She Was the Only Grandma I Knew
Both of my grandfathers passed away by the time I was five. I have a single memory of one of them, while only sensations and shadows remain of the other. I’ve managed to piece together lazy character sketches of both of them by sifting through faded Kodachromes and filtering details from stories that were selected by my parents to punctuate post-production narratives of their own childhoods.
The depth and truth of these men are lost somewhere in the folds.
My grandfathers will always exist to me in grayscale. I know they were blue-collar men. Laborers. They were weathered men with corners. They ate a hearty helping of stoic resignation with each thrifty meal and retired to their upholstered thrones at the end of each carbon-copy, faded blue-jean day.
My paternal grandmother died when I was 28, but I had not seen her since my high school graduation at 17, when she appeared, like an apparition, for an obligatory photo and then vanished again, most likely ushered into a running car and whisked away to avoid exacerbating her perpetually frail condition.
Mary was her name.
My memories of her, in contrast to those of my grandfathers, are in color. Blue and white, to be specific. Less of a person than a collection of charms, Mary was a soft, quiet woman. I remember writing on her paper skin with my tiny hands when she would hug me. Her veins were electric blue, of course, to match her house.
It was a Prarie-style structure situated just off the main Grand Avenue. One day in high school I was driving with three friends and we passed her little side street. One of them derided, “What kind of person would paint their house that shade of blue???”
They thought I was joking, even as I circled the block and parked in the gravel drive. We ascended the porch at dusk and they watched me intently, wondering how far I would take the joke, as I was prone to taking things too far.
When my grandma answered — several minutes later, because Grandma moved very, very slowly— I smiled and kissed her. I told her that my friends were admiring her house and wondered who lived there. She laughed, squeezed my hand, and waved me on.
That kind of person.
I remember her cats and how she would let them outside, even in the winter, through her screened in back porch. I remember her walk-in pantry, delineated with a flowered curtain, that never held anything I wanted to eat and the dresser in her bedroom with the circle mirror — a design I later recognized in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I remember the bag of tiny, plastic animal toys she kept in the closet for her grandchildren and how cold it was to get out of her clawfoot tub when my dad lived with her immediately following my parents’ divorce.
Most of all, I remember her white hair. Not gray and wiry, like typical hair when it runs out of pigment. It was soft and thin and when we visited at Christmas, I marveled at how it matched both the snow on the ground and the clouds in the sky. One of her sons inherited that gene and he went from all-brown to all-white in a span just a couple of years in his early 40’s.
The 4–5 silvery grays sprouting at my temples are a disappointing legacy.
I still have hope that maybe I got the gene, too. Maybe one of these days I’ll wake up with clouds in my hair.
I already live in a blue house.
But Mary is not the grandma I knew.
The grandma I knew was Jackie, my mom’s mom. She died more than 5, but less than 10 years ago. She had a cat, too. She also kept weapons: a gun in her nightstand and a tongue made of razors. My mom’s mom was a collector of Native American jewelry and VHS documentaries that were always fastidiously rewound. Jackie reveled in her grandchildren and took yearly cruises with her oldest of four daughters.
I have 30 years of memories of her in, and out, of my life. She was in her 80’s when she passed.
And I don’t know why my mom didn’t cry.
After a 3-day vigil — just my mom and I at Jackie’s bedside in a hospice home which backed to a chain grocery store and a nail salon — My grandma died holding my hand, not my mom’s. She finally let go when my mom got up to ask the nurse to change the sheets.
My mom stood at the door while I kissed my grandma’s forehead and said one more good-bye. The edge in my mom’s voice remained, even as she made the calls.
Jackie was the last of my grandparents. The only one I knew.
There was a thread of neglect that ran through my mom’s family. I don’t know the details because no one would ever talk about it. Passive aggressiveness and secrets were their ancestral currency.
What I do know is that a kind word about my grandma never passed my mother’s lips and the same went for my grandma about her surrogate mother: her aunt. My grandmother’s mom, Emma, died when she was four.
Maybe that’s when the pain in my family became a living, breathing thing. I’m not sure I’ll ever know. The things left unsaid could fill volumes and the silence is deafening.
That generational pain and resentment run through me, too. I’ve been angry with my mother for as long as I can remember.
It was a grim and unsettling realization when the pattern that is laid out before me became clear. The grandma I knew had four daughters. I have four daughters. The grandma I knew was smart and feisty. I am smart and feisty. My grandma didn’t cook, and neither did I. And at least one of her daughters harbored anger and resentment until the very end.
How do you stop the effect when you don’t know the cause?
She was the only grandma I knew — and yet I didn’t really know her at all.