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.

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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.

Connecting

Image by Andrei Ceru

While I was at the writers’ conference, I avoided telling anyone about my grandfather’s death. I didn’t want them to treat me any differently than they usually would.

There were, however, a few people who were quick to see that something was wrong. One of them was a man I’d only met twice before and was still getting to know. He told me he could tell that I was sad because he was about to lose his wife of twenty-five years to cancer. Our grief connected us. We were both going through something painful that didn’t let us be entirely part of the jollity around us.

His strength, and his wife’s, were an inspiration to me to keep going no matter what. And having him there at the restaurants and bars, in the hotel lobby where people gathered after events, was strangely comforting. Just having someone know made a big difference. I didn’t feel so isolated.

Knowing about his pain also opened the door for compassion in me. I loved my grandfather, but I doubt that my grief even approaches the pain this man is feeling about what is rapidly approaching for himself, his wife, and their children.

I’m currently praying that his wife will recover miraculously from this attack on her life, and I’d really appreciate it if anyone who reads this could send a prayer, a good vibe, or a good thought for them. I don’t think it will make any difference that I haven’t told you their names (I don’t want to do that without asking permission, and can’t do that without opening myself up to more inquiry than I can stand right now).

Thank you!

Away from Home

Image from Web Design Hot!

Let me begin this post by saying that I will NEVER drink coffee again. I have sworn it off. Anything with more caffeine than a cup of tea is not for me.

As I mentioned here, my grandfather recently passed away while I was thousands of miles away at a writing conference. To get home, I’d have had to dodge some pretty heavy obligations, talk to people about changing my flight, etc… My mom told me that I should just stay and stick it out. She advised that I keep myself distracted, so I did.

There were quite a few people that I’d met before at this conference, and they invited me to various activities that were taking place after the workshops and panels that took place every day. I actually had a lot of fun. These people were good company, and they drew me out of myself a lot.

The only trouble was that I get really tired when I’m around too many people for too long, and I wasn’t sleeping well due to a combination of grief, stress, and a strange bed in a strange place. It got to the point that I’d be sitting, listening to another writer talking at a panel and start to fall asleep. The last day, it was so bad that I had two cups of coffee. I know that doesn’t sound bad, but it’s two more cups than I would normally drink.

Up until lunch time, I didn’t feel too bad, jittery and tired, but not sleepy. I could live with that. But as I was looking for the next room I was scheduled to be in, I started feeling really dizzy and having trouble breathing. As my vision was narrowing down to a small point of light, I turned to the writer I was walking with, a friend from a couple of other conventions and retreats, and said “I think I’m going to black out.” I thought I was joking, figured it was just one of those tunnel vision moments that would resolve itself in a second, but it turns out I was right. I passed out right there in the middle of the hallway.

I guess I was only completely out for a handful of seconds. When I came to, all I could see was the light shining red through my my hair, which had fallen across my eyes. I brushed it away and saw someone with dark hair leaning over me. I knew it was one of my friends, but two of them had long dark hair, and it wasn’t until later that I was able to confirm which one of them it was. My mind was so scrambled that for a while, nothing was clear to me and none of the memories from right after I passed out are easy to access. This confusion is just one of the symptoms of caffeine poisoning, and I was suffering ten out of fifteen listed here.

The main thing I gathered is that a lot of people were worried about me. Someone fetched the nurse kept on staff and one of the other writers there who was a doctor left her workshop to come check on me. Several people missed the events they were going to attend to make sure that I was alright. My heart rate was dangerously high and very irregular, and I was overheating like crazy, so I had to lay on a couch and keep calm for a while before they would even let me stand up. Fortunately, though I did hit my head, I didn’t have a concussion, and I didn’t hurt my back.

I’ve never passed out before and I hope it never happens again.

So, does it seem a little far fetched that two cups of coffee would cause this? Turns out that some of the writers thought the coffee was too weak, so they took it upon themselves to make it about three times stronger on the last day. My poor caffeine-unaccustomed system was subjected to six cups of coffee worth of the stuff over the course of about two hours. Mystery solved.

The whole incident might be well behind me (about three days), but it’s still bothering me. I keep telling myself that it’s okay that I got all that attention, that I shouldn’t feel so mortified, that no one is mad at me or thinks any less of me because I passed out. But I still haven’t brought myself to talk about it to my family or anyone I know out here because I hate the idea of them knowing that I am not invincible. I feel bad that people missed things because of me, that someone else had to step up and run my workshop, and that I scared people. I know that  none of them mind (they all told me so). But I still feel guilty, like I did something wrong.

On the bright side, I got to see jut how much these long distance friends cared about me. I ‘m trying to hold on to the warm glow I get when I think about all the nice things they did to take care of me.

And as for my decision to stay away from coffee from now on, it comes partly from the fact that I kept tasting the stuff for the rest of the day and can’t stand the taste or smell now. I also suffered from a really high level of anxiety which I only found out later was most likely due to the coffee. I think I’d better stay away from the stuff.