(A reprise; I wrote this a number of years ago, but I can’t quite place it in time.)
Our son seemed to have been born with a predisposition to love grandparents. I don’t know how he came by it; could there have been a genetic cause, hardwired somehow into his wee neural net, passed down from his biological forebears? Did it come from the books we’d read him as an infant and toddler? My mind flips through the long lists of titles and book covers, but I can’t find any particular ones that might account for this. It’s a mystery to me.
My parents had both crossed to the other side long before we’d ever adopted J, so it wasn’t about them, and my husband’s parents hadn’t provided the model of unconditional love and cuddles grandparents usually offer their grandkids.
Hell’s bells; I’m staring at that last sentence, wondering how to explain it. It’s the crux of what I want to tell you about; but it’s hard on so many levels to sort through why that was, or why it may have been.
I wouldn’t even be compelled to tell you about any of it, at least right now except that J and A’s paternal Grandma died three days ago, and when we called them to tell them, J took it really hard. That’s a big chunk of the story, and it may be that some stories run backward in time; you just don’t know it when time’s marching forward, and people are being who they are, and doing what they do.
Stories about people have no real beginnings; dig deeper into a person, and you find that who they are, of course, had roots in the past: who their parents were, how they were treated, disciplined/punished, loved or not, taught things or not…what events shaped their lives; all of that and more.
I’ll just have to jump to the beginning I do know about, and lived with them…
Their first view of me came when they and their son (my now-husband) stopped by the construction site where I was working in Breckenridge, Colorado. At the time, I was several stories up in an apartment complex building balcony rails: hard hat, overalls, leather tool-belt: every staid Midwestern couple’s dream daughter-in-law. (“Hey, ya wanna arm-wrestle?”) Yep, an hilarious first-look, but I don’t think I even got to meet them then; they left town before I got off work and hitched a ride the seven miles home.
But over the years we got to know each other somewhat, and I became for them the woman who stole their son from them. Everyone knows the story; it’s about as cliché as it gets. Both our families had histories of that: stories of generational pissiness and even abject cruelty visited upon daughters-in-law; not so much the sons-in-law somehow, at least in my experience. And none of them thought to break the cycle. How stupid. Women dissed by their mothers-in-law going on to diss their daughters-in-law; hell; maybe it became generationally hard-wired somehow. What a wretched thought.
So our families visited one another occasionally, but the tension was often thick, the time together was unsatisfying and largely symbolic. They were big on symbols, and what their friends thought of them mattered greatly. They counted visits to their house as they counted gifts: markers to indicate how much they were valued by their kids, I guess. We failed the tests here and there, although we did try. We just wanted more, especially in terms of honesty and emotion, and working things through. The Nebraska way seemed to be: don’t disagree; that means fighting; if you stuff it, it’s all good; and if you bring up an issue, you’re a troublemaker. There was a list of things ‘not to be discussed at the table during meals’, politics and religion being the top two. Egad; okay then. Everybody forgot once in awhile; I swear I wasn’t the only one! When sister-in-law told us at the dinner table that friends of theirs had just returned from (still apartheid) South Africa, and had told them that ‘it wasn’t really that bad’, it was a bloomin’ miracle that Mr. wd and I even kept our seats, rather than rise and yell: “Oh, yeah? Not that bad for the white people, you bloody idiot?!”
Anyway, we had committed one other major sin, although we hadn’t known it at the time. We got married on the spur-of-the-moment, which meant no big wedding, which we didn’t want, plus we lived about a thousand miles away from mom-and-pop-in-law. We got married in a park in Steamboat Springs at lunch time, so a few our friends could be there. A Universal Life minister in lederhosen and knee socks had officiated. The train came by and interrupted the vows; still, the marriage seemed to take. Our brother-in-law ate his sandwich during the ceremony; the whole thing was so like us…a little bit clunky and a little bit funny…
We managed a few visits to each others’ houses over the years, and tried to keep up with their expectations of us, except for wanting to talk problems through. We were for it, they weren’t, and that made for some rough spots. They had lists of grievances about me; we tried to ignore them. Christmas was always an issue; their Christmases sucked; my mother willed me her uncontrollable love of that holiday, and I wanted our own. That was worth about sixty demerits right off the bat.
We eventually adopted kids, both of color. Without drawing it out, there were some hints about discomfort with our ethnically-different kids; you can guess how discouraging that was for us. “We haven’t told Grandma Davis that J’s black yet;” creepy things like that. I suppose it wasn’t that they were racist, just ignorant, and only used to white people. But neither Grandpa nor Grandma gathered the kids in the way most grandparents might, and J, especially, noticed. But still, before every single visit, his face would light up in anticipation of seeing them. He talked about them in an idealized way, as though he saw some thought form for Grandparents in his mind; a touchstone of sorts, signaling absolute love and connection. His sister, two years younger, was more practical. She knew her birth family; we saw them when she wanted, but it was very seldom; and in truth, they were pretty messed up. That was why she was taken from her birth mother and lived with us, of course. A couple times after their visits, J would ask his sister A, “Which one did you like better?”, meaning which of their grandparents.
She’d say, “Andy the poodle; but he’s really pretty boring.” And he was.
At some point, it became more important for my husband to work things through with his parents; he asked hard questions they wouldn’t answer, and resented strongly. He’d been in therapy, and discovered a need to communicate with them. Now Grandpa, it turned out, loathed shrinks; feared shrinks. He didn’t want anyone seeing into his psyche, thank you, nor his son trying to remember his childhood.
So they began to avoid us. Twice they were on Colorado trips to see the kids (Mr. wd’s sister lives in NW Colorado, we’re at the most southern end of the state), and passed us by at the last minute, citing car trouble, or stomach flu or something.
In the end we worked out a system of visits wherein we’d drive half-way north in the state, they and his sister’s family would head south, and we’d get some motel rooms for the visits. It worked, but the noisiness and meals and whatnot precluded personal exchanges. For two other visits, we’d driven all the way to his sister’s house for visits; and his father wouldn’t even hug him hello. Grandma would just be her arch self, and talk about the weather, and stay busy preparing the meals, but at least all the grandkids got to play together.
And still Jordan pined for family, especially Grandparents; as he got older, he realized this was it. He went through a time when he really wanted to find his biological father; I tried online searches, and wrote a lot of letters, but unhappily never had any luck. His biological mother had our address, but never made contact, which also hurt him to know.
Three years ago Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; no one told her that’s what was wrong with her; we figured she had a right to know, but it wasn’t up to us. Around the same time, Grandpa had a heart attack, and had quadruple bi-pass surgery. It was the Big Uh-oh moment; they needed help, and NOW. I spent the next few weeks finding help online and by telephone for home health care and meals and cleaning help, which Grandpa resisted like the stubborn fool he is. Circumstance, plus some frank talk finally got him to accept help from the government. He was ninety by then, and not able to cope; the programs we found were really helpful for both of them for a time. But eventually it became clear Grandma needed to be in a nursing home; it was the hardest decision of his life.
Mr. wd went to Nebraska to help with logistics and to repair things around the house that had been left undone for years. A reverse mortgage plan required extensive repairs, and he did them. I stayed home and hunted for nursing homes that would accept Medicare/Medicaid. Oh, the irony of helping these folks who didn’t like us…but what are you going to do? You do what you’re supposed to do; all of us go through it in life.
They finally settled on one, and moved Grandma there; Grandpa visited her twice a day for months.
J began to go to Grandpa’s to help out after hot-shot firefighting seasons ended. He was strong, loving, and helpful. He’d graduated with a major in history, and loved to pump Grandpa for stories from the war and other parts of his life. Grandpa ended up liking him; respecting him; and probably loving him. Jordan visited Grandma in the nursing home. He didn’t know she wasn’t quite Grandma; he did think it was funny, though, that in her Alzheimer’s state, she’d forgotten she hated his mom. That killed all of us. Ah; the benefits of dementia!
I’d send her cards of my bird and other wildlife photos; she’d tell me on the phone about some unknown, but lovely person who’d send her bird cards every week! It really was pretty sweet. In her mind, I was married to her other son, and lived in the downstairs of her house, so we’d yak about all that; hell, what was the harm?
One evening J called from ‘his room’ downstairs; he was in a bit of shock. Grandpa had told him that he regretted being such a fool and missing getting to know him for all those years. I’m in tears now reading that sentence. And I was left wondering: Could the old fool say the same thing to his son one day? God, I hoped so.
Just a few weeks ago, Grandpa decided he wanted to come to Colorado one last time. Mr. wd’s sister schlepped him from Lincoln, and together they shuttled him around the state visiting relatives; he stayed here for a few days. The oddest thing happened: he seemed to decide we weren’t so bad after all…
He wanted to read things I’d written; he wanted, after years of not having wanted to, to see some of the fine building projects in the valley that Mr. wd had created, although not one compliment escaped his lips; but still, even that was progress. He loved the foods I prepared for him, the flower garden, and baskets of goodies I sent home with him. It was fucking crazy: he’d even let me tease him! I called him Old Man; the kids and I call Mr. wd that, too. He’d had an aversion to that term forever; oh yeah!
“Shoot; if you’re not old at ninety-two, when the hell do ya get old, Old Man?” I’d crowed, and he finally laughed, too. I forget which teasing of mine provoked it, but he even left a buck’s worth of quarters under his pillow for me the morning he left. His first-ever Wendy-prank! He later loved that I knew what the coins meant!
Three nights ago one of the mountains just east of us caught on fire; the winds were fierce, and sky was molten and the plumes were lit by the fire below. We went to bed with just a bit of anxiety, but the fire was far enough away that there was no true danger.
In the night, the phone rang. I was busy dreaming, and it answer-phone picked up. There was Grandpa’s voice plaintively wailing, “S…pick up the phone…S…please pick up the phone. He told Mr. wd that Grandma had just died.
Oh, what exquisite relief! She’d been sound physically, and her forebears lived to ungodly ages. It looked like she could last another decade with no sweat, and Grandpa wanted to survive as long as she lived; he couldn’t think how any of us could reasonably care for her or visit her.
Apparently the hospice nurse said she’d been sick with stomach flu; she slept eventually. When they went in to check on her, she apparently sat up in bed, and died. Good job, Mabel; good job, God…or gods…Godspeed Mabel…your suffering’s over.
We called our son at first light; he cried. “I’ll never get to know her now.” (No, and you wouldn’t have in any event, honey; and believe me, her last year was the best version ever of Grandma. The nursing home staff said even she had developed a sense of humor; fancy that.)
J’s hotshot crew boss was kind enough to give him time off to go to the funeral; he’d even sent flowers and greens from the hotshot crew. That made me cry; that Cranky-boss was such a Human Being around it all. Steve drove 500 miles to pick him up, and together they drove another 500 miles to Grandpa’ house and hordes of relatives. Is it possible that there might be some intimacy there this time? Some hint of real connection and love?
Let me dream of it; okay? (Clap with me if you believe in fairies…)
I’m clapping like crazy in my heart and my mind; come on, you fools. Get real with each other. Please.
What a goddam waste of time all those years of wasted enmity and separation were; it’s just making me cry. Again.
Sting wrote this after his father died (in part):
Dark angels follow me
Over a godless sea
Mountains of endless falling,
For all my days remaining,
What would be true?
Sometimes I see your face,
The stars seem to lose their place
Why must I think of you?
Why must I?
Why should I?
Why should I cry for you?
Why would you want me to?
And what would it mean to say,
That I loved you in my fashion?
What would be true?
Why should I?
Why should I cry for you?
Interesting piece to read. My 75 year old sister is preparing to leave this Earth, having spent most of her life running a farm, with cows, doing 99% of all the physical work, she basically worked herself to death, yet as strong willed as she was she always had time for others, and no patience with fools.It amazes me how blind we can all be in handing down to our children all of our prejudices, small-mindedness, hatreds, etc. And in doing so destroy any chance for a change in the human mindset towards goodness and love. Thank you for adopting some of those “Others”, that speaks of courage, something rare in today’s world…..
oh, my; i hope when your sister’s ride comes for her, it will be like mary oliver’s ‘the white owl flies into and out of the field’:
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—five feet apart—
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow—
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
what a valiantly strong, energetic, and humanist woman she sounds like, and able to still spread love and caring around as well. my guess is that you were both parented well, yes? the chirren made us a family, although we first took our ute mtn. ute daughter as emergency foster care. but by age two, we reckoned we should either adopt her, or let her go to another family, hopefully first american (the indian child welfare act makes sense, given that possibility.)
sure, it was a bitch in so many ways, with her having been damaged, and him a black/azteca very dark male was even harder. always a suspect, both in our town, our schools, and in stores. guess the reason i’d thought to reprise this is that he’s coming here today from northeastern colorado today, the first time we’ve seen him in over a year and a half, so my mind did turn to bygone days.
we did try to parent them well, teach them well (as in: discipline, not punish), and be their champions. but of course we screwed up plenty of times. and those times still haunt me, especially during the blue meanies hours (the beatles) in the middle of the night….when in my guilt and shame, i know that i’m not a good person, but a mix in which i try to do non-violent battle with my dark side.
thank you for sharing that, alaskaman. is it okay to ask if you’re also first american?
You just do the best you can, that is all that is possible, you cannot waste time regretting the past, as it cannot ever be changed by you, even if you have $100 billion dollars to spend, it is gone into history, a story for the children to have and share. We mourn, but we go on…..
Your beautiful story, wendye, reminds me of Grushenka’s onion in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’:
“You see, Alyoshechka,” Gruchenka turned to him, laughing nervously, “I’m boasting to Rakitka that I gave an onion, but I’m not boasting to you. I’ll tell you about it for a different reason. It’s just a fable, but a good fable. I heard it when I was still a child, from my Matryona who cooks for me now. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood there thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. (to be continued)
wonderful, juliania, and not just a fable, but fyodor created a universal parable along the way. oh, how i wish i could remember some of what i’d read in his books so long ago now!
i know you have the gift of memory of the brilliant russian writers because you love them so, but still, how fine it is! “and the angel wept and went away”…knowing god had given her a chance, but she was so very wicked that she unwittingly sabotaged her own chance of entering paradise.
that did cheer me up, oddly. son j arrived here yesterday afternoon from loveland, co, and it’s most amazing speaking of those days. he’d gone to a memorial service for his grandmother’s sister a month or so ago in western nebraska, and oh, has he had tales to tell about the generational dysfunctions still playing out in the grand-children.
various roles had been assigned them by the family/families, and all are being acted out in the most obvious ways, some tragically, of course. dear, but naiive son j wants to save one of the teens…when she comes of age, and offered her shelter at his house when she escapes. (her parents had sent her off to other family members somewhere, as she (the youngest) had been assigned the role of ‘oppositional/ defiant’, read: acting out the family’s suppressed emotions. he was surprised at the vehemence of my warning against offering her shelter from the storm.
he’d called them ‘helicopter parents’ which turned out to mean watching, hovering, and judging every encounter of hers at the memorial service, meaning in all likelihood for him: a time bomb waiting to explode vis a vis moriah’s parents, but not limited to that, of course.
sorry to ramble, but mr. wd and i had scrutinized the photos they sent as though they were all strangers, and just seeing the truth in their body languages, poses, and groupings was altogether chilling.
(continuing) “…The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding onto her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away…”
[Forgot to mention that is the Pevear translation]