I am six years old today.
“Put your coloring books away,” says my mother. “Grandma is on her way over.”
I do as she says, but can’t help asking, “Why?”
There is a flash of emotion in her eyes that tells me I’ve just asked her a question she either cannot or will not answer. And even at my young age, I know that I have asked what I would later recognize as a ‘loaded’ question. Why, indeed? Why is she coming? For what purpose? Why do I have to put everything away for her to visit me? Why must the table be clean? Why won’t she sit down and color with me like Grandpa does?
She smiles at me, but it is not a happy smile. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t tell me what I want to know, because I no longer want to know the reasons. I see the pain my mother tries to hide and I vow to myself that where my grandmother is concerned, I’ll never ask that question of my mom again.
I know nothing of my grandmother’s parents. I know she had a brother and a sister, but all I know of her siblings was that they refused to care for her after their parents died, despite the fact that my grandmother was just a child. Custody was granted to my grandma’s aunt, who offered her money to go to an orphanage. After all, there was a depression on, and Auntie didn’t need another mouth to feed.
I am nine.
I watch my grandmother carefully as she stares me down across the table. Today is my birthday, and this visitation ritual is a yearly event. I am astute enough to know that she doesn’t know how to deal with children, but she is not astute enough to realize that I am mature beyond my years.
She pushes a small paper bag across the table to me. Inside, there is bound to be a set of flash cards or a book of Mad Libs. Whatever it is, it will be good for my brain. After all, if I’m going to make it in the world, I will have to be smart.
“When I was your age, I was an orphan,” she says in her gruff manner. “Nobody took care of me but ME.” She punctuates the sentiment with a sharp nod and points her thumb at herself emphatically.
I nod grimly. I know what she is telling me. From here on out, you’re on your own, kid.
She took care of herself from the time she was in the third grade until she married my grandpa. And even then, she probably was afraid to trust any part of herself to another human being. (So did Grandpa ‘take care of her’? It’s hard to say.) I do not know the specifics of her metamorphosis from street urchin to college graduate, and frankly, I don’t care. She survived a difficult set of circumstances without familial support. She eked out a living, though I’m not sure what she did to earn her money. She played women’s professional baseball during World War II, she became a teacher, and she became a wife.
After my mother was born, she and my grandfather separated. My mom has rarely talked about that time, though I know the things she experienced then affected (scarred would be a better term for it) her deeply. Eventually there was a reconciliation (which is somewhat astonishing because the grandma *I* know is particularly unforgiving), and *that* marks the beginning of my grandparents’ true marriage.
I am sick to death of adults who act as if I don’t know what’s going on around me. I am twelve years old (going on 32) and I have witnessed first hand what domestic violence means. My mother is finally getting divorced, and I am glad.
I walk out of my bedroom slowly, edging uncertainly down the hallway. I cannot identify the voices coming from outside and I’m not sure if my mother is safe. Slinking to the window, I peek through the curtain to see what the fuss is all about. There is a cold pit forming in my stomach because I know from experience that I may have to call the police.
I look cautiously through the glass and am both relieved and enraged to see that my grandma is here. The question I vowed never to ask my mother is swirling through my mind. Why? I can see the tension rolling off my mother in waves, and the coldness in my stomach hardens to steel when I hear what my grandma is saying.
“You need to stop this foolishness and go back to him,” she barks.
My mother takes a step back. It is an act of defiance I’ve never witnessed from her and it makes me want to cheer. Good for her, I think. If we go back, we’ll all be dead.
The silence following my mother’s declaration is deafening.
My grandmother turns on her heel and walks away.
It takes my mom a moment to gather herself. As I watch, she squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and walks with purpose back into our home. And again I feel both relieved and enraged.
Because I know what my mother has done. She has protected us.
And I know what my grandmother has done. She has disowned us.
Her legend is well-known in the town where I was raised, and despite the fact that I had no relationship with her, I was raised under her shadow. I excelled at sports, of course, because I was The Legend’s granddaughter. And I was a tough cookie, you see, because no female relation of The Legend would be so gauche as to display any outward sign of physical or emotional pain. Never mind that I was my own person, that I’d been raised under my own set of circumstances, or that I gave a flying fuck what anyone thought.
Although, in hind sight, the ‘flying fuck’ sentiment might have been a genetic flaw. My mother has the same attitude, so it’s definitely been passed down through the generations. I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder, though. I’ve just always wanted to be who I am, without the interference of others.
My grandmother despised the interference of others, particularly if those ‘others’ were of the male persuasion. So she set about fighting for equality in ways she understood. She was instrumental, for instance, in the establishment and execution of Title IX.
Grandma was eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for her contribution to the sport during World War II. She despised “that stupid movie with Madonna” though, because it did not remotely do justice to the women who played in her league. But then, nothing ever did justice to much of anything as far as she was concerned. After all, she was orphaned at nine and had been “on her own” ever since. (Oh, you’ve already heard that, have you? Me too. About a thousand times.)
So I grew up, and I grew weary. I grew weary of hearing what a great teacher/mentor/coach/athlete she was, because none of that mattered to me. All I knew was what a lousy mother/grandmother she was. I grew weary of being weary though, and after a while I grew apathetic and then completely numb.
I am 32.
My weekly phone chats with my mom are starting to include tidbits about *her* mom. I don’t know who extended the olive branch first, but over the past year their visits have become more regular. They are establishing a relationship. They are, if not forgiving, at least accepting the past. They are moving forward. I am glad for my mother because I cherish the relationship between the two of us and I know she’s never had that with her own mom. So I smile, I nod, I listen. I listen to what is being said. I took your grandmother out for breakfast this morning. And I listen to what is *not* being said. We have finally reached a point where we’re comfortable enough with one another to share time, space, and conversation over a meal.
I know my grandmother is aging. I will likely never have any kind of relationship with her and that is okay with me. Two way streets are hard to pave when there are 3,000 miles and 20 years of silence between us. Such streets are even harder to pave when neither party is interested in investing in black top. But my mother and grandmother are developing their own road. It is made largely of bricks and gravel, I think. It’s a rough road to travel. But it is a road nonetheless. And I wish my mom well on her journey.
“I love you mom,” I say into the receiver. “And I cherish my relationship with you.”
“I love you too, honey,” she replies. “And the feeling is mutual.”
“I hope you can buy back some of the time that’s been lost,” I tell her. I keep my voice neutrally encouraging. “You deserve to have a relationship with your mom.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I just don’t know.”
I’ve had several flashes of insight about my grandmother over the past several years. I’ve long seen her as a cold woman, unemotional, and distinctly non-maternal. But in fairness, I have to admit she was a product of her times.
She never really got to be a child. Is that why she could not relate to her grandchildren? She knew what it meant to be alone, and perhaps her defense against emotional pain was to alienate others and keep herself alone. She struggled for independence from a very young age, so maybe that’s why she placed such high value on independence in others. She got the world to bend to her will and pulled herself up by her bootstraps during a time when it was every man/woman/child for themselves. Therefore, she expected everyone to bend to her will and did not understand or tolerate defiance. Not even from her adult children. She also did not offer support. She never pulled her punches because nobody ever pulled them for her. She severed ties easily, but perhaps that’s because she never got past being a scared, lonely, nine-year-old orphan whose family severed ties with her rather than keep her around as ‘dead weight’.
I will probably never understand her, but I can attempt to understand the circumstances in which she was raised, because those circumstances influenced her life choices. (Obviously, those life choices have both directly and indirectly influenced me.)
And regardless of the fact that parenting was not her strong suit, I will always thank her for giving me my mother, who is, in a word, amazing.
I enter through the sliding door and walk to where my phone is charging. I see I have missed a call from my mom, and listen to the message she’s left.
My mother’s recorded voice is sadly matter-of-fact. “Your grandma died at home today. I’m on my way over there now. I’ll call you again when I know more.”
And so I wait. And while I wait, I contemplate…
Where grandma is concerned, will either of us ever really know more?