strongest, kindest, and most understanding person I have known."

Now I was crying. To come to that realization that the very child she hadn't wanted, the one that she'd attempted to abort, the one that was now nursing her back to health in a most loving and caring manner, must have come as quite an ironic twist. How many years had she carried this story with her? How many sleepless nights must she have had while she mulled it over in her own mind? The sort of self-loathing ideas that must have run through her at times when she'd relive that span of time.

I both despise and love that this is the last story my grandmother would tell me. I don't particularly love that my final memory of her is one of a reenactment (of sorts) of her attempts to abort my aunt, but I appreciate the realness and perspective it gave me of her as a person. It also gave me an appreciation for humans and a capacity to understand that making mistakes is part of existence. No one gets to escape errors in judgment or behavior.  Last moments are no ones entire life, and no matter what we do, we really can't know when those final minutes will be on this earth. We have all done things we wish we could go back and change or revise or completely erase from time, but they are done and gone and already in the annals of history. We hope to learn our lessons, and we hope not to hurt anyone along the way, but not one of us is perfect. Maybe we take from those not-so-great moments an opportunity to learn something about ourselves or the future, or perhaps we can only view those instances as a part of the past.

I really miss my grandmother. I wish I could talk to her today and get her perspective on life and ideas in general. She lived nearly a century and saw so many things that I'm sure society is repeating now. I think she'd appreciate my love of bicycles, and she'd probably find it entirely amusing that I have a blog - full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes in my haste to get thoughts out of my head. I may have driven her crazy with the way I worded things, but I would think she'd see that her love of writing carried through a bit to me (and I can even make a decent cookie), so I'd hope she would know that a little piece of her lives on - even if it's in a package she didn't always approve of or believe to be the most proper of beings.

2 comments:

  1. What a powerful story. I am so glad that she shared it with you and that you shared it with us. It can be so hard to see the elderly as full and real people who lived their lives as we live ours, not knowing what we will become or where our decisions will lead us.

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