Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A life unknown

Edited to correct spelling errors.

From the time I was three years old until I was twelve years old I was raised by my maternal grandmother - my Nana. My Nana was a formidable, complicated woman. No, complicated is too simple a word, and doesn't come nearly close enough to describing the breadth of contradictions in her character.

Dorothy, Dot to her friends, was a smart, intelligent, articulate woman. She was a woman who worked in an era when women - wives - did not work outside the home. A woman who, in the age of housewives who "yes dear'd" their husbands, always had an opinion, and wasn't afraid to share it, strenuously if necessary. She ran the household, her household, with the efficiency and precision of a military sergeant. She had an ability to be so very good, incredibly good to her neighbours and friends. She was always the woman that new mothers turned to, able to soothe an angry baby's (and mother's) cries, to offer time-worn advice and suggestions. She gave fresh produce from the garden to the neighbours, and prepared casseroles to the widowed dad down the road, struggling with three youngsters. She could entertain in high style, and always hosted Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter for friends and extended family. She didn't miss birthdays and dutifully sent out Christmas cards to a roster of people. She loved to garden, to sew, to knit, to paper tole, and was willing to share her knowledge (and cuttings) with others. She had an incredible memory, with an attention to detail that was unmatched - she remembered each friend and acquaintance and their stories. She had a never-ending supply of stories from "back-in-the-day".

And yet, she also had a cruel streak, deeper than the richest vein of gold ore. Despite her ability to be good and kind and supportive of those outside her family, she wouldn't, couldn't, extend that same level of caring to us, her immediate family. For as patient as she could be with outsiders, with those in her family she was harsh, demanding, angry and oftentimes cruel. She demanded perfection from each of us, accepting no less, my grandfather included (a man whose own life story is often only told as footnotes to my Nana's story. Even in death, she will have the last word.) She had a tongue more cutting and devastating than the sharpest Henkles, Wiltshire, Ginsu knife. She could find your weakness, the Achilles heel of your ego, your soul, and exploit it or destroy it with a few well-chosen words. She was quick to judge, and even quicker to condemn. She was a woman incapable of apology, even when the sin, the error was so egregious as to demand one. And yet the chorus of my childhood was "I'm sorry Nana, I'm sorry Dorothy, I'm sorry Mom" for far lesser transgressions. All of us who had let her down (again. Always.) Grudges were held for years (for a lifetime). Even if forgiven, nothing was ever forgotten, and was always ammunition for a future battle.
Nana rode the moral high ground like a well-trained dressage horse, nimbly stepping over obstacles in her own logic and reasoning.

I hesitate to say she raised me well. She certainly instilled good manners and discipline, a good work ethic and an emphasis on education. At times, I knew she loved me. But she also never forgave me for being my father's daughter, a man she hated with a passion reserved for those who in no way met any of her exacting (unreachable) standards. I was her disappointment, the grandchild ruining her golden years, daughter of that man (said with a disdainful sneer that only Nana could muster effectively).
(My younger sister, relatively protected and sheltered from the winds of Nana's discontent - her grand chance to do over, to not make the same mistakes.) Her words, and actions were cruel, hurtful. For many years I thought I was less that I truly was (had low self-esteem, that clichéd phrase, so paltry, to describe the worthlessness I felt).

When I left her care, at the age of twelve, the parting was not sweet. It was full of recriminations, acrimonious, angry, bitter. We did not speak for many years, seeing one another only once, across a courtroom.

Shortly into my first year of university, I was drawn back to the family. Over the years I had lost much of my fear of Nana. Over time we managed to put much of our differences and our anger aside. We forged an uneasy truce, built on an avoidance of the past, of wrongs committed, of uncomfortable topics, of people (that man). We even found some type of peace (still no apologies though). However, despite her dire warnings and predications, I had turned out better than expected, made something of myself, lived up to some of her expectations.

For the next several years there were periodic phone calls, birthday cards, Christmas cards and letters, visits ever few months. She was very pleased when I announced I was getting married (to a good boy no less, one who might possibly meet her standards). Even more pleasing (to her), I wasn't having one of those newfangled weddings. No, I was to be married in a proper church ceremony (communion of course), and would be dressed appropriately, no strapless gowns, breasts hoisted up to here for Dorothy's granddaughter.

Then, six weeks before the wedding, I got the call. After 50 years of smoking, Nana had developed lung cancer. It was a serious case, and treatment wasn't an option. I raced to their home town. (My Nana, of course, having instilled a supreme sense of duty and obligation.) Nana wanted to be sick and, ultimately, to die at home. She had no desire to remain in a hospital. Arrangements would have to be made. (Even at the end, demanding and organized.)

Perhaps because I never had any desire for the melodramatic, we-only-have-so-much-time-outpourings-of-the-heart discussions, I became a favorite caretaker for Nana. I spent the next six weeks doing the hour and a half drive from my city to theirs, often arriving after work, taking the night shift from my Granddad (please, go sleep, we don't want you to get sick too), and then driving back to work the next morning. I did weekends, I did nights, I took days off. I did all those tasks that taking care of a seriously ill person requires, the bathroom trips, the changing of sheets, the preparing of perfectly mashed potatoes (thrown out into the garbage an hour later, one bite eaten).

During this, my Nana had made me promise, promise, that the wedding plans would not change. I was getting married, September 7, come hell or high water (or she would march to the city, oxygen tank in tow, to demand that I follow her plan). The day of the wedding - a beautiful, gorgeous summer day - I had entrusted a cell phone to our most reliable of groomsmen, to be answered in any event. It rang, just as we were about to enter the reception hall. My aunt, the doctor has said she's taken a (not unexpected) turn for the worse. Please tell your sister.

My sister, at the wedding only through the intervention (interference) of my Nana. My sister, who had started dating a much-reviled ex-boyfriend. A boyfriend who hurt me, with words and more, who was an angry and violent man. A man who had belittled me, tried to make me into a different, smaller person. A man who nearly succeeded before I came to my senses and wrenched myself away. A man who showed up, now a different, better man, who had found true happiness with my sister. All of this, cheerfully told to me by my sister. A man who proposed to her, had made her his fian
cée (news also delivered with all of the excitement and glee of a women announcing she had won the lottery). While I had no sense of jealousy (merely a sense of betrayal, and mild annoyance at the whole matter), and indeed warned her he might not be the man she thought, I had no desire to have him at my wedding. My wedding day.

Another example of my Nana's cruelty, even on her deathbed, invite her, she's your sister. And he deserves to come, he's her fianc
é, you must accept it. (Perhaps, in following her orders, I still needed some validation, the kicked dog still looking for the pat on the head?)

We left that night for our honeymoon in Cuba. An uneasy week to be away, with worried phone calls over bad connections. On our fourth morning there, five years ago today, a phone call from my aunt, a request, a final burden to bear.

We've all said goodbye to her, and told her we loved her, but she's waiting for you. Please tell her that the wedding went well, that you love her, and tell her to go to sleep.That you'll see her soon. The doctor says it's the only way she'll slip away.

Later that afternoon, the first time my husband and I had been separated the entire week, with me down at the pool immersed (hiding) in a book, the phone call came. She had died.

We arrived home at the end of our trip, a late Sunday afternoon. A whirlwind drive to their town, to attend the funeral. I looked down at the open casket (in the background, the overwhelming sound of my sister's grief, her
fiancé's flaccid attempts at conversation with my new husband, the suprised sounds of reunions between people who hadn't met since the last funeral) and I realized Nana looked nothing like the Nana I feared, reviled and loved growing up. Death had taken her steely resolve, her words, both kind and hurtful, her very being. I no longer knew, or understood, who she was.

But then again, perhaps I never did.


danigirl said...

This is a beautiful and haunting essay, so much more than merely a blog post. I imagine your Nana would be oddly satisfied with its candor and honesty.

Alison said...

Beautiful and eloquent, as always. And although I know you are know left with a mess of unresolved feelings and frustration, both good and bad experiences have built the person that you are today.

Love you.

flutter said...

This was gorgeous. I am so very sorry you have ever had to deal with something like this

NotSoSage said...

This was amazing. Really wonderfully composed...your Nana and your relationship with her remind me of someone who is close to me and my relationship with her. I have always wondered how my feelings about her would change when we were separated by death...hoped that I would be able to muster the patience and understanding for her in death that all of my excuses and compassion have not made me able to muster just yet.

Beck said...

Beautifully written.
And it reminded me SO much of my own grandmother and the damage she caused. She was so pathetic and frail by the time she died that I'd forgiven her ages ago. Poor grandma.

motherbumper said...

Wow, this is a powerful post. Thank you for sharing this memory, your words weave a breathtaking past.

Pinks & Blues Girls said...

Wow, you have such a gift with your words. I admire the fact that after all you had been through with your Nana - the good, the bad and the ugly - you both stuck by each other in the end. Thank you for sharing this.

Jane, Pinks & Blues

crazymumma said...


she had a lot of power.

I hope, really hope you carry no guilt about not being there for her death.

You did enough. More than most.

nomotherearth said...

From the sounds of it, you know more about her than you think.

slouching mom said...

You seem to me to have much more insight into her than you give yourself credit for.

Lovely post.

Aliki2006 said...

Beautiful post--it reminds me a bit of my own mother, alas, who has caused much damage over the years with her own tongue.

cinnamon gurl said...

I guess we all have somelike that in our past.

I too was struck by your way with words... and I couldn't help but admire (and chuckle at) your word choice for your sister's fiancé's attempt at conversation...

BTW, I'd love to discuss TO hoods with you but I don't see your email address... can you send me an email? It's cinnamonfemail (at) gmail (dot) com?

Her Bad Mother said...

Wow, wow. You've made that relationship almost poetic, with your description of it.

(PS - could you e-mail me? herbadmother at gmail cot com?)


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