Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reflections on a Steel Magnolia....

It has been a year since my grandmother passed away. Two weeks later my mother died, and I was so overwhelmed with that loss that I don't know if I ever properly mourned my grandma. Really is there a proper way to mourn? All I know is she has been on my mind for a while.

I miss her weird mix of optimism and bitterness. Life was tough for her from the moment she was born until the day she died. She was born the oldest daughter in a poor family. She began working in the fields picking produce at the age when children today enter kindergarten. Until the day she died she refused to eat figs because of a job she had picking them as a child. She grew up with a mother who had mental health issues and drug addictions and because of the lack of resources there was no respite from her madness. What little I know about her relationship with her mother, it was not filled with many happy memories. I wonder if those experiences were preparing her to have a child with severe mental health issues.

She became pregnant with my mom when she was a sophomore in high school. She was kicked out of school and forced to marry my biological grandfather. There is only one picture of her pregnant and I have never seen a more miserable looking person. Aside from being forced to marry someone she didn't love, being kicked out of high school which had been a place she felt competent and happy, broke her heart.

She would have 4 children with my biological grandfather. It was a turbulent marriage, and she was forced to give her youngest daughter up for adoption because my grandfather was convinced she was cheating on him. She never spoke of this child, but somehow the adoptive mother contacted my uncle several years ago seeking health information. She never said her name or her daughter's name, but listed my grandma and her husband as the biological parents. Amazingly, my mom who could word vomit with the best of them never mentioned her sister to my grandma. I can't even imagine how she felt knowing a piece of her heart was lost to her.

Eventually she divorced her husband and did what ever she could to survive. She worked the night shift as a waitress (she wasn't allowed to be a bartender because she was a woman) and had a day job too. She used to carry a gun in her purse because she worked in bad neighborhoods. She accepted any and all charity and she credited different churches in my city for helping keep her children fed and clothed when times were tough.

She loved her family and she loved her children, but I don't think she knew how to parent my uncle. I think she saw too much of her husband in him, and so as a teenager he moved out of the house. Their relationship would always be filled with long periods of separation.

Around the time my mother was 10 she met the man who would become my grandpa. They married and for many years I thought they were happy. It's funny how little you know as a child. My grandma was very good at keep up appearances.

When I was 12 my grandma got sick and developed pneumonia. My grandfather left her while she was still in the hospital. It was years before I would even talk to him after that. Eventually I forgave him, but I never forgot how easy it was for him to leave. The funny thing was, I think my grandma was much happier without being married to him. For years he would come over to our house and just have coffee with her, and I think that was all she needed in that relationship. Life taught her to have low expectations.

When she got out of the hospital she moved in with my mom, my brother, and me. It was both the agony and the ecstasy. She did so much for me that I will never be able to repay. She was also an ally when my mom got really sick. I am ashamed to say that I put a lot on her shoulders because of how overwhelmed my mom made me feel.

She lived with my mom for 17 years. She took care of my mom and tried her best to make her better. When my grandma was at her sickest she refused to leave her home because my mom needed someone to take care of her.

She was an amazing cook, gardener, and pianist. She was never classically trained but she always knew she could play the piano. When she was 40 she bought a piano and low and behold she could play it.

She was fiercely independent and hated throwing away her belongings. When she was a child her mother would randomly throw out her clothes and belongings, and she never got over feeling so powerless and dependent on people.

I was her favorite. I say this knowing it was a blessing and a curse. She would treat me nicer than other family members and especially nicer than my brother. Life taught her that men were not to be trusted. Within my family I was both ignored on my father's side, and the golden child on my mother's. Neither is an enviable position.

My grandma loved holidays and celebrations. She loved giving gifts and would spend months finding the right presents for everyone. I got my love of presents and giving gifts from her. She hated receiving presents though. It made her uncomfortable to be the center of attention. On that we differ.

She taught me so much and more than anything I wish her life had been easier. I am so grateful for her love and support. She was so proud of my education and my career. I wish I had been able to support her more.

Tonight my best friend will be coming over for dinner. We will honor and celebrate my grandma by having all her favorite foods. I will remember the woman who worked so hard to support her family and who gave tirelessly of her talent and her love.

I will remember her always. And one day when I have grandchildren i will teach them to make meatballs, cookies, and to drink coffee while you watch soap operas. I will love them as she loved me. And I will treat them all as my favorites. Even the boys.

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