Grandma

This pin is similar to what Grandma had.

My grandmother, like my father, was born prematurely in an era when there was little anyone could do to ensure the survival of babies that young. She was a sickly child who struggled to get through school because she got ill so easily. She had virtually no support from her parents, good German folks who’d left Kansas to avoid the dust bowl.

When Grandma was two years old, her older sister (four years) was bitten and killed by a rattlesnake. Until Grandma was a young teenager, her mother used to say, “Why couldn’t it have been you? Why couldn’t the weak one die?”

One of my grandmother’s proudest achievements was the pin she was given for her perfect attendance at school the year she turned thirteen. She used to get it out now and then to show it to her grandkids and talk about how important it was to go to school everyday. I wish I knew what happened to that pin.

Despite her parents, Grandma was a sweet, loving woman, and I think she had her older brothers to thank for that. They adored her, pestered her, and looked out for her. There was no reservation in their love for her at all.

Grandma loved her children, but she couldn’t shelter them from Grandpa. I can only imagine the confused hurt that came from the fact that she never stopped the abuse that went on. I remember the torment that came out in some of my aunts and uncles when she died. They loved her, but there was a lot of anger in them too.

All my life I’ve felt that Grandma had a special place in her heart for my father. It wasn’t until the day she died that I found out why it was. We knew the end was coming, so the family was gathered around to say goodbye. Grandma’s eyes were closed, but when my mom said, “Hi Mom, it’s C. and N. and the kids,” Grandma stirred and said, very quietly, “C? There’s my baby.” And my aunt K. told about how my dad was so little when he was born that they put him in a shoe box and how aunt K (oldest daughter) and Grandma had to stay up in shifts so make sure that he kept breathing while he was asleep.

When I heard the story, I immediately made the connection to what Grandma had told me about herself.

I also learned that day that my aunt K. was my dad’s godmother. They’d had to rush to christen and baptize him since they weren’t sure he’d live, and aunt K. had asked to have that honor.

All of this kind of explains why Grandma and Aunt K always did special little things for my siblings and me even when our other aunts and uncles and cousins were being remarkably unkind.

I have a piece of jewelry that Grandma gave me when I was twelve. I knew at the time that it was something special, and though I’ve had many of my family members remark on it when I wear it, I never tell them where it came from because I worry that one of them will try to take it away.

Grandpa

I loved my grandfather, and he loved me. The man adored all his grandchildren, but especially his granddaughters. Something about little girls delighted him. He used to sit on the porch-swing with my grandmother and two or three of my girl cousins and myself and say, “I’m surrounded by beautiful women.” And he’d smile at us. We’d all laugh because we weren’t even teenagers yet. Grandma would laugh too, and Grandpa would hold her hand.

Grandpa made a ceder chest for as many of his granddaughters as he could and gave it to them when they graduated from high school. Mine was the last he made, but he was too old for the work at that point, and was embarrassed by how it turned out. I never got to see it. Admittedly, I was a little hurt that I didn’t get it, but I didn’t learn til later just why that was. Because of the way politics work in my dad’s family, I’m used to being ignored and belittled by the rest of the family. I just thought that not getting a ceder chest was an extension of that. I can’t say how glad I am that my Grandpa didn’t care about that at all, that he still wanted to give me something even though it was beyond his ability at the time.

I’m still working on forgiving the uncles who cleaned out Grandpa’s shop, found that sad attempt at a chest for me, and broke it up. I wouldn’t have cared how rough the thing was. I’d have done whatever work it took to finish it, but they took that option away from me.

The grandpa I knew was not the father that my dad, aunts, and uncles grew up under. Their father was a hard, damaged man who’d grown up in the care of much older sisters who’d been told most of their lives that their daddy only really wanted a boy. When their mother died of asthma related complications, they took charge of my grandpa so their dad could keep working and, eventually, drink himself to death.

Grandpa never learned a healthy way to express love, and all the damage that had been done to him as a child, he passed on to his own children. This means that my dad’s family (consisting of fifteen children) is extremely dysfunctional. My dad is the third youngest. He was born prematurely and nearly didn’t make it, so he got a lot more attention from my grandmother, who had a special place in her heart for him, and that led to a lot of resentment from some of the older kids who still take it out on my family to this day.

Despite the way my grandfather treated his kids, he really did love them. And that’s where the hardest knots in the family’s emotional tangles come from. None of them can separate the fact that he looked out for them, clothed and fed them, made sure they all went through school, from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse they took. Not all the kids got the same level of physical abuse.

Grandpa didn’t hit the girls. Being excused from that aspect of their family’s problems didn’t make my aunts any more normal than the other kids. They just have a different set of problems since they were indirectly complicit with the person abusing their brothers. Grandpa didn’t beat his youngest five kids, he did hit them from time to time, but not like his older boys. This is because his three oldest kids took him out behind the house and beat him up right before they moved out of the house, and told him that they’d do it again if he treated the little kids like he’d treated them.

Having grandkids really changed my grandpa. He didn’t have such a big stake in our lives that his affection got tangle up with his anxiety and protectiveness and turned into anger. He began to learn how to express his love in ways that weren’t harmful for all involved. He learned guilt for what he’d done to his own children.

For some of my aunts and uncles, that was enough to gain him a measure of forgiveness. Others haven’t been able to lay their bitterness aside even now. I worry for them. Grandpa’s not here for them to confront. What will they do with themselves?

I miss my granddad. I tremble for the effects his death is having on the extended family. I pray that God will intervene and keep the peace between us. I also pray that he helps me forgive some of my uncles for the things they’ve done as revenge against their dad that have really hurt some of us grandkids.

I’m writing about this because my dad’s family history is closely tied to my own story. How could it not be? I’m working my way up to telling it all.

Tears

Image from Wikipedia

It’s been a while since I posted anything because some things came up that kept me pretty busy recently. There’s too much for one post, so I’ll break it down into a couple of them.

I thought I was going to do a post right after Christmas reflecting on how well or badly I’d handled having so much family around me at the same time, but I never found the time to do it before I was flying out to a writers’ conference.

The first day I was there, my paternal grandfather passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. I was sitting in the hotel room I shared with another writer I know when I got the call. To my great surprise, I burst into tears when I received the news of my grandfather’s death.

I almost never cry unless I’m furiously angry.

I almost couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I didn’t shed a single tear when my grandmother died when I was in high school, though I thought the grief would burn a hole in me. But there I was, gasping and sobbing, streams of tears rolling down my face. And a voice in the back of my head was telling me to get a hold on it, as if I had no right to cry about losing my grandpa.

When I finally got it under control, I thought that would be it. I wouldn’t cry again. But I did, several times over the week while I was away. Once when one of my colleagues was talking about her own grandfather’s dementia with a tone of such disdain that it hurt my heart. And again when I got another call, telling me that the funeral was set for a couple of hours before I would be getting home from the airport. I’d figured that I was going to miss the funeral, but to miss it by a matter of hours was just too painful.

I still can’t believe that I cried. Ever since I was a little kid, about the time I was first molested, I haven’t been able to cry unless I’m angry, which used to happen a lot. Any feelings of helplessness, frustration, or fright would stir up all that anger that I could never be free of, and then I’d cry and get told to stop my “bellyaching.” Even now, at least until recently, it was that way. I hate that being angry makes me cry, and I hate crying. All my life I’ve been told that it was something I could control and that I just needed to get a handle on it.

I’m hoping that the tears I shed for my grandfather (well, for me really since I know I’ll miss him), will be a turning point for me. Maybe I can be more normal about what brings tears from now on. We’ll see, I guess.