My father is in his hometown, visiting my grandmother, who is in the hospital after a massive stroke.
My grandmother is 89. My grandfather died about a year and a half ago. I knew she would go downhill fast after we lost him. It’s strange, because they seemed so old to me when I was a child, and for years after that they seemed exactly the same. Only in the last few years—since I became a parent, I realize as I’m writing this—they got noticeably slower and feebler, but they still managed to take care of themselves. Until they couldn’t take care of him, and now it looks like she can’t be independent any more, either.
Independence is a trait I associate with both of them. (Along with neatness and stubbornness.) Taking that away is like taking away the person I know.
My relationship with my grandmother is not a typical grandmother-granddaughter relationship. She is just not a grandmotherly type. (I don’t remember her ever cuddling with me or holding me on her lap, for example.) The most typical grandma-type thing she does is to try to convince you to eat more. It was always tempting, since she and my grandfather were both excellent cooks.
She loves to argue, to analyze, to settle the issue, to win. My father says she could argue with a fencepost. If she were a young woman today, she would probably become a lawyer. She would have been good at it. Nothing gets past her. I am guessing, but it seems that from a young age she burned with ambition to get an education, to be somebody more than a country bumpkin. She has a lot of pride. Since she was a young woman—a religious young woman—in the 1930s, she didn’t go to the big city to make her mark. She became a schoolteacher, married a man who was a country preacher like her father, started a family, and later held a county office which I can’t remember the name of, a job she loved and resented leaving when her husband took a church in a bigger town. She must have felt stifled and thwarted. All that ambition and energy tied up in being a homemaker and a pastor’s wife. It’s a wonder any of the people she bent her will on survived.
But they did. My father and my uncle became successful in their professions. They did not disappoint her or become estranged from her. They love her but in a different way than they loved their father. I love her the same way. I admire her, respect her for her goodness—for she is a good woman—but she is not restful. As I said to my mother today, my grandmother is complicated.
My grandmother’s story is one I will never fully understand. Not least because she is determined not to look at the past or herself in any way that would conflict with the way she has decided things have to be.
I’ve never forgotten that when I was reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time, she railed against the “immorality” in the book and the way the preacher was portrayed. “It was lies, all lies,” she complained. And I’ve never forgotten the way my father, by asking seemingly innocuous questions, extracted the truth from her: that her own family had lived like the Joads, as migrant farm workers who picked fruit and slept in empty chicken coops, and that her shame about these things was the real source of her indignation about the book. She disliked it not because Steinbeck had lied about the Dust Bowl experience, but because he had told the truth and she couldn’t admit it to herself.
At this point in the relationship, I can’t grieve what I didn’t have from my grandmother. I suppose in some ways I am more like her than I want to admit. (It was a revelation to me when my dad told me during my postpartum depression that my grandmother had had panic attacks for several years and took Valium during that time.) She did not have the resources that I have. She did the best she could—she took being a parent seriously, she believed that what she taught her children would impact them for eternity. Her world was black and white and she lived accordingly.
And now my prayer is that she will find peace, if not in this life, then in the next.