There’s a Grandmother somewhere.
And she looks exactly like she does in the movies: warm, white-haired, big-bosomed, and comforting. If quilts were clothes, she’d be wearing it. She’s mixing cookie dough in one hand and steeping tea in the other. She’s old, but not too old, with a voice that flows through your house like a melody. And you never want to let her go. That Grandmother is somewhere.
I just don’t know her.
Life makes choices for us. I didn’t choose to be born in Seattle. Just like my parents didn’t choose to be born in the Midwest. But they did choose to leave it, in pursuit of opportunity. But the side effect of moving away included leaving their hometown, their siblings, and their parents. It put over 1,000 miles between my grandparents and I.
And that might as well have been an ocean.
It wasn’t the kind of ocean filled with white caps or rocking fishing boats. It was simply the kind of ocean that keeps two people apart. It exists, steadily, wind whispering on the waves, while you live your life. My grandmothers carried on with their lives, more richly engaged in the lives of the family who remained in town - which, of course, is no one’s fault. It’s not as if we had a falling out. Holiday visits simply ended as their health precluded it. Phone calls felt more and more obligatory as I was a tween. There was love, of course there was love, but for the most part, we lived without each other.
I often wonder how other people feel about their Grandmothers. Is she like the trope I have in my head? When you hug her, do you disappear into her sweater? Does she smell like a bakery? Is her laugh like the coo of a dove? When you think of her, do you think of love?
When I remember my own grandmothers, shouldn’t I immediately think of unconditional, ancestral, endless love? Shouldn’t it be effortless? Shouldn’t it be innate? I feel like I’m betraying a sacred thing, a golden relationship. But when I’m honest with myself - really honest - when I think of them, I don’t think of the love first.
If not love, what do I think of?
My father’s mother was stoic, stalwart. She was strong and soft-spoken, steady and still. She loved history and genealogy, which feel pretty unimportant to me as an 11 year old dingus. She suffered a stroke that nearly paralyzed her - leaving her left half weakened. She could walk, but was unable to use her left arm. But that stroke didn’t take her down - she lived for almost twenty years after it. But I never knew her any differently. We had to be careful with her, help her get up from her chair, and walk slowly with her. If we hugged, it was a half hug, because of her weakened arm. She never seemed a physically affectionate woman, so she probably didn’t mind, anyhow.
My mother’s mother was a delicate Polish bird. We were opposites - I was a loud, brash, witty, and obese little kid. She was sweet, fragile, and respectful. A perfectionist, she preferred to do it herself rather than teach you how. She had high standards - she’d (politely?) judge and comment on your choice of clothing. She would cut her food up into tiny pieces, nibbling away slowly. She enjoyed tradition and was a long-time Catholic. She could walk, but she had a significant hump, which shamefully - as a child - embarrassed me. I know she loved me, because she would tell I had perfect fingers to play piano - “long and slender”. I knew this to be a lie, because I had sausage fingers. It was a lie of love.
When I think of them, I think of those things - the complexity of their personhood. Their flaws, their strengths, their physical weaknesses, their history. I think of our deep differences. I think of the courage it took for them to bury their husbands. I think of how they were impacted by their time. I think of how I am too. I think of how they’ll never really know who I am. I think of how I’ll never know all the women they were. I think that even though we were decades and oceans apart, their blood will always run through mine.
There is a Grandmother, somewhere, in a dream. But she’s not mine.
Mine are better. Deeply and wholly real. Yes, I love them. But I respect them more.