Saturday, January 13, 2018

In Which I Remember Grandma Two Years After Her Death

Two years after her death, my grandmother, with whom I lived for many years, is often in my thoughts.  The other day, I found her Bible improbably pushed off its place on a shelf and onto the floor.  I lifted it up to look inside to find, in her spidery handwriting, a note about a gift she gave to my husband when he joined the Masons.  Reading her note put me in mind of that time when I, hoping to please her,  had also joined Eastern Star, the women's auxiliary to the Masons.  My husband and I thought this would give me an opportunity to spend time with Grandma, a devoted member of Eastern Star.  It was my way of doing something "grown-up" with her.

My timing was off.  Grandma was recently widowed and began to withdraw from many of the social functions that had characterized younger years.  She immediately stopped going to formal meetings after walking me through my first (and as it turned out, last) Eastern Star function.  Even so, despite me being a member of her beloved Eastern Star in name only, she said to me, with both pride and affection, "Now we are sisters!"

Later, my husband, children, and I moved into my grandmother's house where we all lived for many years.  She was getting old and my children were very young. She and I both struggled with limited agency and movement.  When all the other adults in the house went off to their jobs, meetings, and ramblings, Grandma and I were home with the little ones where we were able to help each other with all the little problems of life.  In those years, she gave me guidance as a senior and experienced mother of six, grandmother of thirteen, and great-grandmother of  ten. Her very presence in my life relieved my anxieties.  It inspired my confidence to have the attention of the unquestioned family matriarch.  She modeled femininity, authority, and  care, and taught me how to be a woman and a mother. 

But it was more than that.  It was more than her guidance and benevolence, as worthy and valuable as those gifts were.  In those years, I also had her friendship.  We laughed together and stayed up late talking and telling stories. It was as if I had discovered that the queen herself was a pal.  But Grandma was a very formal person.  One did not hug my grandmother.  One might be permitted to place one's hands lightly on her shoulders, lean forward and give her a ritualistic parting kiss, but that was the extent of any physical embrace.  One could say to her, in parting, "I love you, Grandma" and hear in return a cheerful chuckle or, at most, a few murmured words of approval.  But in all those years, she never told me she loved me.  She never had to.  I knew.

As my children grew up, she grew old, very old, and needed more and more of my mother's and my help until, finally, painfully, she had withered away to almost nothing. The bewildering and exhausting final months of her decline in which she was increasingly distant, irrational, and difficult culminated in her last days of complete infantile helplessness.  Yet, as deeply sad and difficult as that was, it was also beautiful.  At the bittersweet end, she wanted to be touched and held.  She seemed to take comfort in hearing us speak to her of the people in this world and the next who loved her and would always love her. With all her matriarchal authority surrendered and her dignity set aside for an even higher calling, she was finally able to accept my embrace.

Since her passing, I find her with me all the time.  I speak to her sometimes as I move about my life.  My new home is full of her old things.  I find myself repeating some of her favorite stories and phrases.  I like to tell my kids about her.  "Your great-grandmother used to say," I begin.  I want them to know her, to know the essence of her as far as I can communicate it.

 She is with me day and night.  This week, as I slept, I dreamed that I found my grandmother struggling to lay herself down on her bed.  I rushed to her and caught her up in my arms so that I might help her.  I settled her gently onto the bed and said, "Grandma, your clothes are all twisted!" as I helped her straighten polyester trousers with elastic waistband, so familiar and dear in my memory.  Then, when her clothes were smoothed, I also smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead saying to her, "I love you, Grandma!"  She answered my declaration as she never had in life, "I love you, too."  No uncomfortable laugh affectionately dismissing my sentimentality, no awkward words acknowledging the sentiment but falling short of reciprocating it.  In my dream, finally, I had her voice, clear and calm, telling me what I always knew but needed to hear.

Dreams have their own funny logic.  All through my dream, I knew that she was already gone, that she had already died and that I was merely speaking with a shade who would soon fade away from my sight and leave me once again without her.  When I woke, the dream lingered longer than most- allowing me a chance to get hold of it and pin it down in words.  I am thankful for such a dream that seemed so simple and so real.  I am thankful for the reminder that I had that time with her when I was permitted to hold her.  I am thankful, if only in a dream, to hear her tell me she loved me in a voice both gentle and certain.   Maybe it is not the first time.  Perhaps she told me she loved me when I was a little girl.  She was often more affectionate with children than with adults.  But if she did, I don't remember it.  I do remember her hands, elegant, cool, and fragrant, brushing my hair from my forehead when I was little. I also remember her hands at the close of her life, frail and trembling, grasping my own and placing them against her hair so that I could do the same for her.

Such knowledge of another soul is greater than any words we use to describe our feelings.  She was matriarch, sister, friend.  She was Grandma to me...and I was myself with her.  And that was always good enough.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

In Which I Discuss My Recent Move

Much has changed since my last post.  I now live in a dollhouse on a corner lot nestled between the canal and a city park.  We have lived here for one year now and have fallen in love with our gardens and our favorite walk over the aqueduct.  We love the lake and the waterfall, the thriving old-fashioned downtown, and the lovely stretches of farmland surrounding our new village home.  As the year unfolds, we are delighted by new surprises and new traditions.  The flowers come up in the spring and summer followed by the burnished colors of autumn.  The winter brings us a parade of lights and fireworks downtown as the snow makes a wonderland of the park outside our door.  In many ways, this has been a good year, political tragedies notwithstanding. 

I would not, however, be honest if I did not acknowledge that in some ways, despite our appreciation for our blessings, it has been one of the most difficult times of our lives.  In the end, the personal is political and this year, more than most, the political became very personal.  I am haunted by the what-might-have-been of the election last year.  Since that day in November, the world has been distorted for my family.  At first it was just the horrified realization that the nation had elected an individual we felt to be predatory and unethical.  We were afraid for immigrants, the poor, for the environment.  We imagined dystopia and braced ourselves for the work we would be asked to do to defend the vulnerable. 

But those were all impersonal fears, the kind that you find in television reports.  We were still safe.  Our move was still ahead of us, and we knew how valuable my husband was to his employers.  Hadn't they just transferred his employment to another refuge out farther west, and weren't they thrilled to have him on their team?  We knew how much they needed his labor, and so, while the worry that something (so unlikely!), it was not severe.  In fact, there was great promise that it was just a matter of time, perhaps only months, before his term position would be translated to a permanent position.  After four years of paying his federal worker dues with an "internship" in which he worked full time for frankly lousy pay while attending college part time, we knew it was his turn. 

Part of the fun of the move was hearing all the important things he was doing at work.  His sense of purpose and dedication enlivened all of us.  He wore his uniform with pride and told us about the job he was doing to protect the water and the wildlife that relies on it.   Then, just as the summer months approached with anticipation of all the work required in a refuge during the warm months, he came home early to tell me that he had been let go.  There was a federal hiring freeze and multiple employees were summarily dismissed from all the refuges.  In our district in the Northeast, two individuals had been tasked by their administrators with the unhappy responsibility of traveling from refuge to refuge to fire Fish and Wildlife workers.  The guy who fired my husband was very nice, and very sorry, but that doesn't count for very much.  Just like that, all the promises he had been given, all the support from his supervisors and co-workers came to nothing. In a moment, all the time, dedication, skill, and pride he had invested in what he thought was his career were all swept away. As he told me the news, I could barely stand to see the hurt in his eyes.  He was winded, sucker-punched, and even a little ashamed.  He felt that he had somehow let us down.

So that was that.  He was unemployed for three months and the money we had set aside to fix up this dear old house was eaten up.  In the midst of this, my grandmother passed away, and two of our dogs died.  I have found also that even on the happy days, I miss my parents and my son, still living back east on the old homestead, so much that it hurts. On the loneliest and most difficult days, I wonder if we made the right decision when we decided to buy this frumpy, old-lady of a Victorian house out here so far away from my folks and my old memories. 

My husband finally found a job as a truck driver for a recycling company.  The pay is reasonably good, but the hours are terrible.  He leaves for work at 1:00 each afternoon and, on a good day, comes home around midnight.  More often he is out much later, sometimes as late as 5 am.  The man who just six months ago was so bursting with pride in his work that he kept his uniform on even after he came home, now winces as he puts on his neon yellow work shirt and calls me during his breaks to help calm his anxiety and to buoy his spirits.

Meanwhile, I am working from home as an online adjunct instructor.  I don't get the good assignments I had grown accustomed to.  These days, so far removed from the political structure of the main campus, I'm lucky to get any courses at all.  I've been busy with my work as an historical interpreter of 19th century women's rights history.  This is the 100th anniversary of New York women's achievement of suffrage so there have been plenty of gigs.  These help pay the bills and give me some sense that I have not sacrificed all of my career as an educator to come out here to live.

Sometimes I regret moving out here.  I am homesick for the Finger Lakes and my family still living there, I resent the loss of our jobs, and I worry about our ability to keep this house.  I am sometimes angry to the point of tears when I see that so many of the dreams we had as young people will never be realized.  He will never retire from the federal government with a retirement sufficient to provide for our children and ourselves.  I will never be a tenured faculty member with the respect of my peers.  But these moments of remorse for this move, one of the biggest decisions of my life, are rare.  Far more often I am thankful for a home I love and still hopeful that what sometimes feels like a series of misfortune and petty injustice is really just more transition, painful at times, awkward, and scary, but ultimately leading me to a greater depth and wisdom as my husband and I walk together into middle-age.