My grandmother was a generous woman. With only a 6th grade education, she managed to pull herself out of the poverty of rural Georgia to study for her hairdresser’s license and run her own business. Later she would work at Gracewood State School and Hospital helping those she saw as less fortunate than herself. Elise was a pretty woman and always sought to live a better life. She was a lucky Sun sign, the 9th, Sagittarius — surprisingly unlucky when it came to men.
Her last husband was a good man though. She met him when she lived with us in rural Pennsylvania for a few years in the 1960’s. I was in junior high; we shared a room. At that time, we had 9 people in a small rambler with 3 bedrooms. It’s something we didn’t think much about then, how small the house was, how little privacy we had. We were a close family; I was a brooding teenager. I found solace in riding my brother’s mini-bike down the hill behind the house, shooting hoops on the uneven backyard slope, a net my step-father put up for me, and hiding under my headphones, lost in the music of Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and Chicago.
Elise didn’t like the cold. Neither does my mother for that matter. But after 43 years of living in the North, Amelia has learned to tolerate it. My mother and grandmother did not always see eye-to-eye. Even though they loved each other deeply, they often disagreed on style, clothes, and how to raise the kids. It wasn’t for my grandmother to say; she was living in my mother’s home. But that didn’t keep her from voicing her opinions. I held a soft spot in Grandmama’s heart. I think it’s because she took care of me around age 2 while my mother worked to support us. Mom is a hard worker. I think it’s something she passed down to us kids.
I was sad when Grandmama moved back to Georgia. She met her last husband Raymond in the same state where her father was born, not all that far from Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Raymond agreed to move to Georgia with her and that’s exactly what they did. North and South have always comingled in the family tree. I don’t remember seeing her often after that (but I remember all the names of the streets she lived on). I grew up, moved out of the house, 4 hours away to college, then 2000 miles to live in the Pacific Northwest. I alienated myself from family and old high school and college friends. I was angry and wanted desperately to figure out who I was without the ties of the past. It took over 10 years.
During that time, I wasn’t in as much communication with my grandmother in Georgia. I was looking for steady work, rode my bicycle through the winter streets of Missoula to drop off job applications, hiked the Bitterroot Mountains, helped friends build their cabins. Grandmama would call to check on me. Elise was a worrier. I tried to tell her I would be alright and not to worry. Eventually, she stopped calling as much. I was 30 years old when she died. I remember getting the call from Mom that Elise had had a heart attack. She survived and came home from the hospital; I called and talked to her one last time.
A day later, she went into the hospital again and did not come home. I remember the sinking feeling of knowing I’d never get to see her again, to ask her all the questions I wanted to ask. If only I knew then what I know now. If only it had been the wiser 50-something person and not the selfish 30-year-old that made that last phone call.
What I have learned is that being close to someone doesn’t require that you see them all the time, or spend time together. Sometimes blood is thicker than water. I knew she would be there if I ever needed her, the same way Aunt Cassie was there for her. My biggest regret is that I didn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral. I have always carried a nagging guilt about that. Why did I make that choice? Money, time, shame, scared to face the relatives I knew would be there after so much time away. Why did I isolate myself so from the family?
I had to grow up. It’s that simple. I had to forgive, learn gratitude, do emotional work, mature. I had to let go, in order to pull close again. Sometimes it’s just too late to go back.
My grandmother was a strong woman. As is my mother. I like to think I carry some of that inside me. And every time someone says I’ve got strength or courage, I think of them. The smell of Elise’s perfect red lipstick, the lavender talcum powder she fluffed after her bath, the Phillips Milk of Magnesia on the edge of the bathroom counter, the jagged scar from her hysterectomy, a long, long time before laser surgery, the sweet perfumes she wore near the end of her life, the way her curls smelled like hairspray. All this and so much more.
-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, March 31st, 2009
related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — GRANDMOTHERS